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NBA FOULS Nov. 8, 2002
Blow the whistle on the foul-out rule

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Throughout the NCAA and NBA playoffs, this unspeakably cruel rule turned great competitors into frustrated spectators

Brothers and sisters, I come to bury the foul-out rule, not to praise it. I call on each and every hoopster to refuse to set sneaker to court until this abomination is radically reformed or abolished.

No other sport routinely forces good players to the sidelines for long stretches or even the duration for doing nothing more than playing the game. Shortstops and linebackers don't have the dark cloud of foul trouble hanging over their heads. Non-goon hockey players might pick up an occasional two-minute penalty, but that doesn't prevent them from putting in their full time on the ice and going full-bore every second. If Tiger Woods drives in the rough on 13, 14 and 15, he's not forced to switch jobs with his caddy on 16, 17 and 18.

Why do we put up with this?

This cruel, capricious rule tarnished numerous NBA playoff games in 2002, including several in what otherwise was one of the greatest series in league history, Sacramento vs. Los Angeles. It had a major impact in Sacramento's Game 5 one-point victory, as Shaq was limited to 32 foul-plagued minutes. It had a greater impact in the Lakers hard-fought win in Game 6, where Vlade Divac was limited to 31 minutes and his backup, Scott Pollard, fouled out in a measly 11 minutes. Laker Derek Fisher, who was due for a good game, was in foul trouble from the get-go and never got untracked. In the Game 7 overtime thriller, won by L.A., Shaq logged 51 minutes while Divac managed but 27 in the most important game of his career.

Most every game, one or more of us ends up sitting for long stretches in abject frustration. For what? Diving for loose balls? Attempting steals and blocks? Driving to the hoop? Trying to deny or establish position in the low post? Last time I checked that's what we're supposed to do.

As bad as it is in the NBA, in college it's worse.

The last few rounds of the men's NCAA tourney served up heaping helpings of foul trouble for Caron Butler, Emeka Okafer, Jabahri Brown, Aaron McGhee (twice), Lonny Baxter, Drew Gooden and Jared Jeffries. These outstanding players knew their team needed them on the court, and for the most part they played accordingly. Yet in the biggest games of their lives, they sat. Butler for seven, McGhee and Jeffries for 10, Okafer for 17, Brown for 17 in a single half, Baxter for 26.

It is ridiculously easy to get whistled twice in the first few minutes. You jostle for position and learn the hard way that tonight the refs are calling 'em close. Next you go for a block and graze an elbow. The ref rightly rings you up, and your backup reports for duty. You haven't even looked crosseyed at an opponent or broken a sweat, yet you're out for at least 10 minutes and you'll be walking on egg shells when you return.

Try to have an impact on a game when your uppermost thought is avoiding foul trouble. Ain't gonna happen. Basketball is best played free and easy. Action and reaction. Hustle and scrap. A live body swatting shots and swishing floaters. An athlete looking to do athletic stuff.

Brothers and sisters, the problem ain't the refs. God bless 'em. Sometimes they call 'em too tight or too loose; sometimes they make bad calls. But they're conscientious; they do their best. The problem is this cruel and unusual rule.

We don't want a rough or dirty game. We want refs calling 'em as they see 'em and enforcing clean play. No special treatment for superstars and no special abuse for the scrubs. But we're not worth the sneakers we jump out of if we don't demand a rules regime that allows players, not dumb luck, to determine the outcome.

What would that rules regime look like? Do we abolish the foul-out rule or reform it? What other changes need to accompany either option? Flesh out your own ideas, keeping in mind our goal: a good, clean game that makes it EASY for a good, clean player to remain on the court for a full-throttle 40 or 48 minutes. The more proposals we have to test and refine, the better. Here is my five-point plan:

1) Each team starts the game with three "foul coupons." The coach can cash one in at any time to remove a personal foul from a player's total. For example, it could be used after a player picks up a second foul early in the first quarter. The coach would hand the coupon to the ref and the player would still have just one foul, though the expunged second foul would still count toward the team's total for the quarter or half. An NBA coach could, if he chooses, use all three coupons on the same player, which would mean he would foul out on his 9th foul.

2) Downgrade non-brutal moving picks from a foul to a loss-of-possession violation -- but strictly enforce the rule. The model here is football's two distinct face-mask penalties, depending on the severity.

