Exploring the unwritten rules of basketball and how they should be enforced


Why is “Space Jam” considered the best basketball movie of all-time? It’s not because Michael Jordan is the main character. It’s not because it was the greatest comeback ever. It’s because the refs put the whistles away during the biggest moment of the movie.

You know it’s true. If the refs call an offensive foul on Jordan for stepping on Pound Nerdluck’s face or blow the play dead when Bang and Bupkus Nerdluck wrap up MJ at halfcourt before he takes off for the dunk, nobody will take a bullet for “Space Jam.” If this happens, it’s not even in the conversation of best sports movies ever.

Why? Nobody likes whistles. Nobody likes fouls. Nobody goes to the arena and cheers “HELL YEAH!!! A 3-SECOND VIOLATION!!!!!” These are simply necessary rules and regulations to maintain the integrity of and produce the most intriguing basketball product possible.

Although it’s now been overshadowed by All-Star Weekend and the Boogie Cousins trade, the game between the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls last Thursday night ended in controversial fashion – as Bulls star Jimmy Butler was awarded two free throws with less than 1 second remaining after what was arguably the softest yet most technically correct foul call of the season.

Yes, if a shooting elbow is touched by the defender – it is a foul. However, should the refs call the foul is a different story. One side will argue: “Yes, it is literally in the rule book and it is not up to the officials to enforce the laws subjectively.” The other school of thought is: “Do not call soft stuff when the stakes are as high as a game-deciding possession. PUT THE WHISTLE AWAY AND LET THEM PLAY!”

I, admittedly, vote for the latter. I think you should have to earn respect, not have it handed to you because of some bylaw in small print at the bottom of the contract. Did Butler “earn” his respect by creating the opportunity to get fouled? Sure, but, you’re not going to circle your grandchildren around a campfire one day and tell them the story of “how Jimmy Butler won the game because he was scratched on his elbow.”

Below, I offer a list of unwritten rules – rules that aren’t rules but should be rules – to help maintain the ‘integrity’ of basketball.

Don’t make a game-deciding call unless it is PAINFULLY obvious

If there is a game on the line and the referee is considering single-handedly altering who gets the “W” and who gets the “L,” the violation better be PAINFULLY obvious. Otherwise history will tell the story of a referee, not the player, and nobody wants that.

Any assessed charging call is voided if the defender is posterized

Sacrificing your body is a noble deed. Standing in front of a freight train barreling down the lane is not for the faint of heart, and anyone who is willing to risk sharp pain and embarrassment for the sake of the team is a man greater than I.

However, there is a time and place to take a charge or challenge an opponent at the rim. If you choose poorly, your shame will be forever be looped on the internet and in extreme cases, side effects may include having your last name become a derogatory verb (Mozgov’d).

Simply put: If you get dunked on … I’m talking everyone gets out of their seats and starts running up and down the aisles waving a white towel around their heads in a helicopter motion dunked on … all offensive fouls are disregarded.

No technical fouls should be assessed for trash talk. Ever.

If players are involved in a verbal skirmish, do NOT break it up. Let them settle their differences like men. Let them get in each other’s faces and hurl slurs at each other like B Rabbit standing in front of Papa Doc in 8 Mile. I understand that the NBA does not to promote hostility/violence, but if the NHL allows players to fight AND have referees stand there as observers while it happens – there is absolutely NO reason why basketball players can’t so much as get in each other’s faces without penalty.

No technical fouls should be assessed for emotional outbursts in the fourth quarter. Ever.

HEAVEN FORBID a player show emotion in the middle of a crucial game. If it’s the NBA Finals, is a ref really going to influence history, potentially cost players millions in bonuses and take the trophy out of a team’s hands because some dude slammed a ball off the floor during a dead ball timeout or disagreed with his opinion? Delaying the game or excessive insubordination is another thing, but we’re not tuning in to watch the officials influence games. Hear that Joey Crawford? Ed Malloy? Nobody cares that your feelings got hurt, that’s what you signed up for when you applied to be an NBA official. Let the players demonstrate their emotion.

