Refs in crosshairs of biased announcers

Dan Wetzel

LOS ANGELES – Johnny Most, the Boston Celtics' legendary announcer, was beloved (at least by Celtics fans) for his gravel-truck voice, his propensity to smoke while on the air (he once dropped a cig and lit his pants on fire) and, of course, his unabashed homerism.

To call Most biased would be an insult to the word. Celtics were heroes who could do no wrong. Everyone else was a thug, bum or, "something that crawled out of the sewer." Their only chance at human redemption was to be traded to Boston.

It is quite possible that during Most's entire 37-year broadcast career that no Celtics player ever committed a single foul or missed a shot where they weren't hacked, accosted or the victim of a "vicious mugging."

The only reason the wrong call was made, at least by Most's thinking, was referee incompetence, general corruption or even political conspiracy.

"There is a city ordinance in Philadelphia that decrees Moses Malone can not be called for a foul," an outraged Most once comically cackled during a Celtics-76ers game.

It was an entertaining, one-of-a-kind style that went against many of the professional standards of the day. Unlike his Los Angeles Lakers counterpart, Chick Hearn, he never criticized the home team. You tuned in to hear the game called through green-colored glasses.

Back then almost no one could've predicted Most's style, not the more balanced Hearn's, would become an accepted norm. Most passed away in 1993, but these days his legacy is all over the airwaves. Many local announcers are outright shills for the team.

"Sometimes you listen to a game from both (local) feeds and you'd think you were listening to completely different games," NBA commissioner David Stern said Thursday.

Stern sort of smiled at that line, but not for long. While it may not seem like a big deal to most people, and it certainly isn't the sole reason for the NBA's current troubles, the sons of Johnny Most currently calling NBA games across the league aren't helping the commissioner one bit.

The way the NBA is consumed by fans is mostly on the local level, either via television or radio. Night after night these days, fans hear that their team is being jobbed by officials; not just losing out on all 50-50 calls or the unfortunate victims of human error but downright cheated out of victories.

"I would say that there's a lot of officiating done by local announcers," Stern said.

The broadcasters didn't cause Tim Donaghy, the FBI investigation or the NBA's current challenge with conspiracy catcalls from fans. The NBA has issues it needs to address; in some ways the league had made its own trouble.

But in a number of markets, the announcers create a distrusting environment. While there are plenty of exceptions, on many broadcasts objectivity isn't a concern. Bias may come more from the color commentator, often a former player, and not the straighter play-by-play person, but the result is the same.

"In some markets, that's what the fans want. They want the guy who is rooting for the team," said Mike Breen, the New York Knicks' television play-by-play man for the last 17 years. Breen's one of the most balanced announcers in the league, partly because of the market he works in.

"In New York I can't be that way, I'd get skewered," said Breen, who is currently calling the Finals for ABC. "You have to be straight. Even still, (there are emails asking) 'Why does Mike Breen hate the Knicks?' I think, 'I hate the Knicks? I've been a Knick fans since I was a kid.' "

If Breen was in a different city with a different organization, there might be pressure to do it a different way. While there isn't a documented case in the NBA, in other sports, most recently Florida State football, announcers have lost their job for not being enough of a cheerleader.

Tendentiousness can even make your career. After all, Johnny Most was popular due to his lack of objectivity, not in spite of it.

This seems like a harmless trend in broadcasting – how important is objectivity if few viewers even want it? Mostly it's just entertaining. It isn't for Stern, though. His entire organization is under attack in part because for years fans have been given no reason to believe in it.

If a team never commits a foul (or at least in a critical juncture of the game) and are always getting the worst of it from referees, then why should fans ever trust the officials?

Every team has fans who believe the refs are systematically out to get them. In many cities that extends to league-wide conspiracies based on market size, star players or simply Stern's whims. Night after night the broadcasters play right into it.

The reality is that Stern isn't sitting in his Manhattan tower ordering his referees to fix games, playoff series or entire seasons. The NBA is a massive, multibillion dollar corporation built on the partnership of 30 individual owners. No one game could ever mean that much to the bottom line, let alone risk a scandal that could crush the league.

No matter what fans think, there isn't a conspiracy.

Of course, the fans still think there is.

Thursday, for the second time in three days, this time in the minutes before Game 4 of the NBA Finals, Stern held a news conference. He again vehemently defended the practices and integrity of his league and its officials.

It was a sign of desperation and frustration; one that probably did nothing but keep the referee scandal story alive. It must have seemed necessary, though, for a commissioner who can hardly contain his irritation at the situation – no matter what he says, some people won't believe him.

It's not just the in-game announcers that undermine the refs. Coaches routinely rail against the officials, if not in postgame comments (where they are subject to fines) then in sideline histrionics.

Players, meanwhile, challenge nearly every call. The days of humbly raising your hand after committing a foul so the scorer could properly identify you has been replaced with acting, pleading and expressing a level of outrage as if the ref just shot your dog.

Last year the NBA tried to limit the complaining through technical fouls, only to give up when it became apparent they'd have to ring guys up on every possession.

"I think in its collectivity, a certain impression gets left," Stern said.

The NBA has a multi-tiered, partially independent system for evaluating every call (and non-call) by every official. Stern describes his refs "the most measured and metricized group of employees in the world." He claims they get about 90 percent of the calls correct.

Considering the complexity and speed of the game, that might be very good. Maybe they can do better, maybe not.

When a call is replayed on super slow-mo in high definition, though, with a partisan announcer expressing volatile anger to a sympathetic audience, every mistake can seem not just unacceptable but sinister.

Stern knows this. And he knows there isn't much he can do about it, although he's trying.

Five years ago the league began inviting all local and national broadcasters to its referees' camp each summer. Lectures and tests were given, rules were reviewed and a chance to better understand the challenges of calling an NBA game was offered.

"I think it really opened up a lot of eyes," said Breen, who because of his background as a high school and junior college official has always had a "soft spot" for referees. "There is still a lot more that needs to be done, but I don't think there are as many guys just killing the refs every game."

Perhaps, but Stern certainly doesn't think it's good enough. Thursday he looked exhausted at this entire ordeal. While he wasn't blaming all of the league's troubles on homer announcers, you could see his disappointment at the atmosphere they help create.

No matter how much he explains the league's innocence, he knows he's fighting years of negative public relations for his officials. He thinks everyone should trust him, but at this point, that's impossible.

It may have started in the NBA with a colorful, comical Johnny Most "high above courtside" in Boston. But all these years later, as that style spread and took root, as refs couldn't ever catch the benefit of the doubt, David Stern, desperate for credibility, doesn't appear to be in a laughing mood.