Fred VanVleet and the fabric of the NBA


Hello TrueHoop! It has been a while … I have been hard at work on a book, called “BALLISTIC,” which has been enlightening and inspiring. It’s about something we all have in common with NBA players and elite professional athletes of all kinds: the joy of movement. 

I can’t wait for you to read it. But damn if it hasn’t kept me from writing here for quite some time. I have missed you!

Meanwhile, the NBA hasn’t stopped fascinating me. Shawn Kemp, Kendrick Perkins, Nikola Jokić, Leon Black, and runner Lauren Fleshman’s brilliant book, “Good For a Girl” (which I would argue, has big and surprising implications for every athlete and especially those in the NBA) … there’s a lot I’d like to discuss. 

But, I thought to myself, life is about prioritizing—the book has a due date, so all that’ll have to wait. 

Then I heard Fred VanVleet.

Here’s the transcript:

I don’t mind. I’ll take a fine. I don’t really care. I thought referee Ben Taylor was fucking terrible tonight. I thought that, most nights, you know, a couple of the … out of the three, there’s one or two that just fuck the game up. You know, and it’s been like that a couple games in a row. Denver was tough, obviously. You come out tonight competing pretty hard; third quarter, I get a bullshit tech. It changed the whole dynamic of the game. Changed the whole flow of the game. 

You know most of the refs are trying hard. I like a lot of the refs. They try hard; they’re pretty fair; they communicate well. And then you got the other ones who just want to be dicks, and it just kinda fucks the game up. Nobody’s coming to see that shit. They come to see the players. 

I think we’re losing a little bit of the fabric of what the NBA is and was, and it’s been disappointing this season. You can look up most of my techs this year have been with Ben Taylor officiating. At a certain point, as a player, you feel it’s personal. That’s never a good place to be. 

That’s not why we lost tonight. We got outplayed. But it definitely makes it tougher to overcome. 

“The fabric of what the NBA is and was.” Heavy. Fundamental. I agree with Fred: That’s what’s on the table. I also agree that people come to see the players. 

But also: referees do impossibly difficult work and are generally underappreciated. 

This whole episode, though, tweaks something that has been on my mind: The NBA isn’t that into rules, generally. Rules frustrate the rich and powerful—and the NBA adores, elevates, celebrates, and courts the rich and powerful. 

I’ll spare you the hour I just spent researching fundamental legal theory, and ask you to come along when I say: Without the law we have the law of the jungle, where the strong devour the weak (a phrase, interestingly, associated with genocide). The Constitution was written, I learned from, in part to prevent “the kind of government tyranny experienced in early American history by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton under the rule of Great Britain.” 

If you’ve seen the musical “Hamiltonyou get it. Whatever the king feels like today is a system that tends to be upsetting to everyone who isn’t a king. Arbitrary, personal, emotional. The solution, according to the framers, is to write the rules down and apply them to everyone.

 “A government of laws,” said John Adams, “and not of men.” 

The rich guy in the movie “Roadhouse” weaves all over both sides of the road for funzies. By the law of the jungle, he’s the biggest cat around. Who would stop him? By the law as written down, though, an officer with an entry-level salary can ruin all the fun. What kind of place do we live in? The people in charge of that Roadhouse town get to decide. 

The NBA gets to decide stuff like that, too. Basketball, after all, is literally nothing but a list of rules. That’s what Dr. Naismith created.

For most of us, if you want to see an NBA game, the first rule is you need a ticket. You can’t just walk in, duh. But if you’re a king of a kind you can. 

The VIP list is the opposite of the rule of law. The Knicks hold back tickets for every game in case this or that bigwig wants to drive on that side of the road. I was in the room at the Philadelphia All-Star Game when the NBA gave a wonderful lower-bowl seat to the legendary Stevie Wonder. But it wasn’t Stevie at all, it was an imposter, who put that costume on because he didn’t have a ticket. It worked for a while. I watched him quickly meet Will Smith. 

Fred VanVleet is accusing Ben Taylor of acting not like a rule enforcer, but like a king—someone on a “power trip.” Arbitrary, personal, emotional. 

