The Miami Heat, with three of the best players in the world, are starting to play like everybody expected. So, basketball is much in the news. It is in my news too, for a different reason. My college team lost a close basketball game last week. We almost upset a very good team on national television, and the win would have meant a lot to our program. The upsetting part is that we were robbed. We were ahead with a minute to go and one of our guys went for a lay-up, there was noticeable contact, he missed, the other team rebounded and raced down the court. One of our guys tried to stop the fast break, made light contact and got called for a foul. On top of that, the other team scored on the play, and made the foul shot. That was the game. The non-call at one end of the floor and the bad call at the other made a five-point swing and we couldn’t catch up. Had the foul on our guy been called, and he made two free throws, it would have been a whole different game.
To his credit, our disappointed coach did not blame the officials. However, the announcers, maybe rooting for the underdog, replayed the two actions and wondered how one play could be a foul and the other wasn’t. Especially at the end of a close game when every play and foul shot is crucial. It brought up the larger question of how much referees have changed this sport. It has become faster and infinitely rougher. Star players get away with all kinds of stuff that would have been violations a few decades back.
When Dr. James Naismith hung up that peach basket in 1891, he consciously came up with rules to control the pace of the game, and make it a safe indoor sport. For years you were allowed just one step after picking up the dribble. If players in old film seemed slower, they were, but they also bounced the ball regularly. It gave the slower and shorter players a chance. But that chance is greatly diminished when offensive players look like the triple jump guys at a track meet, and things such as palming the ball and either charging over or bulling through defenders are routinely ignored by officials.
The result is a game that gets more like football every season. We might see helmets and shoulder pads one of these years. Last year my school lost three of its starting lineup in the first few months of the season. Two of them were out for the season, and another barely made it back at the end. It used to be that injuries in basketball were not common. Today, the professional teams are constantly banged up and college isn’t much better. Much of the reason is that the refs permit so much contact, and players on offense are schooled to make that contact, hoping to create three-point plays. At one time, the offensive player had to go around the defense. The hook shot was developed to let a player get off his shot without jamming the ball or elbow in another’s face. The disappearance of the charging call is probably the most serious and annoying change in the modern game. You often see situations where the offensive player with the ball and the defender are basically moving on parallel courses, until the offensive player alters direction to initiate contact and draw a foul. The rule should be that the player who initiates the contact is guilty, but today the guy going to the basket has to run into a player as set as a mail box to warrant the call.
Well, at least there’s the three-point shot and one-and-one bonus to reward the accurate player and bring the game back to what it started out to be. I wonder if James Naismith would recognize his invention today. And would he be thrilled with the evening gowns which have replaced the uniforms he knew?