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The Jazz Lack The Lost Art Of Working The Refs

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - MARCH 03: Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Utah Jazz is escorted off the court after being ejected during overtime against the Philadelphia 76ers at Wells Fargo Center on March 03, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

The Utah Jazz enter the Are We Really Having An All-Star Game break generally pleased with their place in the basketball universe but aggrieved to be based in Salt Lake City because of the famed officials’ They Hate Us Because We’re A Small Market bias.

Or as Rudy Gobert put it in his postgame/pre-fine remarks,

“We’re not able to get some calls that everyone else in the fucking league gets. We know that we’re the Utah Jazz, and there may be some people who don’t want to see us go as far as we believe we can go.”

And:

“I think it’s disrespectful, to be honest, to the game of basketball and to our team, and hopefully, they’re going to watch the game when they get home. We all do. I’ll watch it too. Hopefully, they feel shame when they watch the game.”

And:

“We know that, you know, when you’re a small market, I don’t want to say that, but I really believe it. After playing in this league for eight years, it’s a little harder, and that’s one of the things that we’ve got to overcome. That’s why I told the guys: ‘When you’re a small market, you’ve got to be better than just better. You’ve got to be elite, and you’ve got to control what you can control.'”

And in conclusion:

“Because we all make mistakes. I have a lot of respect for the officials. It’s a tough job. I think they try their best, but it was too obvious tonight. They can’t make it that obvious. We’re going to watch film and do all that and keep getting better, but we deserve more respect as a team and as human beings for all the work we put in.”

And Gobert’s not even the one who got T’d up with 57 seconds left in an overtime loss to the Sixers and ejected 27 seconds later, both by veteran Sean Corbin. That was Donovan Mitchell, who aired similarly piquant complaints in his own postgame Zoom:

“But this whole refereeing stuff. We’re nice, we don’t complain, like, we don’t get frustrated, we fight through things, and the fact that we continually get … screwed, in a way, by this. You know? We won this game, in my personal opinion. You know? But like I said, I’m going to give them credit. They won. Whatever. Cool. But it’s been a consistent thing, and the question is, ‘Can we do it? Can we sustain it? Are we for real No. 1? And, yeah, the hell we are. And it’s getting fucking ridiculous that this is what is happening.”

Point is, they seemed moderately irked, the way Phoenix’s Devin Booker was tweaked for getting flipped the night before by two non-veterans, Tyler Ford and Justin Van Duyne, in the third quarter of a game in which the Suns eventually beat the Lakers.

Part of it, of course, is the size of the game, as both were regular-season massive (even though ESPN chose to air the significantly less riveting Nets-Rockets instead on Wednesday). Part of it is the time of the season, as everyone gets a little more irritable right before the break, maybe in fear that the planet might explode before all grievances have been properly aired and spiced with aggressive colloquialisms and other labio-dental fricatives. And part of it is the grander tradition of “When in doubt, the refs suck.”

The giveaway here is Gobert saying, “It’s a tough job and they try their best,” presumably in an attempt to both stick the landing and not get disciplined by the league. But that doesn’t really track; as a simple rhetorical proof, either they’re trying their best or they’re screwing you. The only way those two thoughts can be braided is by saying, “They’re trying their best to screw us, and tonight it worked.” But then you get fined because, well, yeah.

Now I’d like to tell you that NBA referees actually don’t suck, if only to infuriate you, but I neither have the brain space or interest to bear-bait you for no reason. That comes at a higher subscription level than you’re paying.

But I know some things that are relevant here. One, roughly 40 percent of the officials have been hired inside the last 10 years to replace a series of familiar veterans, which means that they haven’t yet become fully familiar as faces and workers to the players, who pay little meaningful attention to anyone who hasn’t worked conference finals games; and two, see number one. You may hate officials you can recognize (say, Scott Foster or Ken Mauer), but you hate them because you have seen them enough to recognize them. It’s the Joey Crawford Theory, which used to be the Darell Garretson Theory—what you know, you hate just because you know so little else. Players don’t spend a lot of time absorbing officials’ tendencies or personalities as part of the job of working the officials any more, because now there are 75 of them and two-fifths of those are either newbies or deemed unworthy of their time.

Players desire the familiar because they offer a greater consistency and body of work, and they also snob-shop the way they do about other players. There is a limited but still discernible cache to having Zach Zarba work your game that Jason Goldenberg cannot offer because it is a subtle way of the league office saying, “This is one of the best we have and he needs to be on this game.” Players may hate Foster out of familiarity of past perceived slights, but they’re also used to him and can adjust to him as he adjusts to them. Example: The Golden State Warriors have been known to complain about Foster, yet they’re 30-8 and 12-8 in the postseason with him since they stopped being competitively irrelevant in 2013. In 2020, when they were star- and victory-free, they saw him only twice because they got a steady parade of younger, less experienced officials, which they also found not to their liking.

In sum, it’s hating someone based on familiarity, hating someone else who does the same work based on lack of familiarity, and then wishing you had the first one because of the very thing you hate them for. Psychotherapists get paid to untangle skull bubbles like this.

What is the point, you ask, wearying of such minutiae? Well, it’s evidence of a dying art that actually helps make the games not be disciplinary trainwrecks. The idea of effectively working an official for one’s health and benefit is a much diminished skill, and officials used to be better at talking players down off ledges as part of their own skill set but now seem less willing or permitted to do so. When you see an official and a player chatting during a free throw, that’s good for the game, just as when you see someone call an official an unpleasant word, as Booker is alleged to have done, that largely isn’t. The system, which had been adversarial by nature, is now adversarial by management fiat.

As for the conspiracy theories advanced by Gobert and Mitchell, well, this presumes officials take game-fixing directions from the league office and have teams that are allowed to win and teams that aren’t, in which case the system has profoundly broken down. If the whistles were on the take, Toronto wouldn’t have been allowed to win the 2019 title, Golden State would have been jobbed out of its five title runs, and conversely the Los Angeles Lakers wouldn’t have been permitted to stink for six consecutive seasons. Do the networks like selling the team in the city with 10 million potential viewers more than the city with 1.1 million? Of course. Are they granular enough managers to tell Jenna Schroeder to squeeze the shoes of the New Orleans Pelicans because it plays in the smallest TV market? Please. They can barely figure out how much air time to give Candace Parker.

The officials may be short on experience, common sense, and interpersonal skills because of insufficient training in those areas, but they are not empowered to roger teams. As we enter this largely undesired break in the action to risk a new COVID outbreak, consider that the Utah Jazz have more wins than any other team while ostensibly getting routinely hosepiped by the officials at every opportunity. Now if you want to say the refs suck, there’s your evidence.