Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Still arguing over calls from the 1980s

The worst call in the history of basketball. Eight words, one sentence. But a phrase that conveys so much. Use it while watching in a gym or in a recliner at home. Yell it at refs or mutter to friends.

My old college coach always used that line, sometimes after calls that really were horrendous, sometimes when he simply wanted to utilize some hyperbole. Over the years I've said it dozens of times, usually jokingly, but not always.

But now I think I have found the worst call in the history of basketball. Or, you know, at least one of them.

And for it, we go back to the 1987 NBA Finals. It's Game 6, the game when the Lakers ran past the Celtics in the second half and clinched their fourth title of the decade, capping one of the most dominant seasons in franchise history.

There are actually three horrific calls in this clip:

First, a charge call when Magic bumps a flopping Jerry Sichting.

Then, the next time down the court, the other guy who saved the NBA gets called for a terrible charge as well, when Bird bumps into Mychal Thompson on a drive. As Chick Hearn said, it was a "cosmetic call," a makeup for the atrocity against Magic. The Bird call is terrible. But not the worst call in the history of basketball. For that, go to the end of the video. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who already has four fouls, knocks into Bird. The Lakers get called for a foul, although it probably could have been called on Bird.

Okay. Bad. But what makes it the worst call in the history of basketball? The ref gives the foul to James Worthy. Watch it again. The play happens right in front of the ref, but as he walks toward the scorer's table, he signals that it's on Worthy, who was several feet away from the play! Amazing. It seems possible the ref realized it was going to be Kareem's fifth foul and gave it to Worthy, who looks perplexed. Bizarre, no matter what the rationalization.

And now a few words about a play that was not the worst call in the history of basketball. Earlier today I again discussed with someone the final seconds of Game 7 of the 1988 Finals. The Lakers edged the Pistons by three points, earning a repeat title. The controversy happens in the final two seconds and for 22 years, Pistons fans - and other people who perhaps don't always support the purple and gold - have contended that the Lakers got away with one.

To the video. The controversy comes just past the 1:40 mark:

Bill Laimbeer drains a 3 to cut the Lakers' lead to 1. Magic takes the inbound pass, and finds AC Green for a layup that puts the Lakers up 3 with two seconds left (Green probably should have just dribbled out the clock). It did not, despite Dick Stockton's words, win the game for the Lakers. Pistons could still tie it. But as the fans and photographers swarm the court - and as the Lakers bench begins to run off it! - Laimbeer throws a pass downcourt to Isiah Thomas. Thomas falls, the buzzer sounds and the Lakers, finally, do win it.

Pistons fans always complain about two things: The fans came onto the court before the game ended, and that Magic fouled Isiah on the last play.

One complaint is legitimate, the other isn't. It is a bizarre ending. There were still two seconds left, the Pistons - who were out of timeouts - could still tie it. Yet there are fans on the court. A dweebish ballboy jumps up and down - on the court. The Lakers players are on the court. Pat Riley, who perhaps should have been worrying about the defense still, is on the court, headed to the locker room. Laimbeer actually has to throw the full-court pass while a photographer snaps pictures a few feet in front of him - on the court. Obviously the refs should have cleared the court. Would the Pistons have tied it up? Highly unlikely. But they should have had a court setting that didn't resemble Walmart at the opening of Black Friday.

As for the alleged foul on Magic? That's where Pistons fans should shelve the whining. It's impossible to tell from the camera angle if Magic hit Isiah. It looks just as likely that Isiah, who played on a badly sprained ankle and hobbled around all game, fell as Magic stepped near him. I've seen that game dozens of times but have never seen any other angle on the play. Maybe a different camera tells a different story.

But even if Magic had fouled him, it wouldn't have been a shooting foul. And if the refs had somehow made the worst call in the history of basketball and called it a shooting foul, Isiah still couldn't have tied the game at the line. Why? Because in 1988 the NBA still only gave a player two free throws if he was fouled on a 3-pointer. The three free throws rule didn't come into play until the 1995 season. So Isiah would have had to make the first, miss the second and hope that Buddha Edwards or Laimbeer or Salley or Rodman or Chuck Nevitt or someone, anyone, could have tipped in the ball for the tie. Possible? I suppose. But hardly likely. And hardly reason to still complain 22 - make that 23 - years later.

And there's more. But not much, I promise.

Watch Laimbeer's pass again. As he throws it, he steps over the line, an obvious violation. The refs should have cleared the court, yes. But they let it play out. And because they did, they should have whistled Laimbeer for the violation. Was the pass made more difficult by the fact he fired it over the head of a photog? Well, sure, although, to be honest, the photographer was short. But still, Laimbeer's right leg goes over the baseline. The game should have ended with the Lakers throwing the ball in under their own hoop.

Poor crowd control by the stripes? Of course.

The worst call in the history of basketball? Nah.

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