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NBA BASKETBALL March 8, 2002
Players Who Cheat and the Announcers Who Love Them

Turner Broadcasting NBA analyst Danny Ainge declares his love for players who deceive officials; no fine or suspension under consideration at this time.

In the first half of the January 29 National Basketball Association game between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Dallas Mavericks, broadcast nationally on cable station WTBS, Clippers center Michael Olowokandi called for the ball as he planted his feet about 10 feet from the basket. He had a mismatch, as relatively short Steve Nash tried to defend. Just before Olowokandi received the entry pass, Nash hit the floor and Olowokandi was whistled for an offensive foul for pushing off.

WTBS analyst Danny Ainge had a good look at the play and took issue with the ref. "Now that's a terrible call right there," he said. "Nash grabbed a hold of Olowokandi's shirt and Olowokandi was just trying to get position and he gets called for the offensive foul." Ainge chuckled as he spoke the last few words.

After a commercial break, play-by-play announcer Kevin Harlan said to Ainge, "You talk about great matchups and craftiness. What about Steve Nash inside, playing defense?" As we watched a replay of Olowokandi's foul, Ainge commented:

"Yeah, that's a play out of John Stockton's book right there. You see him grab a hold of Olowokandi's jersey and his arm. Tried to pull him down. The officials fell for it. Nash just fell to the ground and, uh, got away with one right there. That is so frustrating to the big players. But that's why you love Nash: He gets under your skin."

That's why you love Albert Belle: He corked his bat. That's why you love Gaylord Perry: He greased the ball. That's why you love Rosie Ruiz: She took the shortcut.

That's why you love every athlete who attempts to win by deceiving officials whose duty is to ensure the integrity of the competition.

Although I think Nash fell down on purpose, I'm not certain. If Nash did, I don't love him (even though I love his overall game, flopping excepted). Until he apologizes, I don't even like him.

Ainge, on the other hand, not only is certain Nash cheated, he told viewers he loves Nash BECAUSE he cheats!

Ainge's verbal construction -- "But that's why you love Nash" -- suggests he's speaking for everyone. Sorry, Danny. You're not. Most NBA players hate guys who deliberately fall down. They hated you. They hated Dennis Rodman and Bill Laimbeer. They hated Doug Collins. They hate the fact that Collins (NBC's lead analyst prior to his return to coaching) and you have had a national-television platform to brainwash their sons and daughters into believing that deceiving the officials is just one more skill to master. They want their sons and daughters learning to pass, shoot and box out, not how to "sell a call" to the ref. They don't want you encouraging their kids to cheat.

A short while after the Olowokandi call, Darius Miles was whistled for an offensive foul as he sprinted to the hoop. Nash, running in the same direction, had created contact by veering in front of Miles, at which point Miles either pushed him or Nash was able to make incidental contact that he himself initiated look like a push. Ainge was convinced it was the latter. "I don't think Darius Miles is that strong," he said. "Again I think: great acting job by Nash."

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban regularly questions the competence of NBA officiating. It's time he raised a question about his players and coaches. Not about their competence, but their integrity.

NBA refs have a very difficult job. Every night they must make instantaneous judgments on plays that, even after several slow-motion replays, look like they could go either way. Their difficult job could be made a bit easier if they knew that Mark Cuban's players and coaches -- and their opponents -- know the difference between right and wrong and believe in the former. A ref's job is impossible when he or she must stop and think, Was that a shove or a flop? A split-second is not enough time to peer into a player's soul.

Cheating has no place in the game. The sooner the NBA imposes an appropriate penalty, the sooner this stuff will cease.

For a first offense, I propose that refs hit the suspected player with a technical. For a second offense -- and it could be later in that game or next month -- a player will be suspended without pay for 10 games. Each incident will be investigated by the league to determine if the player's coaching staff teaches, encourages or condones cheating. If a member of the staff is found guilty, he and the head coach will be suspended for 82 games.

NBA Commissioner David Stern doesn't seem to understand the difference between legitimate and illegitimate acting. Here it is:

The legit stuff is directed at one's foe: Jason Kidd looking left and dishing right; Gary Payton playing possum, then pouncing on a lazy inbounds pass; Michael Jordan loping along, then turning on the jets; Allen Iverson setting up some sap for the crossover. In those instances, the player's eyes and body language aim to fool the hapless foe, not the refs. The illegitimate stuff aims to deceive the refs, the upholders of the game's integrity.

Stern has no trouble discerning and disciplining off-court cheating. When he caught the Timberwolves deceiving NBA financial officials in an effort to circumvent salary-cap restrictions, he fined them $3.5 million, stripped the team of five first-round draft choices and barred the owner from NBA arenas for a year. The other owners got the message. If Stern metes out equally stern justice to on-court cheats, he'll deter any current or future NBA player contemplating a career in flopping.

The Clippers-Mavericks contest was a meaningless regular-season game, and the good guys won. But if the upcoming playoffs are like those of years past, the turning point in at least a few critical games will come when a flopper forces a key foe into foul trouble and onto the bench. Danny Ainge may love that stuff, but a league that cares about its integrity and the message it delivers to youngsters will act now so it never happens again.

Dennis Hans is an occasional college professor, a rec-league legend and an unlicensed shooting guru. His essays on pro basketball have appeared online at the Sporting News, Slate, InsideHoops.com and The Black World Today (tbwt.com). His writings on other topics have run in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald. He can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu.


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