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Inconsistent level of B. League officiating a cause for real concern

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Rising attendance figures across the nation and increased media attention were two byproducts of the merger that created the B. League, when the disbanded NBL, NBDL and bj-league joined forces to make this a possibility.

And it was necessary to move the sports in the right direction in Japan. FIBA deserves a pat on the back for forcing the Japan Basketball Association to clean house and take the difficult steps to create the B. League.

Now, it’s time to seriously address another important issue in Japan pro hoops. The integration of officials from the three aforementioned leagues has been a bumpy road for the three-tier B. League, aka B1, B2 and B3.

In interviews with more than a dozen players and coaches over the past several months, it’s clear that the level of officiating is often inadequate. It’s a cause of great frustration, disgust — and even anger — for players and coaches.

Simply put, B. League officiating is too inconsistent and doesn’t match the quality of play in a big percentage of games.

Various viewpoints were brought to this columnist’s attention as the regular season winded down and the playoffs heated up.

One player who requested anonymity didn’t tone down his opinion. He spoke his mind.

“I’ll start by saying it’s extremely sad, but the Japan Basketball Association has the most poorly officiated professional league out of any basketball league that I have ever watched or been a part of in my entire life,” the player told Hoop Scoop. “It’s a disgrace to sports, because you have players that go out there every night to compete every single game and I can honestly say from the bottom of my heart that I have not played in one single game which I thought the officials did a good job (this season).

“It happens on both sides of the ball, but I will also say there is a lot of favoritism in the league. I understand the game is fast-paced and there’s chances for officials to miss calls or make bad ones, but I feel as if a lot of the decisions are premeditated. I feel as if many of the officials make calls based on body language or what it may ‘look like’ and not what it actually is.

“There is absolutely no consistency in the calls that the officials make. So as players we often don’t know what the hell we can and can’t do. … I don’t know what training the B. League officials go through, but at the end of it, it has been a pitiful first year.”

Said another player: “It is much worse (than in the bj-league). I already didn’t like bj-league refs, but there were at least one or two good ones. This year overall there’s been a dip in the refs’ performance.”

In one coach’s opinion, here’s the underlying problem: “…Part-time officials who are unprofessional, unprepared most nights, and in many cases unqualified both technically and emotionally for a professional league.”

His big question was this: “And what’s being done, if anything, to address it…?”

“Many nights the league has the feel of professional wrestling,” he said.

Yes, the coach has a valid point.

* * *

Jun Aramaki, a spokesman for the B. League public relations department responded by email to several probing questions about the league’s officiating machinations. He issued a few statements to Hoop Scoop.

“The JBA and B. League consistently communicate with each other to develop referees,” Aramaki wrote.

“The JBA referee department is requested by the B. League to assign referees to B1 (and) B2 games,” he added. “(Furthermore), the JBA referee department sends referee instructors who have high-level knowledge and experience as referees to games throughout the season to evaluate and help develop referees.

“The JBA referee department may suspend B. League referees to retrain them for making critical mistakes regarding applying official rules, which may effect the result of games.”

Progress in many professions can happen in microscopic increments. But a bold plan and a strong foundation are necessary.

Even if the JBA and the B. League claim to have the right intentions, their vision doesn’t always appear to be on solid ground.

Here’s one prime example: The B. League failed to give David Law, the top bj-league official for all 11 seasons (along with Tim Greene, who went on to work in the NBA Development League and WNBA), any top-flight work. He worked the entire season in B2. It was a ridiculous decision. If the JBA and B. League had done their homework, Law would have been officiating B1 games from September to May. (Aramaki didn’t respond to my inquiry about why Law was excluded from B1. Law declined to comment.)

* * *

Toyama Grouses coach Bob Nash, who has been involved in the college and pro game since 1968, when he started at San Jacinto (Texas) College, is a voice of authority in the B. League. And it starts with recognizing that changes need to be made.

I asked Nash if he agreed with the coach’s assessment above.

“I don’t think you can make a blanket statement that all officials are unprofessional,” said Nash, a former NBA and ABA player and longtime coach at the University of Hawaii. “I think the intent is to do a fair job. The problem I see is the officials who have worked in the former NBL give the benefit of the doubt to the players and companies (teams) they know better.”

