On the eve of the NBA Finals, Philadelphia 76ers head coach Larry Brown said, "Dikembe staying in the game with Shaq, that's the key that everybody is focused on. It really depends on the referees and how they call the game. When I had Rik Smits against Shaquille, he fouled out in warm-ups."
In this postseason, games have turned around when such seasoned pros as Arvydas Sabonis, Dale Davis, John Stockton, Ervin Johnson, Sam Cassell, and David Robinson—not to mention Shaquille O'Neal and Dikembe Mutombo—were forced to sit for a spell or the duration. None were roughhousing. All were aware of the importance of staying on the court. But if you play you're going to get whistled, and sometimes you're going to draw one too many fouls at a pivotal moment in a pivotal game. That's why the NBA's foul-out rule should be amended or abolished.
No other sport routinely expels its players from the game. A shortstop who boots a few grounders isn't sent to the showers by the ump. A nose tackle who keeps jumping offside isn't tossed by a zebra. A good (non-goon) hockey player occasionally is sent to the penalty box for two minutes, but that doesn't prevent him from going full-bore every second he's on the ice. The team is penalized for the miscues of the player, but the player will have every opportunity to redeem himself down the stretch.
But hardly a basketball game goes by without a key player—usually a center or power forward—putting in critical, foul-induced pine time. In last year's NBA championship series, Indiana's Smits had trouble most games lasting 20 minutes. In this year's finals, individual foul trouble nearly converted convincing wins (the first for Philly, the second for L.A.) into bitter defeats. It played a role in the third game as well.
It's absurd to have one game after another drastically altered by arbitrary whistles. Games should shift because Ray Allen goes on a tear, Eric Snow puts the clamps on Sam Cassell, or Tyronn Lue hounds Allen Iverson all over the court, not because of how tight the refs decide to call the game.
Still, although the refs blow the whistles, it is not their fault when foul trouble forces a key player to the bench. The refs get most of the calls right, some of them wrong, and on others it's impossible to say. That's basketball. But the foul-out rule greatly magnifies the refs' impact. One or two less whistles on Mutombo in Game 1 and the Sixers win by 20. One or two more whistles and the Lakers win by 20. A different set of equally competent refs could have produced either outcome.
The intent of the foul-out rule—to discourage and punish overly aggressive play—remains valid. But there are ways to achieve that goal without expelling players from the game. The ABA 2000, an eight-team basketball league that just finished its first season, employs a "shirted player" rule: After a player's fifth foul, each additional foul by that player gives the other team two shots and the ball. A proposed "4-Ball" league (each team would have four players) plans to borrow hockey's power play: After the third team foul each quarter, the fouler has to leave the court for one possession. He can return (without stopping play) once his team recovers the ball.
There are other possibilities. My suggestions: Abolish the foul-out rule while simultaneously instituting college basketball's two-shots-and-the-ball penalty for intentional fouling. Or give each coach four foul-out exemptions, to be used to keep one or more players on the court after the sixth foul. The coach could use them all for one player, who would have to commit 10 fouls to be expelled, or for four different players to give each of them an additional foul before expulsion, or any variation the coach chooses. He wouldn't decide in advance. Instead, game circumstances would dictate the strategy.
Or the league could adopt the following changes, which would reduce the number of overall fouls and the likelihood a good, clean player would accumulate six: A moving pick of a non-brutal nature becomes a violation, like traveling, instead of a personal foul. Ditto for offensive fouls, which would prevent unscrupulous defenders from flopping a foe to the pines.
The NBA could experiment with these or other rules in summer and minor leagues, keeping in mind the ultimate goal: a clean, free-flowing game where the outcome is determined not by a few capricious calls or pratfalls, but by the competitors.