I won’t pick sides between VanVleet and Taylor without a lot more information. David Thorpe notes on the TrueHoop Podcast that referees are carefully tracked and managed (certainly true), and if there’s bias it’ll be ferreted out and dealt with (keep reading). 

There was a time when the player beefing with a referee was Rasheed Wallace, and the referee was Tim Donaghy. Rasheed served as an early-warning system for a corrupt hothead of a referee. Hooray for free speech … but it wasn’t close to free for Rasheed, who reportedly lost a million dollars or so in salary while suspended. (Has the league apologized for all that?) 

I looked up Ben Taylor’s bio, just for fun (“hidden talent: dancing”), and was struck by the banner atop the referee’s association website.

Ben or Fred. Who is guarding the game? And isn’t that the NBA’s job anyway?

The Donaghy scandal was a chance for the NBA to demonstrate its tendencies away from rules and toward whatever the king wants. 

That Donaghy fixed games is well established. The legally persnickety Disney Corporation’s ESPN published a story with the headline “How Former Ref Tim Donaghy Conspired to Fix NBA Games.” In the creation of that story, experts went through all the game footage, tracked every call, and, Scott Eden writes, found “Donaghy’s track record of making calls that favored his bet, was 23-3-4.” There is extensive reporting about Donaghy himself describing—to gamblers, to co-conspirators, to friends—the illegal defenses and technical fouls on players like Rasheed that were the tools of his game-fixing trade.

That story also describes a meeting, at the beginning of the scandal’s coming to light, between the FBI, David Stern, and his key deputies. To me it’s the linchpin of the Donaghy story. More than one source told Eden they believe the meeting was a mistake, because it permitted the NBA to nuke the FBI’s ongoing fact-finding by leaking it to the press before Donaghy could wear a wire and reveal the full extent of the corruption. 

What’s the definition of obstructing justice?

With the FBI officials’ investigation in tatters, the NBA hired a bunch of white-glove attorneys to conduct the “official” investigation, which is the one that got bigger play in the sports media. The results of the Pedowitz Report are hilariously inadequate, in retrospect. Almost everything that would hurt the NBA’s feelings or legal standing went miraculously missing or lost to vagary. They found no convincing evidence Donaghy fixed games. (“The NBA experts and we found nothing revealing about the way Donaghy conducted or carried himself on the floor. In some of these games, Donaghy appeared to do a good job and made virtually no errors. In others, he made a substantial number of errors, but the errors did not seem to favor one team over another.”)

There was no mention of the FBI investigation blowing up before it implicated other referees. Nothing to worry about in Donaghy’s wild rate of phone calls and texts with colleague Scott Foster (the very same referee who was the focus of jolly stories about playing pickleball with media types in the bubble). 

The report also found rampant gambling among referees. This was against the rules, mostly because it’s an amazing way for a referee to fall into debt to bad people. “After considering the details of the violations and our recommendation,” the Pedowitz Report says, “the Commissioner decided not to discipline any of the referees.”

Instead, the explanation became the one convenient for the the king, David Stern: Donaghy merely supplied information to gamblers. The Pandora’s Box of fixed games in the NBA record would stay shut. 

Perfect tyrant playbook: Ban the inconvenient man, kneecap justice, whitewash the rest through subterfuge, bullying, and sleight of hand. Stay in perfect control, despite mismanaging everything.

In 2009, ESPN editor Royce Webb gave me an incredible idea: figure out what the NBA’s rule is on traveling. It’s perhaps the game’s most basic rule, and people have an idea that in high school you get to gather the ball and take a step, but in the NBA every highlight has someone taking two steps, or there’s talk of a step-and-a-half. The rulebook at the time used intricate language about “counts,” instead of steps. Through the fog people with power—referees, star players, the league—got to make it up as they went along, like kings. It really came down to: after gathering the ball, do you get to take one step or two? 

I asked players, and referee supervisors, and I ended up in the office of the league’s head of referees who told me, “We really don’t reference the rulebook.” (Later, because of that story, the league changed the rules to permit two steps.)

