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*Heat's Wade draws fouls, critics
Some grumble that Wade gets benefit of the doubt on too many fouls, but Heat star, NBA's director of officials beg to differ.
By Michael Cunningham
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Posted January 29 2007
When the Dallas Mavericks loudly complained about the fouls called to Dwyane Wade's benefit during the NBA Finals last season, it turned out that was just the start of the discontent.
Now there are comments like those from Ray Allen, who protested after a recent game that the Sonics "got whistled any time we touched Dwyane." Houston star Tracy McGrady implied the Finals appeared rigged after Wade took 97 free throws in six games.
Seattle's Bob Hill and the Lakers' Phil Jackson are among coaches this season who have griped about calls for Wade. Jackson said Wade got "a tremendous amount of calls made for him in the playoffs" but stopped short of judging their legitimacy.
Wade currently attempts the most free throws per game in the league, and critics are suggesting he doesn't deserve a lot of them. Wade has heard the grumbling and dismisses it by saying consider his game as well as the source of the complaints.
"All of the guys that have said something about me are shooting jump shots," Wade said. "I go to the basket the majority of the time. If I get 10 free throws and I go to the basket 30 or 40 times a game, then that adds up.
"I don't worry about what other teams say about me. Don't foul me, then."
The issue of Wade and officials touches on a gray area of what NBA people perceive as "respect" or "star" calls. Do certain players simply draw more fouls because they are better, the most aggressive and take the most shots, or do players of certain stature get some borderline calls because officials recognize them as stars?
There seems to be agreement among players that there is such a thing as a respect call. It involves a belief that some players get the benefit of the doubt from officials on close plays.
"It's 100 percent real," Nets forward Richard Jefferson said. "It's an unspoken thing."
"As far as close calls, if you have more star power, you probably get that call," said Golden State guard Jason Richardson, who has gained that stature in the past year.
"That hasn't changed," said Hornets coach Byron Scott, who played for 14 NBA seasons. "That is something that has been around way, way before I came in this league. I don't think anybody in this league looks at it and says that's wrong. That's just how it has been."
Separating fact, myth
Such opinions rankle Ronnie Nunn, the NBA's director of officials. Nunn, a former player at George Washington University, said he's the first person with a basketball background in the past 25 years to hold the job and that he's trying to use that experience to improve the officiating.
He puts respect calls alongside other "myths" that are accepted as fact in the league's culture, like "home cooking" and the league favoring teams in large markets. Nunn said these observations are passed down as fact to each generation of players, coaches and fans.
Further, Nunn said officiating basketball is different from playing it in that not many people actually have refereed a game. He said that "gap" creates a lack of understanding about what is a specialized and technical job.
"Many, many people are not aware of the art, the science, of the game of officiating," he said.
So, in that context, Nunn hears the seemingly unanimous NBA voices saying respect calls are fact and counters that there really is no such thing.
"Star players have the ball much of the time, particularly at critical times," he said. "They are star players because they are adept at what they do. They certainly don't need the help of any officials.
"They summon the whistle of an official because they are capable of separating themselves from other players. It's about abilities and unique strengths on getting fouls called."
The players interviewed, though, insist it's about much more than that. They say it's about familiarity, with players earning more calls once officials get to know them and their games better. How players approach officials with complaints is part of it too, they say.
The subject of respect calls came to a head for Wade during the Finals. His 25 free-throw attempts in Game Five matched the Mavericks' total attempts, and his 21 makes were a Finals record.
One Game Five play in particular was controversial. The Heat trailed 100-99 with less than five seconds to go when Wade drove to his right surrounded by three defenders. Dirk Nowitzki appeared to make slight contact at Wade's hip; he stumbled forward as officials called a foul, then made two free throws for a 101-100 victory.
Officials "gave [Wade] the call," Nowitzki said afterward. It's a common scene: Wade slices among bodies, crashes to the floor and, sometimes a beat or two later, a whistle blows as incredulous defenders hold their hands in the air.