So what must be done to truly improve the officiating? What are the keys to make this happen?

Nash outlined three key areas:

1. “Training over a period of time with evaluators on hand to correct and instruct,” Nash stated, giving the NBA Summer League as an example.

2. “Remove the official as part of the entertainment package. They are the judges of the game and judges need to be blind. Their job is to get the calls right and keep the game flowing for the fans. All the antics on calls need to be removed. Just make the call and adjudicate the rules.

3. “Each official should be sent in the beginning of the season to a team in his or her area and do a training session in a practice. This would show that they are working to be better at the adjudication of the rules.”

I also asked this: Is the officiating better or worse than you expected it to be because of the merger and an adjustment period that needed to take place?

“The merger of the leagues has something to do with the officiating being considered not up to par,” Nash said. “Most of the teams in the playoff picture (were) teams from the league that most of the officials worked.

“But the greater problem is the import on-the-court restriction rule and the fact that you have to play a chess game of when to play your imports. To me, that is the biggest problem. We should be allowed to have two imports or naturalized players on the court all quarters. It eliminates the pre-game meeting and the game-day commissioner expense.”

Asked to rate the officiating on a scale of 0 to 100 — as several other players and coaches whose comments are posted below did — Nash delivered a different proposal.

“If we rate the officials on this season, it denotes a negative mindset,” he said. “Let’s fix the problem in the summer when we can all get in a gym and let a commissioner of the officials explain and demonstrate how the rules will be adjudicated. The commissioner of the officials can at that time institute a penalty system for the officials who consistently get rated low by the coaches.

“Those officials should move to the lower leagues to call games. Those officials in the lower leagues who get rated high should be rewarded by moving up to higher leagues.

“All officials should be certified to work at the top level. This would allow for competition to move officials up or down.”

He added: “I want to be a part of the solution not just someone who complains and hides behind an anonymous tag. Our league has tremendous potential to be a premier league which can attract high-level players. Japan is a great country to work and live. Let’s work together to build a positive relationship with the sponsors, media and the fans.”

* * *

Former NBA forward Josh Childress, who suited up for the San-en NeoPhoenix this past season, candidly answered questions about what he sees are the biggest shortcomings of the B. League’s game officials.

Childress considers bias a problem among certain referees.

“I can say that there have been times when the referees were unprofessional,” he told Hoop Scoop. “I remember getting fouled three times in a row during a close game against a ‘bigger’ club. I put my hands up and asked the referee why those weren’t fouls. They looked at each other and began laughing at me. It was quite frustrating . The professional thing to do would be to tell me why they weren’t fouls or what they saw.

“I cannot determine whether they are unprepared because I don’t know their routine and preparation. I think that the league needs to make it a priority to develop its referees.

“The B. League has the opportunity to be massive in Japan. With many companies/owners spending a lot of money to put a good team on the court and many fans spending their hard-earned dollars to come support the games, it’s necessary that the referees enhance the level of the game. Not detract from it. I would be interested to know if they watch film of the games and are held accountable for their performance.

“I did not experience all of the referees so I can’t speak about them. However, I think it’s unfortunate that when I walk onto the court and see certain referees, I know it will be a tough night for me as a player and my team won’t get very many calls.”

The key to raising the bar for B. League officials is better training, according to Childress.

“Send them to training camps or bring trainers here to Japan,” he underlined. “Also maybe bring in neutral referees from other countries to create a more balanced system.”

Can you provide a vivid example or two from this season when officiating really had a negative impact on a game? I asked.

“There are many,” said Childress, a Stanford University alum. “I can recall one specific example where a referee single-handedly gave a team the win. A team was up by three points with three team fouls and less that 1 minute left in the game. The smart basketball play is to allow the other team to run the clock down, foul, and make them take it out and reset their play.

“A well-trained, smart referee would know that in this situation a team is likely to commit a foul in such a way. However this particular referee decides to call an intentional foul, which results in two free throws and the ball. It allowed the losing team to be down one point and have the ball again. They ended up winning the game.”

And was the officiating better or worse than he expected this season?

“I did not know what to expect,” said Childress, who averaged 18.6 points and 9.5 rebounds in 38 regular-season games. “One of the first things the imported players told me when I arrived in Japan was that the referees are a bit arrogant and they struggle to deal with them. I noticed that some of them were arrogant. I even saw a player get a technical foul because he simply turned his back and walked away from a referee. I also noticed that most of the time, the ‘bigger’ clubs get more respect from the referees.”

