NBA Season Resumes with Refs vs. Players Feud Far from Resolved

Ken Berger@@KBergNBAFeatured Columnist IFebruary 22, 2018

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 3: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets complains to referee Marat Kogut #32 during the second half against Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center December 3, 2017, in Los Angeles, California. 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 Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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LOS ANGELES — Yes, it was an uplifting All-Star Weekend of good vibes for the NBA, which embarks on its regular-season stretch run Thursday. But what was supposed to be one of the feel-good moments—a meeting to ease the tensions growing between players and officials—turned out to be underwhelming, leaving many issues in this NBA Cold War unresolved.

In an otherwise healthy, thriving game, the tense, uncivil interactions among the players and those paid to officiate them during NBA games has deteriorated into an eyesore for the sport, one that all parties involved agreed needed to be addressed.

So at a downtown Los Angeles hotel Saturday, a small group of players, referees and officials from both sides' respective unions sat down to air grievances and try to find some common ground. 

Three referees attended the meeting: Marc Davis, Jason Phillips and Brian Forte, two people briefed on the meeting told B/R. Among the other key participants were Michele Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, and Lee Seham, general counsel for the National Basketball Referees Association, the people said.

Only two players attended, and neither one was a current All-Star: Warriors swingman Andre Iguodala, an NBPA vice president, and Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie, the All-Star Skills Challenge winner, the people briefed on the meeting told B/R. Clippers guard Lou Williams, a Skills Challenge competitor, said he was supposed to have attended the meeting, but he "couldn't make it."

Neither the league office nor the NBPA would comment on the details of the meeting, citing its confidential nature, but a person who spoke with participants afterward told B/R that the referees were underwhelmed by the lack of player attendance—particularly the lack of star players.

Still, multiple sources told B/R that the dialogue in the meeting was productive. Among the key points discussed was the officials' use of certain gestures, such as the hand signal for a stop sign when a player begins arguing, which "players don't respond very well to," one of the people said.

The players also expressed a desire to receive better education about rules changes (so they aren't unwittingly arguing against correct calls) as well as clarification about the "respect for the game" rules implemented in 2010 to address a perception that, according to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, "at that point, things were a little bit out of control."

The two sides also made plans to meet again soon—preferably, before the end of the regular season, one person briefed on the meeting told B/R.

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 16:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets talks with referee John Goble #30 after a foul in the second half against the Milwaukee Bucks at Toyota Center on December 16, 2017 in Houston, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknow
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"In this meeting, we took some important steps in identifying existing frustrations for both sides," Roberts said in a joint statement released by the NBPA and National Basketball Referees Association. "Now with that information, we plan to move forward and continue to work together to find solutions that will enhance the on-court experience for both parties."

In the end, it isn't that complicated. Asked to distill the debate into one simple solution, James Harden came as close as anyone.

"For the players, I would say try to limit the amount of complaining," Harden said. "And for the refs, listen a little bit more."

Trail Blazers All-Star Damian Lillard added something that should be obvious, though it sometimes gets lost in the heat of the moment.

"We're all human," Lillard said. "... And I think when we get caught up in our competitive nature, we forget that they're not just robots in stripes. They're people, too. And you've got to think, as a man, if somebody comes screaming at you every three plays, you're going to react in your own way. 'Maybe I'm not going to make the next call,' or, 'Maybe I'm going to stand my ground.' It's something that I think will get better over time, but I think we have to do a better job of understanding each other."

Cavaliers forward Larry Nance Jr., the Slam Dunk Contest runner-up and a player representative when he was with the Lakers, said, "I think we could speak to the refs nicer, and I think they could respond to us a little better." As for the meeting, Nance said, "I'm positive something will come of it."

Added Silver: "It's fantastic and a great statement about this league that these important stakeholders think it's important enough that they have an obligation to the game where they should be sitting down and talking to each other ... The fact that we have players and referees sitting down and talking about these issues can only improve things."

Well, that remains to be seen.

Larry Nance Jr. #24 of the Cleveland Cavaliers competes in the 2018 Verizon Slam Dunk Contest at Staples Center on February 17, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Dating back to Roberts' predecessor, Billy Hunter, the NBPA has a long history of talking big but failing to follow through with action and engagement from the union membership. This time, though, players appear to understand they need to be involved in forging better relations with officials.

"We've got to do a better job of just focusing on the game at times, but there's passion involved," Kevin Durant said. "And sometimes it's heat of the moment, and we get that. It's never personal."

The action points released in the joint statement by the players and refs read a lot like an initiative the NBA announced in late January. That program is spearheaded by newly installed senior vice president and head of referee operations Michelle Johnson and former referee Monty McCutchen, who was elevated to vice president and head of referee development and training in December.

"We may have slid a little bit back to old practices," Silver added last weekend, implying the refs may have a point when they grumble privately about players once again having too much leeway when they argue about calls.

Among other things, the league program calls for regular meetings between the officiating staff and teams to discuss rules interpretations and on-court conduct; a re-emphasis of the "respect for the game" rules to ensure "consistent enforcement;" expanded rules education for coaches, players and team personnel; and conflict-resolution training for referees.

In January, the Trail Blazers became the first team to retain a former referee as a consultant—former NBA and WNBA director of officials Don Vaden—to help educate players on rules interpretations and referee interactions. Earlier that month, Vaden left the league office after nearly 30 years as a referee and officiating supervisor. The move was announced by McCutchen, the league's highest-graded referee before he was moved off the floor into his current management role.

Tony Avelar/Associated Press

That combination—McCutchen off the floor and Vaden out of the league office—raised eyebrows in front offices around the NBA, multiple league sources told B/R.

"I realize some people could view that as a step back," Silver said. "But the notion was, over time we'd be getting more out of Monty to the extent he'd be responsible for the direct training of our officials and not just as an official on the floor."

The training and seasoning of an officiating staff that has gotten younger and less experienced in recent years will take time, though the demands of the job—and the scrutiny of officialshave only gotten more rigorous.

"It starts at the top," Durant said. "For some reason, it feels like they're a little bit more on edge. I don't know what's going on when they go back and watch film or go back and get evaluated, but something is a little different."

Durant seemed to be implying that the ever-growing scrutiny on the referees' on-court performanceincluding the "last-two-minute reports," which divulge both correct and incorrect calls and non-calls in crunch timehas them under more pressure than ever.

"So I don't think it's the players, and I don't think it's the refs," Durant said. "It's somebody else that's probably in the middle of the relationship that's probably making it worse."

Asked to elaborate, Durant said, "Y'all can figure that out on your own, but I think the players and the refs want to have a good relationship, but somebody's in the way."

From all sides, the hope is that confronting the issues and discussing them openly will make the situation better.

Steve Dykes/Associated Press

"It has to be a process of both sides communicating more," Spurs All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge said. "It has to be respect to both sides, players to referees and vice versa. I think that has to be something that's looked at, and it will take some time to build that relationship so both sides feel comfortable with it."

We'll see how much progress has been made when play resumes after the All-Star break Thursday night—more specifically, when the first few whistles are blown.


Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KBergNBA.


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