In August 2021, I watched a basketball game where players fell down and weren’t rewarded by a ref’s whistle. I was stunned. I didn’t think this was possible! Years and years of NBA games had trained me to believe if a player falls, no matter how weak the contact, a whistle follows. Now imagine my surprise when I settled down for the USA-France gold medal game and witnessed FIBA referees control the game by NOT blowing their whistles. Flops went unrewarded. Heads snapping back on drives to the hoop went unrewarded. All of the usual shenanigans NBA players have been incentivized to indulge in by NBA referees—foul baiting, contact manipulation, no traveling—were ignored.
Many nights I have lain awake, thinking about a sport that has much to love and much to improve, and asked myself a question: what happens if an NBA player falls down and the referee doesn’t blow a whistle? August 2021 provided the answer: they keep playing. In a game where 15 former/present NBA players received playing time, basketball was played. You know, the sport that is quite fun when each side isn’t throwing their hands in the air after every jump shot and complaining during every possession. The sport that can be free flowing and structured at once, electric when spent in any area other than the free throw line.
I am excited for the NBA Finals for a variety of reasons. Steph Curry. The Celtics team defense. Jordan Poole’s ascension. Jayson Tatum’s push to be the next Kawhi. I am dreading, however, an inevitable swinging point of the series: amongst a boatload of players (Draymond Green, Marcus Smart, Grant Williams, etc.) who know how to fall down, who will be rewarded the most? I don’t blame any of these individuals. They are hyper competitive athletes and are willing to scour the earth for even a tiny edge. NBA referees' continued willingness to blow whistles for anything and everything has led us down a dark path, where hyper competitive athletes use this to their advantage by falling down again and again and again. But what would happen to the sport if NBA players fell down and referees didn’t blow their whistle? Would anybody—fans, players, coaches, executives, referees—miss this facet of the game?