KUNM

Calling Foul: In Basketball, Crunch Time Goes Limp

Mar 13, 2012
Originally published on March 14, 2012 6:26 am

One thing that distinguishes most team sports is that the game is suddenly played differently at the end. Often, this adds to the fascination, too. Nothing, for example, gets a rise out of me like when the hockey goalie skates off the ice with a minute or so to go, his team down a goal, leaving an open net.

In championship soccer, tie games go to a shoot-out, which is totally alien with all that came before. Neat stuff.

In football, the team ahead suddenly goes into a prevent defense –– or "PREE-vent DEE-fense," as we pigskinners say –– even though playing an entirely different way the rest of the game is why it got ahead in the first place.

In baseball, the strategy may not change, but the personnel does. All kinds of new pitchers and pinch-hitters appear.

These sorts of climactic upheavals all have the potential to make the ends of games much more exciting. But, oh my ... then there's basketball.

Basketball has just never been able to figure out how to make its ending better than what came before. That's because everything grinds to a halt as the team behind fouls intentionally to get the ball. And sometimes now, the team ahead fouls intentionally, too, so that the team behind has to shoot a foul or two instead of trying for a three-point field goal.

It's not a sport; it's like watching plea-bargaining.

It's also all something of a sham, because most of the fouls are intentional, which should call for additional penalties, but everybody pretends that they're not. Even Referee magazine, which is to officiating what the IRS is to taxes, admits it's a fraud.

The end of the game "has become a Kabuki dance," says Referee, "in which even though everyone knows what's going on, the officials pretend that they don't." The officials don't officiate!

Basketball has never come up with a better answer, so the team ahead dribbles all around, boring us, wasting time — while the team behind chases the dribbler, looking for a chance to mug him, accidentally on purpose.

There are always proposals about how to discourage fouling and make the end of the game honest, but nobody ever seems to want to try anything new. So, I guess basketball will keep on pretending.

After all, fouling gives the team behind a chance, and gives the coach the image of a "never-say-die" guy. And above all, while aesthetically the climax of a basketball game is ugly, it does allow for hope. There is no cliché any sports announcer likes better than: "Now don't go away, folks. This game isn't over yet."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Commentator Frank Deford is watching the NCAA college basketball tournament, even though he says basketball is the one sport that has not figured out the way to make a game end.

FRANK DEFORD, BYLINE: One thing that distinguishes most team sports is that the game is suddenly played differently at the end. Often, this adds to the fascination, too. Nothing, for example, gets a rise out of me like when the hockey goalie skates off the ice with a minute or so to go, his team down a goal, leaving an open net.

In championship soccer games there's a shootout, which is totally alien with all that came before - neat stuff. In football, the team ahead suddenly goes into a prevent defense or pree-vent(ph) dee-fense(ph) , as we pig skinners say, even though playing an entirely different way the rest of the game is why it got ahead in the first place. In baseball, the strategy may not change, but the personnel does. All kinds of new pitchers and pinch-hitters appear.

These sorts of climactic upheavals all have the potential to make the ends of games much more exciting. But, oh my, then there's basketball. Basketball has just never been able to figure out how to make its ending better than what came before. That's because everything grinds to a halt as the team behind fouls intentionally to get the ball.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)

DEFORD: And sometimes now the team ahead fouls intentionally, too, so that the team behind has to shoot a foul or two instead of trying for a three-point field goal. It's not a sport. It's like watching plea-bargaining.

It's also all something of a sham because most of the fouls are intentional, which should call for additional penalties - but everybody pretends that they're not. Even Referee magazine, which is to officiating what the IRS is to taxes, admits it's a fraud. The end of the game has become a Kabuki dance, says Referee, in which even though everyone knows what's going on, the officials pretend that they don't. The officials don't officiate.

Basketball has never come up with a better answer, so the team ahead dribbles all around, boring us, wasting time, while the team behind chases the dribbler, looking for a chance to mug him, accidentally on purpose.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)

DEFORD: There are always proposals about how to discourage fouling and make the end of the game honest, but nobody ever even seems to want to try anything new. So, I guess, basketball will just keep on pretending. After all, fouling gives the team behind a chance and gives the coach the image of a never-say-die guy.

And above all, while aesthetically the climax of a basketball game is ugly, it does allow for hope. There is no cliche any sports announcer likes better than: Now don't go away, folks. This game isn't over yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)

INSKEEP: Frank Deford joins us each Wednesday.

Now, last night's tournament games included a dramatic finish. Western Kentucky came from 16 points down in the final five minutes to win over Mississippi Valley State 59-58. Some of the attention, though, was on people in the stands: President Obama and a guest overseas.

PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: I'm enjoying it. It's fast. It's pretty fast and furious. It's hard to follow sometimes exactly who's done what wrong.

INSKEEP: British Prime Minister David Cameron is a fan of tennis and cricket, but this was his first time at a basketball game.

CAMERON: He's giving me suggestions. He's going to help me fill out my bracket. So...

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: He's going to teach me cricket.

INSKEEP: And while they're working on that, let's go to England. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.