Are Hue Hollins and Jake O'Donnell Really the Best Authorities on Refereeing?Ever since the Tim Donaghy situation became public knowledge, many people have come out of the woodwork to offer their two cents' worth about how the NBA recruits, trains and evaluates its referees. Hue Hollins, Jake O'Donnell and Mike Mathis each worked for a long time as NBA referees and they have added their voices to the growing chorus that says that the NBA had been doing a poor job handling its referees long before the current crisis. I value Mathis' opinion on this matter because he was an outstanding official, even though some of his remarks make me wonder if he might have something personal against the NBA's Director of Officials Ronnie Nunn and/or Stu Jackson, who is the NBA's Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations (and Nunn's boss).
Jackson and Nunn are very much on the hot seat right now, because people are wondering how is it possible that a corrupt referee did not raise any red flags during the league's supposedly thorough evaluation process. I say that it is too early in the process to cast blame in their direction--or in any direction other than Donaghy's, if it is true that the FBI has the goods on him. The problem is that we--meaning everyone outside of the FBI, including possibly NBA Commissioner David Stern himself--do not know exactly what the "goods" are. Did Donaghy "fix" games? If so, how exactly did he do it? Were other people in the NBA involved? Until we know exactly what crimes were committed and the logistics of those crimes, it is reckless to start blaming people. One of Mathis' assertions, though, deals with a broader issue than just the Donaghy case; he says that the in-game observers that the NBA assigns to monitor referees' calls are not qualified, that they come from the ranks of failed NBA referees or are even people who lack any kind of officiating background at all. I don't know how Mathis, who to the best of my knowledge has not been employed by the NBA for quite some time, knows this or if it is even true but if he is right then that is certainly a matter that the NBA should address. Again, though I do respect Mathis, the tone and tenor of some of his comments--I am thinking specifically of an interview that Mathis did recently with Jim Rome--make me wonder if he has something personal against Nunn and/or Jackson, both of whom were in the league when Mathis was a referee.
Hollins and O'Donnell fall into an entirely different category than Mathis. I know that Hollins' name was the first one to come to mind in some quarters when the news first came out that an unnamed NBA referee was suspected of fixing games. That is because he made one of the worst calls ever in an NBA game, possibly costing the 1994 Chicago Bulls a chance to go the NBA Finals. That was the first year of Michael Jordan's first retirement and the Bulls were contesting a playoff series against the Knicks that eventually went seven games. The home team won all seven games in that series but the best opportunity that Chicago had to win a road game happened in game five. The Bulls were up with just seconds to go when rookie Hubert Davis launched a jumper that was woefully off target. A famous still photo of that shot clearly shows that the ball was well out of his hands and that Bulls' defender Scottie Pippen had not touched him--but Hollins inexplicably whistled Pippen for a foul. Davis made the free throws and the Knicks escaped with the win. Darell Garretson, who refereed that game along with Hollins and eventually became the league's director of officials, later conceded for the record that it was a "horrible" call, a startling statement considering that referees rarely speak to the press about such matters. Hollins seemed to have it in for the Bulls on several other occasions, making questionable foul calls and seeming to have a quick trigger for technical fouls. Bulls' Coach Phil Jackson was fined by the NBA for publicly questioning how Hollins called Bulls games. If you go back and check, Hollins made some "interesting" calls down the stretch in one of the Bulls' 10 losses in their amazing 72-10 season in 1995-96. Obviously, Hollins must have graded out fairly well overall to last as long in the NBA as he did but to hear him talking about what he would do to improve refereeing in the NBA sounds like a sick joke. Anybody can miss a call but he missed an obvious call that had significant implications. Just as bad, if not worse, he plainly displayed a bias in other games that involved the Bulls. I don't know what his problem was but he's the last guy I would put in charge of fixing NBA officiating.
Many people will still tell you that O'Donnell was a great referee. That may be true from a purely technical standpoint, in terms of knowing the rules and having the ability to accurately call a game--but O'Donnell held grudges against players and teams and those grudges very obviously affected the way that he called games involving those players and teams. The two most prominent players he did not like were Clyde Drexler and Buck Williams and O'Donnell extended his animus to any team for which those guys played. You could see it when Drexler and Williams both played for Portland--and it exploded in such a nasty way when Drexler later played for Houston that it ended O'Donnell's career. O'Donnell whistled Drexler for a very dubious clear path foul in game one of the 1995 Western Conference semifinals and when Drexler complained O'Donnell almost instantly issued two technical fouls, which of course means an automatic ejection. The NBA and O'Donnell both deny that O'Donnell was dismissed as a result of this incident but O'Donnell never worked another game. O'Donnell initially denied that he had any kind of issue with Drexler but he later admitted that he gave special treatment (in a bad way) not only to Drexler but other players as well: "I wouldn't give Clyde Drexler much leeway because of the way he reacted with me all the time. I thought at times he would give cheap shots to people, and I just would not allow it." I've never heard anybody else suggest that Drexler was a dirty or "cheap" player. O'Donnell further stated that he would make calls against other players who, in his opinion, complained too much: "I've done it many a time on the court, especially if someone made a remark I did not like. I blew the whistle to let them know who I was ... to be able to control a player and let him know I wasn't going to take anything from him, that Jake O'Donnell wasn't going to take any of his guff." Sorry, Jake, but nobody cares who you are or wants to notice you during a game and nobody is paying good money to attend a game to watch you eject a player because you don't like the way that he talks to you. When Drexler was informed of O'Donnell's remarks, he said, "It kind of tells everybody what he's about. All along I've felt that was true. You expect unbiased professionalism from a referee. It was obvious he couldn't provide that."
When all of the Donaghy allegations are out in the open then it will be possible to determine what steps the NBA needs to take regarding how it recruits, trains and grades its referees--but I can tell you right now that Hue Hollins and Jake O'Donnell are about the last people in the world whose thoughts I want to hear on this matter.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:07 AM