I spent a lot of time at the NBA headquarters, writing at least a dozen stories about referees. The NBA people came to know me—and mock me at times—as someone who thought that referees, post-Donaghy, would need to earn credibility from the public, rather than assume it. The league bragged they had all kinds of internal performance numbers and knew the referees were incredible. I argued those might need to become external numbers. 

Raptors fans probably get that today. We can look up and scrutinize every little thing about how Fred VanVleet performs with Ben Taylor on the court, but what about the reverse? The league’s position is trust us

Forgive me if I’d like some evidence. 

Before Fred VanVleet complained about Ben Taylor in Monday’s Raptors loss to the Nuggets, his teammate Scottie Barnes was ejected for saying something that got deeply under the skin of the referees. AARON ONTIVEROZ/MEDIANEWS GROUP/THE DENVER POST/GETTY IMAGES

Rashad McCants and Brandon Jennings joined Gilbert Arenas’s show Gil’s Arena to discuss referees. They were fascinated by another technical in the Raptors vs. Nuggets game that so angered Fred VanVleet, when Scottie Barnes was ejected strictly for saying … something. Gilbert said he didn’t even need to hear what happened. By the referee’s reaction, he could tell that Scottie had said something about the referees cheating.

Host Josiah Johnson said he’d read the statement from the referee who ejected Scottie, Scott Foster. “WHO???” Gilbert bellowed. It was the same referee who had all those phone calls with Tim Donaghy. “That’s the last person that should be refereeing.” Foster said Barnes “directly questioned the integrity of the crew.”

Gilbert smiles, satisfied he’s right. “So: cheating.”

There was talk about wearing body cams, like in police interactions. McCants pointed out that the league used to tell players, in referee meetings, that referees were 99 percent accurate. (They also said that in meetings with media.) But now that there’s more instant replay, it’s clear the rate is much lower. 

“There should be something,” Arenas says, “where the ref can get penalized also. … I know they get graded … but it needs to be public, because you’re protecting them just like you protect a cop.”

In 2007, when highly creditable, stood-the-test-of-time research found racial bias among NBA referees, David Stern and the NBA simply lit the facts on fire. Racism, Stern said, “doesn’t exist in the NBA.” Stern excoriated The New York Times for even mentioning the study, and mocked the paper’s purported high standards. Then they found another white-glove firm—this time the Sibson subsidiary of the Segal Company—to hustle out a competing report based on the league’s much more complete data set. Surprise, surprise … that report found things happened in a way that was impeccably tidy for league leadership. I think a little bit about the way the Kremlin issues reports and dares people to dispute them.

Some of the finest experts on the planet compared the two studies. They found the NBA’s Sibson report to be poorly constructed and its conclusions somewhere between irrelevant and useless. Properly assessed, experts say, the data of the NBA’s Sibson study actually supported the conclusion of the original report.

“There is this idea,” one of the researchers told me in 2010, “that you can make the data say whatever you want. If only it were that easy.”

That might tell us something about the referees; it definitely tells us that the league believes facts can be fudged. 

There’s one more chapter of the story about Sibson. There’s no reason to believe the people who managed that effort were any good at distilling truth from spreadsheets. 

But evidently Sibson did something that pleased the NBA. The league hired the consultant from Sibson full time. (Who were the other applicants?) I’ve crossed paths with him; he seems nice enough, and he has advanced at the league in the years since. 

Would you believe the job he has today? He’s the senior vice president of referee operations and analytics. In other words, the person the league turned to when referees were accused of racism, and who cooked up a discredited report sweeping it under the rug, is now the guy in charge of determining whether Ben Taylor calls a fair game for Fred VanVleet, or Scott Foster deserves criticism from Scottie Barnes. 

Fred VanVleet was fined $30,000 yesterday for his comments. I imagine the NBA will do what it does: assure us everything is hunky-dory with Ben Taylor, Scott Foster, and every referee—and refuse to share any evidence. 

In the meantime, the game is a collection of rules, against things like traveling and throwing punches but also taking bribes or tilting games with emotional outbursts or power tripping. Whoever enforces those rules, all of them, is the real guardian of the game. 

Thank you for reading TrueHoop!

2023-03-10 14:01:17