NO R-EFFING WAY!

NEW YORK, June 21 - One of the benefits that comes with this job is getting to sit courtside at any game I want (not to mention the killer dental insurance plan).

No matter how many times I get to sit up close to watch the action, whether in the regular season, NBA, WNBA, All-Star Games or Finals, I'm not sure I'll ever get over just how cool it is to be within arm's reach of the best athletes in the world. (Someday, if I become a better writer, I might actually try to capture the experience.)

It is truly a delight for the senses, to see, hear, feel (and sometimes smell) all that is going on within the two hours of a basketball game. But you might be surprised at just what goes on in close proximity. I get to hear what the players say to each other, I get to hear what the coaches say to their players on the court and to their assistants and bench players (when they think no one can hear them) and I also can hear what the coaches, players and fans say to the officials.

Believe it or not, about 99.9% of the conversations that take place between players or coaches and officials is pleasant, cordial and even respectful. More often than not, players just want to know why a call went the way it did. Once a reasonable explanation is given, the issue is usually dropped (at that point, all they can do is plant a seed for favorable call the next time around). But I've never seen an official change a call at the request of a player or coach. Whether or not they agree with the call, an official's word is still the final word and everyone on the court ultimately understands that. You're more likely to hear players and officials sharing a laugh or talking about something completely unrelated to the game.

Of course, there are a few negatives to sitting up that close (like when I got hit in the face with a ball during the 2004 WNBA Finals when I wasn't paying attention to the game and looking down at my computer). The worst is hearing what fans shout down at the officials from the stands. Many of the verbal assaults on officials at WNBA games are quite critical and a few border on the offensive (If players and coaches understand that the officials are professional, some fans clearly do not.) And if I can hear the fans in the stands, the refs on the court certainly can as well.

That is why, along with New York City bicycle deliveryman, men's socks inspectors (I'm looking at you, #46) and the guys that walks behind the elephants at the circus, I'd have to include professional basketball official among the list of jobs that I would least want to have. (I don't know how they do it, really. The first time a fan yelled something at me, I'd make a mental note of the person and let it go. But the second time, I'd probably run into the crowd and go after that person.)

Officials can't win. No matter the call, one team (and their fans) will be upset. Even when they don't make a call, they are going to ruffle feathers. No one really appreciates just how hard they work. Now I'm probably one of the few impartial and unbiased observers out there... I rarely care who wins or loses a particular game (except in the Playoffs when a team is looking to close out a series... getting to go home earlier is always something to root for). That means I can objectively look at each call made by an official and see if it is really fair.

Do they make mistakes? Of course. But more often than not, they did get the call right. It just wasn't the call that the fan may have agreed with. The officials on the court know the rules better and have a much better view of the action than fans in the stands, so it really is ridiculous for fans to think they are right and the refs are wrong all of the time. (I mean, seriously, do you think officials really care which team wins and loses?) Plus, if they're not going to change their minds if players and coaches complain, what possible impact would a screaming fan have? I see and read some of the criticism of WNBA officials, but I don't see anywhere near the same level of abuse directed at NCAA officials. And you know what? They're the same people (Haha!).

Those who know me will believe that this whole defense of the refs is akin to the pot calling the kettle black, as I've been kicked out of more corporate and office league games, be it basketball, football, soccer or softball, for criticizing officials. (I've been banned for life by at least one league.) But the key difference is that WNBA and NBA officials are professionals, the best in the world. They have extensive training and are constantly being evaluated whereas the jokers I clash with in my leagues are amateurs (literally).

Look, you love this game, I love this game, we all love this game. I am not asking you to curb your enthusiam or waste it harping on officials. But maybe try harnessing that energy and put it towards something more meaningful (like punching as many All-Star ballots as you can before time runs out!).

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