Get A T.O., Baby?
That's one of the big reasons the NBA likes to boast that its game is "fantastic."
That's how you feel if your team manages its timeouts well and wins the game.
If your timeouts don't go well, you feel just the opposite of fantastic, which is a few notches short of suicide.
If you don't believe that, just ask Isiah Thomas—or Mark Cuban.
The Isiah Thomas timeout fiasco during Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals (what is it about Game 5?) is part of NBA lore. With only ticks left on the clock, the Detroit Pistons had a one point lead in Boston Garden and faced inbounding the ball under their own basket.
An antsy Thomas signaled to official Jess Kersey that he wanted the ball to throw it in.
"Don't you want a timeout?" Kersey asked.
"Gimme the f**kin' ball," Thomas demanded.
Kersey gave him the ball, and Thomas made the inbounds pass that was famously stolen by Larry Bird, who then famously whipped it to teammate Dennis Johnson, who then famously scored a layup to give the Celtics a one-point lead with only a second or two to go.
The crowd went nuts. Boston Garden may have never been louder.
With the ball in his hands, Kersey then walked up a crestfallen Thomas and asked, "NOW do you want a timeout?"
Mark Cuban, of course, is the Mr. Moneybags Owner who has revived the Dallas Mavericks franchise. A former fan, Cuban likes to sit right behind his team during games and fuss about the refs. Cuban even jumps into huddles during timeouts to hear coach Avery Johnson's latest strategy and check on his team.
The only NBA owner who has ever been closer to his team during games was the late Les Harrison of the Rochester Royals. The only way that the irascible Harrison was closer was that he actually coached the team. Harrison, too, was the kind of guy who couldn't help but get into it with the refs.
And like Cuban, Harrison was not above using strange tactics to improve his team's fortunes. When the Royals struggled during the 1951 season, Harrison told me he took the team to a roadhouse and paid for his players to get uproariously drunk. He figured that would help them exorcise the demons and start playing the right way. Sure enough, the Royals made it all the way to the league chapionship series that year (George Mikan of the Minneapolis Lakers was injured) and actually won the thing despite Harrison's fussing with the officials.
Well, I don't believe Mark Cuban has taken his team out and gotten the guys drunk this season, but the Dallas owner is well known for bestowing every sort of gift and amenity on his players. Maybe that's why they don't complain when he pokes his nose in the huddle.
However, never mind his success in reversing the Mavs' fortunes. A lot of people in the NBA don't like Mark Cuban. They don't like the bully pulpit of his blog and the tactics he uses to try to influence officiating. Mark Cuban is the ultimate super fan, with a billion dollars or two in his pocket and a love for the sound of his own voice. Does NBA Commissioner David Stern dislike Cuban? He says not, although in the past he has levied huge fines on the owner for complaining about referees and officiating and other things about the NBA.
Do the officials dislike Cuban? Well, nobody's ever done a poll of the guys in the gray shirts, but at times like this you have to wonder.
After he made a hard foul on Heat center Shaquille O'Neal, the NBA decided to suspend Mavs' star sixth man Jerry Stackhouse for Game 5, leading to furious protests from both Avery Johnson and Cuban.
In the stands for the pivotal game in this Finals series was Cuban, wearing a Stackhouse jersey, and seemingly fussing about every single call the officials made.
The game, just like Game 3 in this classic series, came down to a "fantastic" finish.
The Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki scored with 9.1 seconds in overtime to give Dallas a 100-99 lead. Then Miami's Dwyane Wade went to work, as he has all series. He was fouled (Cuban complained bitterly that he was not fouled, that he actually committed a backcourt violation before the final sequence) and went to the line to make both free throws with 1.9 seconds to go.
The standard play in pro basketball is for the team that is behind to take a timeout so that it can advance the ball to halfcourt, which allows for one final good shot if execution goes well.
However, official Joe DeRosa signaled the final Dallas timeout after the first free throw, which meant that the Mavericks would not be able to advance the ball to halfcourt, which in turn meant that they wouldn't get a last good shot. The timeout ignited a furious protest from the Mavs' bench, to no avail.
In fact, Cuban's team lost on a long heave by Devin Harris as time expired. Now, after having led the series two games to none, the Mavericks trail the Miami Heat, three games to two.
Immediately after that last heave came more loud protest from the Dallas bench. This timeout was a routine thing that officials negotiate hundreds, maybe thousands, of times during an NBA season, Johnson argued. Just as Kersey questioned Isiah's move in 1987, NBA officials have long consulted with players on game situations. As Johnson protested, this is a routine thing for officials.
But Joey Crawford, the crew chief for the officials, said that when young Maverick Josh Howard requested the timeout for the second time, DeRosa had no choice but to call the timeout.
Mavericks fans, and some observers, said it seemed like a very strange time for the officials suddenly to enforce the letter of the law after not having done so for years.
Johnson said his anger was also based on the fact that he believed Wade was not fouled by Nowitzki on the final drive. Johnson told reporters he signaled to Josh Howard to call a timeout after Wade’s second free throw.
“Pretty much most people who have ever been involved in the N.B.A. for 20, 30 years, we know we wouldn’t want one anyway,” Johnson said.
The referee crew chief, Crawford, said in a statement to a pool reporter: “Josh Howard goes to Joe DeRosa and not only once, but twice asks for a timeout. Forced to call it, simple as that.”
When time expired, Cuban ran onto the court and screamed at DeRosa. Next the Dallas owner went to the scorer's table and gave Stern a long, icy stare that said, "You guys just stole this." Cuban followed that up with more screaming and black looks as Stern and other league officials made their way out of the arena.
Boy, somebody better get a T.O. What kind of scenario does this set up for Game 6 back in Dallas? You have to wonder if Mark Cuban has ever considered being less of a spectacle, less of a lightning rod for the league's refs and officials.
Maybe he did get robbed. But now is probably the time where he goes to the Les Harrison playbook for super involved owners. Maybe he needs to take all his players to a roadhouse somewhere deep in the heart of Texas so they all can have a cold one and chill out a bit before Game 6.
Then again, maybe it's too late. Maybe Mark Cuban, for all the good he has done, has become his team's worst enemy.
Roland Lazenby is the author of The Show, The Inside Story of the Spectacular Los Angeles Lakers In The Words Of Those Who Lived It, recently released by McGraw-Hill on audiotape, and as a book. He has also written The NBA Finals, A 50 Year Celebration, among his other sports books.