3) Downgrade player-control offensive fouls from a foul to a loss-of-possession violation, thereby eliminating the vile practice of flopping a foe into foul trouble. This change also guarantees that drivers -- the players that fans pay to see -- have just as many defensive fouls at their disposal as jumpshooters and non-shooters -- the players nobody pays to see.

Related to Point 3, we players will make the refs job easier and the game more honest by taking the no-flop pledge: "I will strive to remain upright rather than collapsing from incidental, unavoidable contact." In turn, we call on refs to enforce the dislodging rule. Right now, many of you punish defenders who make a supreme effort to stay on their feet, while rewarding those who reel, stuntperson style, from real or imagined contact. If you refs don't keep your end of the bargain, you'll only encourage the re-emergence of the flop.

4) Ensure that teams don't benefit from excessive fouling by expanding the definition of "intentional foul" to include obvious grabs by beaten defenders, deliberate shoves to send a poor free-throw shooter to the line, and late-game whacks by trailing teams trying to stop the clock. The intentionally fouled player is awarded two points AND his or her team retains possession. Because a possession is worth, on average, one point, the intentional-foul penalty would actually be a "penalty," which is what penalties are supposed to be. It would cost, on average, three points, which is one more point than the beaten defender prevented. Grabbing is not a skill, so let's not reward it.

But how will teams rally?

5) With tenacious defense, great shooting and ample possessions, courtesy of a 12-second shot clock in the final two minutes of each half, when time-outs are disallowed. (Thanks to King Kaufman of Salon.com for this innovation.) Under the current rules, the standard method of staging a late rally goes like this: "Commit an intentional foul; fouled player shoots free throws; trailing team hoists a quick trey; repeat preceding boring steps until the horn blows." Deliberate whacks, free throws, time outs and jumpshots. None has ever produced a shred of excitement, though sometimes a jumper can be dramatic. I'll trade occasional drama for routine excitement any day. Excitement requires athletes doing creative things on the move against other athletes doing their legal best to thwart what the offensive team springs on them. That's just what our Final Frantic Flurry will provide.

Under my rules regime, the impact of a given call, good or bad, will be greatly reduced. The game won't take a dramatic turn because John Stockton gets called for two reach-ins in the first two minutes, Paul Pierce is whistled for his third on a dubious charge call early in the second quarter, Shaq gets his fourth on a flop at the end of the half, or Vlade Divac hustles after a loose ball with six minutes to go and is hit with his sixth. No player ever again will have to think twice about diving for a loose ball, swatting a shot or penetrating the paint. He or she may not succeed, but the punishment for failure won't be a long stint on the bench. That's good for the players and good for the refs.

Under the current rules regime, Shaq and Tim Duncan don't guard each other. How absurd is that? This should be one of the great rivalries of our time, akin to Russell vs. Chamberlain. Instead, its Malik Rose and crippled David Robinson vs. Shaq, and Samaki Walker vs. Duncan. Alas, it makes perfect sense when you're coaching under a rules regime that makes no sense.

Why don't college and pro announcers make a stink about this? Because half of them are control-freak ex-coaches who know that the less impact the players have on the game, the more impact the coaches have -- and the more attention they get. They, along with most of the ex-jock analysts, are so far "inside the box" that even if they had the courage to rock the boat, they wouldn't have the insight.

During the NCAA semifinals, Billy Packer said the Indiana coach was playing with fire by putting All-American Jared Jeffries on Oklahoma's Aaron McGhee. Packer was right, as Jeffries soon took a seat with two quick fouls. But here's what any announcer worth his salt would have SCREAMED:

"What is wrong with the NCAA? Jeffries-McGhee is the matchup of the year. They should guard each other from start to finish, playing every minute like men possessed. A rules regime that discourages this matchup while promoting timid play and extended pine time is preposterous."

Brothers and sisters, we, not a bunch of old men, are the game. WE should decide who wins and who loses. If we're worth a damn, we'll fix this foul-out rule before it ruins another game and leaves more gritty competitors wondering, for the rest of their lives, What if?

Dennis Hans is a writer, an occasional adjunct professor and a shooting instructor. His essays on basketball -- including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting -- have appeared online at the Sporting News, Slate, InsideHoops.com and The Black World Today (tbwt.com). His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets. He can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu.


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