LOS ANGELES – Among the many skills contests and pseudo-events at NBA All-Star Weekend was a particular session of 3-on-3 Saturday: a small group of referees and players meeting far from the spotlight to hash out problems in their working relationship.
Those problems – stemming from the inherent tension between emotional players caught up in heated competition vs. game officials charged with coolly imposing order – seemed to worsen as this 2017-18 season has unfolded.
Saturday morning’s “summit,” which lasted approximately 90 minutes, represented more of a start to improving relations and communication rather than any sort of truce.
Veteran Warriors forward Andre Iguodala, a member of the National Basketball Players Association executive committee, was among the players in the room, while referees Jason Phillips, Brian Forte and Marc Davis were there for the refs, a league source said.
The NBPA and the National Basketball Referees Association issued a joint statement afterward with “action items” from the two sides. Later, NBA commissioner Adam Silver, in his annual All-Star news conference, talked about the two sides and the league’s role as a very interested third party.
“The fact that we have players and referees sitting down and talking about these issues … can only improve things,” Silver said.
Silver noted that, according to NBA data, the number of personal fouls and technical fouls called so far in 2017-18 is in line with previous seasons. And he suggested that there might be something cyclical in play, as far as the give-and-take between those with the whistles and those who get whistled.
“It was roughly eight years ago or so we adopted these ‘respect for the game’ rules precisely because everyone said at that point things were a little bit out of control and there was a lot of frustration,” the commissioner said.
“After we did it, some people felt it was a little bit of an overreaction, that we were turning the players almost into robots. And of course, they needed to show a certain amount of emotion [that] wasn’t disrespectful of referees. We may have slid a little back to old practices.”
A head-butting incident between Golden State’s Shaun Livingston and veteran official Courtney Kirkland drew attention to the tension. The Warriors had other flurries of angst and anger involving the refs, with Draymond Green (characteristically) and Kevin Durant (uncharacteristically) racking up technical and ejections.
Some critics publicly, and some referees privately, feel the players have been overstepping their bounds with anger and antics after decisions they dislike, and complaining about too many calls generally. Others have been critical of the referees, particularly younger, less experienced ones, for failing to communicate sufficiently with players when questioned and for having short fuses in dishing technicals and ejections.
The discussion Saturday morning focused on those gripes, at least giving the principals areas to address with their colleagues.
The fact that we have players and referees sitting down and talking about these issues … can only improve things.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver
The “action items” are broad, such as clarifying those “respect for the game rules” referred to by Silver and coming up with an informal “channel of communication” by which individual players or referees might air grievances or seek explanations.
It was a start – more meetings and discussion will be held. And it couldn’t have hurt.
“In this meeting, we took some important steps in identifying existing frustrations for both sides,” NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts said in the joint statement. “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.”
“There was a lot of discussion about decorum and how players can talk to officials,” said Mark Denesuk, spokesman for the referees union. “The discussion was pretty honest and the people in the room were open about their feelings.”
One NBA coach at All-Star Weekend said he noticed a thaw in player-referee relations in recent weeks. Roberts and NBRA general counsel Lee Seham had met in December in New York, initiating these talks, and the NBA followed up with its own initiative to improve the situation.
Despite not having league officials participate in Saturday’s meeting, Silver talked at length about the league’s active role in trying to bridge any gaps between the two sides.
In the league’s plan, two recent league appointees – longtime ref Monty McCutchen now working as NBA Vice President, and Head of Referee Development and Training/NBA Senior VP Michelle Johnson, working as head of referee operations – are taking the lead in meeting with all 30 teams on rules interpretations, on-court conduct and expectations of the referees. They also will be conducting conflict-resolution training for the officials.
Still, Silver added: “It’s fantastic and a great statement about this league that these important shareholders … think it’s important enough and they have an obligation to the game where they should be sitting down and talking to each other.”
Of the aforementioned coach’s perception that there already has been some improvement, Denesuk said: “When a lot of attention gets put on an issue like this one, I think it’s natural for those involved to ask, ‘What is my role in all this?’”
In the Warriors’ last game before the All-Star break, Green had a spirited discussion with referee Bill Spooner after a ruling with which he disagreed. But Spooner responded calmly and the NBA’s leader in technical fouls (14) wound up patting the ref on the hip and playing on.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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