NBA needs to give fans reasons to trust
The NBA is even trying to show fans what a foul really is, as if anyone can tell the difference.
A new season tips off Tuesday with the Lakers receiving their championship rings and teams around the NBA looking for ways to sell more tickets in a difficult economy. There's excitement about a new openness in the game itself, and a curiosity over whether the pairing of James and Shaquille O'Neal might turn out as magical as it seems.
But there's also the reality that too many conversations about the NBA tend to begin and end with the officiating. Even in an age of advanced technology, the last few minutes of too many games are decided by either fouls or non-calls that even the referees seem to have trouble explaining.
So the last thing the NBA needed was a preseason dominated by referees, no matter that they were just filling in. The league got it anyway as it kept handing out stiff fines to coaches who complained loudly that the replacements had no clue what they were doing.
That's going to happen when you bring in new people to do a job dominated by an old guard. Things are going to be different, no matter how hard they try to fit in.
But the curious thing wasn't that coaches were complaining because the replacements didn't know the rules. Much of it came because they actually followed the rules.
"They just called things differently than the normal officials," Houston coach Rick Adelman said. "They're pretty much going by the book."
That might not seem like such a bad idea, especially in a league where almost every foul can be contested and conspiracy theorists lurk behind every bench. There's long been the perception - not always unjustified - that certain teams are favored and certain stars will never be called for anything that really matters.
Just two years ago in the NBA finals, commissioner David Stern was forced to hold an impromptu press conference by the loading dock at Staples Center to rebut allegations by a lawyer for disgraced former referee Tim Donaghy that a 2002 playoff series was rigged to go seven games and that a 2005 series was also manipulated.
And the Donaghy scandal itself tore at the very heart of a league that has long had credibility issues when it comes to the way things are called during games. Luckily, Donaghy was just one rogue official, and Stern quickly - and rightfully - moved to put in a referee czar to assure fans there are no grand schemes anywhere to defraud teams.
Still, with all the attention on referees and foul calling, the NBA is wary that some fans may confuse perception with reality. That's why the league recently put up a series of short videos on its Web site that show examples of what constitutes a call on everything from charges to technicals.
Five of them relate to traveling alone, and the NBA updated its traveling rule to confirm for the first time that players can take two steps without dribbling the ball. Stern made a point on Friday in his annual preseason conference call to have Stu Jackson, the league's executive vice president of basketball operations, dispute some media reports that the rule had been changed to allow an extra step after a dribble.
"We have not changed the traveling rule, nor how we enforce the rule," Jackson said. "What we did change was some antiquated language in our existing rule as it related to steps."
That Stern and company are turning their attention to how rules are perceived is a good thing. That they can turn their attention there also is indicative of how the league has managed to deal with other issues that confronted it.
A few years ago it was the gangster reputation of its players. More recently it has been the weakened economy that continues to leave some high-priced seats unfilled.
But if you're going to have a book of rules, go by the book of rules. Enforce them fairly, even if it means LeBron or Kobe is sitting on the bench with six fouls at the end of a game.
The rules may be complex, but it's not all that hard. The goal certainly is simple enough.
Just give fans a league they don't have to question.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org