NBA refs: One Mississippi, two Mississippi ...

An absurd rule leaves officials guessing about tenths of a second, the correct answer on a monitor a few feet away.

By King Kaufman

Published May 6, 2008 10:20PM (EDT)

It really ought to go without saying that if you're going to have an instant replay rule, it ought to say something like, "If there's a problem that can easily be solved by consulting replay, and cannot be solved at all without it, then go ahead and check the replay."

The NBA's replay rule clearly doesn't include such a statement, as evidenced by the ridiculous spectacle in Detroit during the Pistons' win over the Orlando Magic Monday night. Three referees huddled up and decided, using all manner of hand gestures and serious expressions, that a play by the Pistons had taken 4.6 seconds, not 5.3 or 4.5 or the amount of time every single person watching TNT's broadcast of the game knew the play actually took, 5.2 seconds.

The NBA later said the play took 5.7 seconds and should not have counted.

It happened at the end of the third quarter. The Pistons inbounded with 5.1 seconds left after a made free throw. Chauncey Billups dribbled upcourt and passed to Rodney Stuckey near the eight-second line. Stuckey dribbled to the right elbow, jumped as if to shoot, but dropped it back to Billups for a long three, which Billups made.

The clock read 4.1. Orlando inbounded, but the officials stopped everything. Clearly, something was wrong. The clock had stuck at 4.8. It restarted just as Billups' shot went through the net, then stopped again at 4.1 when an official blew his whistle.

The refs, Derrick Stafford, Joe Forte and Steve Javie, called a meeting. The rules allow them to check the video record only if the clock reads 0:00. They can use video to determine if a buzzer-beater really beat the buzzer. It seems obvious that the rule should have included a clause giving them the same power in similar situations, such as, just off the top of my head, if the clock malfunctions without ending up at 0:00.

Not exactly an unimaginable scenario. It happens from time to time. We're not exactly talking Fan Man here, something no one could have envisioned.

So Stafford, Forte and Javie pointed. They nodded. They held their elbow in one hand and their chin in the other, contemplation style.

At one point Forte made four swooping hand gestures, three from left to right, then the fourth from right to left, and seemed to be trying to count along as he pictured Billups' initial drive, his pass to Stuckey, Stuckey's drive and Stuckey's pass back to Billups. Three Mississippi ...

I mean, come on.

That thing you did, whatever it was, about five minutes ago. Was it really five minutes, or was it three? Or was it eight? We humans can't even nail down that sort of thing with much success, and these guys were supposed to know, from memory, without thinking beforehand that they were going to have to know this, whether something that took about five seconds took more or less than precisely 5.1 seconds?

With the answer sitting on a video monitor three steps away from them. TNT put a digital counter on the replay and showed that the ball left Billups' hand 5.2 seconds after the clock should have started, or one-tenth of a second too late.

You really can't feel a tenth of a second, which by the way is what makes the Winter Olympics kind of boring, with first and last place in various races often separated by a lot less than a tenth of a second, but here's the funny thing about that tenth of a second Monday night: Just watching in real time, without knowing I was going to want to know this, I thought the play took longer than 5.1 seconds. And I was right. By a tenth of a second.

When Stuckey turned and dumped that pass off to Billups instead of shooting, I said, "Ah, no way," in that way I do. I meant they wouldn't get the shot off. I had that weird, something's off feeling -- the one you get when you step on an escalator that isn't moving -- when the horn didn't go off before Billups let his shot go, and then still didn't go off, at all. It still hasn't gone off.

After watching enough games, I guess I have a kind of internal clock that's reasonably accurate. You probably do too. But then, you and I weren't running upcourt and trying to figure out if any of 10 giants moving at full speed around us were fouling each other. I'm assuming here that "you" are not Joe Forte, Steve Javie or Derrick Stafford. And I couldn't have re-created the scene in my mind a minute later, as Forte and Co. were forced to do.

So there they were, talking and pointing and holding their chins in their hands and finally figuring out that if Billups weighed the same as a duck, he must be made out of wood. No, wait. They figured out that Billups to Stuckey to Billups took precisely 4.6 seconds. The shot counted and they put 0.5 on the clock.

And the Pistons ended up winning by seven. So no direct blaming of this nonsense for the loss that put the Magic down 2-0 in the series. But of course one never knows how things might have been different had Billups' basket not counted, had Detroit entered the fourth quarter down by one instead of up by two.

But even as Magic coach Stan Van Gundy made "What the hell are you going to do with this mishegass" kinds of faces, he and his players rightly made a point in postgame interviews not to blame the loss on the clock snafu. "Nineteen turnovers killed us," Van Gundy said.

It must have seemed pretty straightforward at NBA HQ when it was decided that refs could check the video, but only if the clock read zeroes. That does seem like a good way to prevent the excess monitor checking that plagues college basketball. But the league has to fix the rule now. The officials' inability to go to the video violated the spirit of the very rule they were following.

This column is on the record against instant replay. I'm a big believer in human error being a wonderful part of any sport, though in the wake of the Tim Donaghy scandal I'm more open than I used to be to the idea of taking decisions out of the hands of the humans.

But once the decision is made to use instant replay, there should be as few rules as possible that prevent officials from getting the call right. If the NBA wants to use replay to resolve questions about the clock at the end of a quarter, why not just have a rule allowing officials to use video to resolve questions about the clock at the end of the quarter?

I bet I could write a rule like that in 5.1 seconds. Give or take.

This column has been corrected since publication.

King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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