The Cost Of Criticizing NBA Refs

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - May 11, 2005
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Before we go any further, let’s get one thing clear.

Along with former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, David Stern is one of the best managers of any professional sports league in history. He has shepherded his product from second-tier status to one of tremendous global popularity and financial strength, while at the same time evading the messy labor standoffs that have hampered — and in the case of the NHL possibly destroyed — the growth of the other pro games. We rightfully tipped our caps to him for his strength following the Pistons/Pacers brawl. Let’s face it, Stern has been great for the game.

But in the case of Houston Rockets’ coach Jeff Van Gundy, Stern is just wrong.

After telling reporters that continued complaints from Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban caused league officials to take a harder look at center Yao Ming, Stern slapped the coach with a $100,000 fine — the largest ever levied on a coach. In 2002 Pat Riley was fined $50,000 for accusing referee Steve Javie of being biased against the Miami Heat, and two years later Phil Jackson was slapped with the same for saying official Bob Delaney was prejudiced against Shaquille O’Neal.

Van Gundy said he got a tip from a referee — who is not working in the finals — that Yao’s name was mentioned in an online evaluation from Ronnie Nunn, the league’s supervisor of officials. Stern responded with the fine and a not-so-veiled threat that Van Gundy’s career may be on the line.

David Stern has to back off on this one. He can let the fine stand, saying the issue has been reviewed and all appropriate action has taken place. Anything more will wind up in court and that’s a black eye the league does not want.

Money aside,Van Gundy has already won. After earning his stripes by clamping onto Alonzo Mourning’s leg while coaching the Knicks, Van Gundy established himself as heck of a players’ coach. Yao has offered to pick up half the tab. How’s that for having his back?

Officials on the floor need to be protected. They must have not only the authority, but the respect necessary to enforce the rules. The problem is that in protecting referees, the league has turned even the slightest negative reference about officials into a felonious act.

Any coach, player or owner — who are all open to scrutiny and even ridicule — who dares to even hint that an official is of all things, human, and capable of making mistakes, faces a fine routinely in the neighborhood of $5,000 to $10,000.

By increasing this punishment tenfold, Stern is not putting himself up as protector of the game but as a tyrant. A despot with the power and want to silence any critic who dares oppose the official views of the state.

Overstated maybe, but saying a coach may no longer have a job if he keeps talking about officials is a bit unnerving, don’t you think?

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