* * *

Nobody expected the officiating to be perfect in the opening season of the new 45-team, three-division entity. And it won’t be perfect next season.

But by observing nine months of B. League games this season, this much was painfully clear: There were far too many instances of miscommunication between game officials and overreacting to one blown call by calling the games too tightly and turning them into free-throw shooting contests. Meanwhile, in other matches the roughness of the game was out of control. Players got away with far too much contact.

It all goes back to proper training, another player who requested anonymity insisted.

“I think the league needs to have summer-time workshops for the referees,” the player said. “Even NBA referees have workshops and have to work their way up to that level. I think the league needs to show them videos and plays during the season that they missed or might not have called.”

He added: “The league needs to teach the refs where to look for contact and teach them what is the right call and what is not.”

Better investing in referees and making it a full-time profession would be steps in the right direction.

“When you hire refs that aren’t only refs, you don’t get quality refs,” the same player pointed out. “I think the refs we have now would be better if the league paid them more so they could focus on being better refs and not have to work a second job. The best leagues in the world have good refs and the refs only ref.

“It is the same if I had to work at Toyota Monday through Friday, and then you expected me to come out Saturday and Sunday and score, rebound and play at the best of my ability, but I didn’t practice all week because of my other job.”

His final verdict on the 0-100 scale?

“Overall this season I would rate it somewhere between 45-50,” he said. “Some games the refs are really good, but then some games they are just really bad. I have tried to accept it and move on, but sometimes I just can’t let stuff pass me by like that.”

Another player told me that “the officiating is as bad as anything I’ve ever witnessed with my own two eyes.”

Why?

“They say hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” he said. “The officiating is worse than what I mentally prepared my mind for. There is no sugarcoating it. It’s just extremely bad.”

How bad?

“On a scale of 0-100, I would probably give it a 50 on the most perfect day,” he declared.

Physical stamina for the job is necessary, but the proper temperament is also a big key. And many of the people I interviewed for this column insisted that B. League officials stumbled often in this area, contributing they said to referees’ mostly poor performances during the long season.

As one source put it: “I think that emotionally officials need to be taught to not abuse their power. Because oftentimes games are called based on how they feel. I think that communication between refs must be better.

“Many refs just aren’t on the same page,” he said. “And just the consistency of what they call (is a big problem), because right now there is none whatsoever.”

* * *

Indeed, players and coaches didn’t wave their arms wildly, scream and verbally abuse game officials every minute of every game. By doing that, they would lose all credibility and exacerbate the real problems of officiating inconsistency that were on display this season. But at times frustration also led to pointless technical fouls and ejections.

But here’s the good news: The season wrapped up on May 27, with the Tochigi Brex outplaying the Kawasaki Brave Thunders down the stretch for the B1 title.

Now’s the time for JBA and B. League decision makers to reflect on this season’s success stories, but even more so on its problems. That’s a key piece of the jigsaw puzzle.

Top-level officiating consultants, especially those with decades of NBA and Euroleague officiating experience should be hired to help run the officiating department on a year-round basis. The sooner, the better.

Preparation for the second season cannot begin soon enough. It should involve a greater emphasis on developing, training and recruiting quality officials, including foreign-born referees.

Though the first five to 10 years of the new league will include plenty of growing pains under the unified Japan hoop circuit, after decades of (mostly) aimless drifting, some players remain optimistic that the officiating needs minor tweaks not a major overhaul.

“I would say the officiating is a 90,” one player told Hoop Scoop. “I think they are doing a good job and try to listen to players during the game, which allows players and officials to be on the same page.”

After playing in the NBL for a few seasons, this player was familiar with the level of officiating here before the B. League campaign got underway. He called the officiating “very similar to what it’s been in the past.”

That isn’t to suggest, however, that there aren’t moments during games when the player became mad about what was decided by the officials who control the game.

“I think fouls that don’t impact the game need to stop being called,” the player commented. “A foul that happens 75 feet (about 23 meters) from the basket that doesn’t result in a change of possession can be ‘let go’ and keep players on the court with less fouls.”

Feedback: edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp