King Kaufman's Sports Daily

NBA refs manage to blow the call even when they're right. Their inside-out protest against the league was all upside down.

By Salon Staff
Published March 1, 2004 8:00PM (EST)

I'm writing this column with my shirt inside out as a show of solidarity for the NBA officials who reversed their jerseys Friday night in protest of the league suspending one of them for blowing a call. I support them because I think it's good for the soul to back a really dumb protest every once in a while.

The refs, who get so many calls wrong, really got this one wrong if what they were trying to do was help Michael Henderson, who was taken off three game assignments after his error late in Wednesday's Nuggets-Lakers game in Denver. That was a massive, wrongheaded overreaction by the league, but the protesting officials, hearts in the right place and everything, did more harm to Henderson than the NBA did.

All but two of the 30 officials who worked the league's 10 games turned their jerseys inside out Friday and wrote Henderson's number 62 on the back in black Sharpie. One of those Sharpies may have been the one Terrell Owens had been planning to use to complete the free agency paperwork he and his agent failed to get turned in to the 49ers on time, but if so that's another story. The protest didn't continue at Saturday's games.

Almost any official in any sport will tell you that if he's doing his job well, you don't notice him. By turning Michael Henderson into a household name in the basketball world, his fellows have put a giant spotlight on the second-year man. Without the inside-out protest, Nuggets fans, whose team is struggling to make the playoffs for the first time in nine years, would have grumbled about "that ref" who blew the call in the Lakers game. Now, thanks to his comrades, every basketball fan in North America knows Henderson, and they know him for only one thing, a blunder. It'll be years before Henderson can be invisible.

Maybe the other officials don't like Henderson and saw this as a chance to protest league policy and stick it to the kid while looking like they were supporting him. If so, it was a brilliant, Machiavellian move. Somehow I doubt it, though. Even Machiavelli couldn't have organized that kind of cooperation so quickly with a target as small-potatoes as Henderson.

Here's what happened in Denver Wednesday: The Nuggets were leading by two when Andre Miller took a shot to beat the shot-clock buzzer with 27 seconds to go in the game. The shot grazed the rim and was rebounded by teammate Carmelo Anthony, meaning Denver had the ball, the lead and a fresh 24 seconds. But Henderson, thinking the shot hadn't hit the rim, blew his whistle, calling a shot-clock violation.

The Nuggets howled. The three officials huddled and agreed the ball had indeed hit the rim. That made Henderson's whistle officially an inadvertent one. Even though the Nuggets should have and did have the ball, the inadvertent whistle rule calls for a jump ball. The Lakers, who have Shaquille O'Neal, won the tip, and Kareem Rush hit a three-pointer that won the game.

Henderson clearly blew it. But, conspiracy theories aside -- "the fix is in for the Lakers!" -- his error was a human one. He just fumbled, saw the play incorrectly. It's not as though his mistake was caused by ignorance of the rules or inattention to the game. He just flubbed one. That's what you get when you have human beings as officials in a fast, fluid game.

The league's response was out of whack, as though Henderson had done it on purpose. It was also just bad management. The NBA is doing a lot of P.R. this year on its new system of evaluating the much-criticized refs, but instead of relying on that system, it cuts a guy off at the knees for making one bad call. If Henderson's a lousy referee, then the evaluation system should expose him, and the league could then either work with him to improve his performance or cut him loose.

Instead the league now has a whole roster of disgruntled officials, with tensions likely to increase if deputy commissioner Russ Granik follows through on his threat of punishment for the Friday night protesters, and a cause célèbre centered around a blown call by a referee, something the NBA would be wise not to call attention to. It routinely fines Mavericks owner Mark Cuban Monopoly-money amounts for doing that very thing.

Rather than publicly flogging one of its employees, the NBA ought to take a look at that rule that turns an inadvertent whistle into a jump ball. Without that whistle Wednesday, Denver clearly would have had possession. But "once play was stopped, the game officials made the correct ruling by resuming play with a jump ball at midcourt," said NBA vice president Stu Jackson, who oversees the officials.

That's dumb. A jump ball would be appropriate if it were unclear who'd have had possession without a whistle, but when possession is clear, the jump ball rule punishes the team that has the ball for an official's mistake. The Nuggets should have been allowed to inbound the ball. The NBA should change that rule.

But as dumb as the NBA was throughout this incident, the refs were even dumber. And so, to show my displeasure at their protest while simultaneously supporting it with my inside-out shirt, I'm also writing this column with my underwear on backwards.

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