Sliding under an airborne player trying to draw a charge should be a flagrant foul

We always talk about “dangerous acts” committed by defenders that result in flagrant fouls – pushing someone in the back, blows to the head, elbow swinging, etc … but one of the most hazardous acts you can perform on the basketball court continues to fly under the radar and not receive the penalty it deserves: sliding under an airborne player in attempt to draw a charge.

This is course 101 from the Mike Krzyzewski school of flopping … take advantage of a defenseless player and create a turnover.

If done effectively, the airborne player’s legs will be cut out from underneath him, and he will free-fall to the floor face-first. Even worse: if the legs are not cut out from underneath the airborne player, there is a high risk of landing on the defender now sprawled out on the floor and rolling an ankle, blowing a knee, hurting a leg, etc.

Nothing good has ever come from this. Ban it.

Weak foul calls should be saved until after the possession is complete

Occasionally offensive players get the foul call they’ve been begging for, however, they’re displeased with it. In layman’s terms: “NOW you call it!?”

When does this happen? Let’s say the offense is on a 2-on-1 fast break. After the attacking opposition crosses half court, the lone defender has about two counts to jump the passing lane, draw a charge, or foul before the player in possession begins his shooting motion.

High basketball IQ players, i.e. Chris Paul, accomplish a successful “take foul” almost every time. A split second after the whistle is blown, the player in possession usually makes/misses a shot around the rim, and if it’s a miss, the second member of the 2-on-1 puts back an easy, uncontested rebound attempt. In this case: the referee has essentially stopped play and rewarded the defender for fouling by taking two easy points off the board.

It’s a smart play by the defense but “smart fouling” is not sexy nor will it ever be.

If a player is crossed up/falls over, all traveling and carrying violations are null and void

Similar to getting dunked on, the other thing you can just absolutely NEVER do on a basketball court is fall over.

It doesn’t matter whether you trip over a foot, step on a foot, or get stepped on, under no circumstances is falling while defending a crossover permissible. Highlight truthers will argue the authenticity of the highlight until their death, but, they’ll never get through to the thousands of fans now standing up and making a face like Samara from The Ring just sucked the soul out of them.

The NBA is better when ankles are being broken (maybe not literally, but, at the very least: figuratively), and if an opponent actually does fall – the refs should not have the authority to ruin the highlight by blowing the play dead because the culprit took an extra step over the fallen player’s corpse.

Fast break take fouls aren’t punished harshly enough

The NBA took a huge step toward attracting a mainstream sports audience when they instituted the “clear path” violation. Why did they begin enforcing this? Because fans don’t pay all that money for tickets to watch Russell Westbrook get wrapped up at half court by some scrub when he was three seconds away from ripping the rim off the backboard and wearing it as a hat for the rest of the game.

While the “clear path” rule is certainly a step in the right direction, the NBA still struggles with enforcing “take fouls” – essentially the same thing as “clear path” fouls but only penalized as a standard personal foul because an additional defender was either equal or ahead of the play.

Here’s the solution, Adam Silver, if you want the NBA to become as popular in the U.S. as the NFL is: mainstream fans want dunks. Fans want to be wowed. Unleash the unfathomable athleticism of the league’s superstars. Enforce “take fouls” the same way you would enforce “clear path” fouls and watch the YouTube highlight chart hockey stick off the Excel spreadsheet.

If two blood rivals are facing each other one-on-one and both hit the button, let them make their own calls

Last but not least: there are times when an individual battle becomes more than basketball. It’s personal. It’s either you or him. Magic vs. Bird. Reggie Miller vs. John Starks. Westbrook vs. Durant.

When both parties involved agree to ‘hit the button’, a button which triggers Sidney Dean vs. Billy Hoyle White Men Can’t Jump-esque basketball Armageddon between two individuals, referees’ authority to enforce the rules of basketball should no longer exist. There’s going to be grabbing, pivot feet are going to slide, there’s going to be hand checks. It goes both ways when it’s war. Let it go. We want to see who the better man is.

You’re on notice, Adam Silver, make the NBA even better again.