But Wade's point about his style seems valid. Among elite guards, he goes inside most often, according to the game-tracking statistics at 82games.com.
"My rookie year, certain calls I didn't get because I had to earn my due," Wade said. "I had to show them I was tough and I could go in there and finish with the big guys. I get hit, I get bumped. They call it sometimes, sometimes they don't."
Lakers forward Luke Walton takes a similar view of star players who constantly drive to the basket.
"They might get some calls, but also they don't get some calls," he said. "Sometimes they drive and they get beat up, but they have been to the foul line so many times [that game], maybe they don't get the foul call that time."
Nunn notes that these judgment calls are not easy. He said the rules allow for a certain amount of "marginal" contact and that it's up to players to play through that without help from officials.
Nunn said officials are constantly monitored and scrutinized by his office. And while Nunn said there has been no formal mandate to officials about respect calls, the focus is on getting all calls right so there's no room for the perception to grow.
"I would say the officials are aware when they make an error [involving] key players, the myth kind of boils up again and is cooking," he said.
They're only human
The sample of players interviewed all said officials have a difficult job calling a fast game played by elite athletes. They framed respect calls not as incompetence or favoritism, but rather the result of officials being human.
"I don't want to sound like officials are not honorable or the game is not honorable," said Suns swingman Jalen Rose. "But if you are a 10-time All-Star or this is your 10th year, you are going to get the benefit of the doubt over a guy that hasn't proven himself on a judgment call."
Players say it's up to them, too. Walton, in his fourth season, said he's learned "tricks" for how to better draw fouls. Jefferson said if players want more calls they have to "work harder, get better."
"You have to earn your way in this league," Jefferson said.
Hornets guard Chris Paul said he knows all about that. He was named rookie of the year last season but, as the Hornets left AmericanAirlines Arena recently feeling like Wade and center Alonzo Mourning got some favorable calls, Paul said he hasn't reached star-call status yet.
"I don't get them," Paul said. "They say it don't go that way, but I don't know. I will keep watching. This is only my second year. I guess I have got to get some years under my belt."
That certainly helps, Jefferson said. He said he started noticing a difference in how officials treated him late in his second season, but by that point he already had been to the Finals with the Nets.
"The more you can talk to them, they can see what kind of personality you have, they see how you play," Jefferson said. "They start to give you the benefit of the doubt certain calls that could go either way."
With Wade, critics used the service time argument to condemn all those Finals free throws. Respect calls might be an accepted part of the game, they said, but Wade, as a third-year player in his first Finals, shouldn't have gotten them so soon.
But like Jefferson, Wade's early career has been marked by lots of postseason exposure. Wade has played in 50 playoff games, including 19 in the conference finals and beyond.
"As a player, you don't want to say [respect calls are] a reality, but you also understand that once guys have been around so long, they have earned their due," Wade said.
Worse in years past
For those players who complain about that system, Steve Kerr, a player for 15 seasons, says it used to be much worse. He said there was a time when officials would give a star player's foul call to a teammate with less stature and openly admit it to the lesser player.
Kerr said that kind of obvious favoritism has been eradicated. But, players, coaches and fans being who they are, he doesn't see anyone happy.
"Nobody thinks they get calls," said Kerr, a TNT analyst and contributor to Yahoo! Sports. "The biggest thing I noticed when I became an announcer is the officiating is a lot better when you step away from the game."
Kerr played with Michael Jordan for the Chicago Bulls. Jordan excelled during a time when much more contact was allowed by defenders, but even after he had established himself as the game's best, there were complaints he got too many touch fouls.
It's little surprise that Jackson, Jordan's coach with the Bulls, thought Jordan deserved even more calls.
"We used to feel that Michael Jordan was fouled almost all the time when he was shooting, guys on his arms, and [Jordan] still is making shots through it," Jackson said. "Yet there [are] times during the ballgame where your status players will get calls in contact situations. I think the league is trying to balance that out.
"I think a foul is a foul no matter [who] it is."
Michael Cunningham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.