NBA Admits Goaltending Gaffe in Portland: Should Backboard Blocks Be Reviewable?

Gil Imber@RefereeOrganistAnalyst IIFebruary 8, 2012

Nary had a fortnight after ESPN analysts Tim Welsh and Digger Phelps gone on separate anti-officiating tirades following a missed goaltending call at the end of NCAA hoops' West Virginia vs. Syracuse game on January 28—the exact opposite situation has occurred in the NBA.

On Tuesday, the League confirmed that official Scott Foster's goaltending call at the end of regulation during Monday's Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Portland Trail Blazers game was incorrect: Blazer LaMarcus Aldridge's block had erroneously been ruled goaltending and Thunder forward Kevin Durant improperly credited with a key game-tying layup with just six seconds left in the fourth quarter.

After the controversial call, the Trail Blazers were unable to score a game-winning buzzer-beater and the contest went into overtime. The Thunder would eventually win the game 111-107.

While the West Virginia goaltending no-call prevented overtime and a chance for the Mountaineers to win during the extra period, Monday's incorrect call in Portland effectively turned the Trail Blazers' surefire victory into a tie game to be decided by five minutes of extra basketball that should never have been played.

When asked for comment Monday night, Trail Blazers Coach Nate McMillan observed: "The ref who called [goaltending] was the furthest one from the basket, so that's pretty interesting."


Official mechanics regarding goaltending or basket interference plays at or above rim-height generally place primary responsibility with the slot (center) official, who is located on the opposite side of the floor from the other two officials—usually at or around the free-throw line extended. During this play, that particular official was NBA fill-in official Matt Myers.

Foster was located at the trail position—back near half court—but this does not prohibit Foster from helping out his slot official if he believes that official has missed a call.

Referee Eric Lewis, an eight-year veteran, was located along the end line as the lead—a position that extremely rarely will call goaltending or basket interference. 

Though Foster was the senior official while Myers was the rookie on Monday night, the rules bestow equal game calling jurisdiction and capacity to all three officials.

One exception to this equal partners' tenet is if Foster and fellow officials Eric Lewis and Matt Myers had different decisions governing whether to score Durant's field goal or not—for instance, if Foster ruled goaltending while Lewis and Myers both ruled a legal play due to different interpretations of the NBA Rule Book—Rule Two, Section II, Provision H decrees that Foster, as crew chief, has the sole authority to score or disallow a goal if officials disagree over a scoring play.

Regardless of how this particular play was missed, the ramifications of this game-changing call point to an intriguing quandary for the NBA—and for NCAA basketball as well.

At present, both governing bodies prohibit officials from using instant replay to review goaltending calls.

Had Foster been able to consult the monitor on Monday night, he would have seen the legal block and ruled the play an inadvertent whistle—which is resumed via a jump ball.

Even the NBA Office of the Commissioner, the very entity that prohibits officials from using instant replay to review goaltending calls, used instant replay in preparing Tuesday's statement:

"With the benefit of slow motion replay following the game, it has been determined that ... this should have been ruled a good block and goaltending was the incorrect call."

With the NBA itself admitting that instant-replay review allowed the correct call to be made (though a day later), is it finally time to add goaltending a ball that has struck the backboard to plays reviewable by the instant-replay process?

Think about it.

From Foster's position—and even from Myers' vantage point—goaltending in regards to a ball, which may or may not have first struck the backboard is an incredibly difficult call to make. Chances are the defender's hand on the ball that may or may not be on the glass, straight lines the calling official to a point of no-win.

With modern sports' plethora of camera angles—including a camera mounted to the top of or behind the backboard—perhaps it is time to give officials the tools they need to get such close calls right.

The days of Jeffrey Maier-aided home runs are long gone.

We have the video technology to call objective black-and-white plays like goaltending a ball off the backboard, even if subjective grey calls such as contact fouls remain open to interpretation—and the human element.

The NFL and NHL review all scoring plays from the booth or Toronto War Room, respectively, alerting on-field officials (NFL) or video judges (NHL) to any peculiarities.

Perhaps the NBA should employ a similar program: Not for all scores, but for close, black-and-white non-foul plays that occur within the final two minutes or final few possessions of regulation in a close game.

Aerial view: A much better angle from which to see if the ball has hit the backboard
Aerial view: A much better angle from which to see if the ball has hit the backboardJim McIsaac/Getty Images

At the very least, goaltending off the backboard should be added to the likes of late-game out-of-bounds calls.

If Foster had made this same goaltending call in the first quarter, no one would have batted an eye at the game's end. It would have been two-extra points for Oklahoma—a call lost in the grand scheme of a full basketball game.

But because of the crucial timing of the goaltending call—six seconds remaining in regulation—it becomes a complete game-changer or as MLB umpire Jim Joyce painfully described his own crucial incorrect perfect game-spoiling safe call in June of 2010, "a history call".

And the most rotten part of a game-changing incorrect call near the end of regulation, from an official's point of view?

As Joyce said, "There's nobody that feels worse than I do."


Gil Imber is Bleacher Report's Rules Featured Columnist and owner of Close Call Sports, a website dedicated to the objective and fair analysis of close or controversial calls in sports.