Doin’ It NFL-Style: The Top 10 Worst Calls In Basketball History

The call/non-call/dual-call/what was that call? that ended Monday night’s NFL game in Seattle against Green Bay left everyone, to steal a line from the final decision, in simultaneous confusion. U.S. Senators have called for reviews, President Obama has weighed in and Tim Donaghy‘s cell phone has likely been blowing up all morning for journalists asking for his take on the whole thing.

It’s egregious, but it’s not exceptional. The replacements will be the storyline, not the NFL’s games, until the union referees end their lockout with the league. There is no doubt of this. And yet, will this game still be talked about in 40 years? Basketball has a call so bad in its history that 12 silver medals are still left at will call because of a dispute whose significance make Monday night’s affair look quaint. And that’s just one of the top 10 worst calls in basketball history. It may be inspired by the NFL’s hatchet job of its own integrity, but basketball has had its fair share of jaw-dropping decisions by referees, too.

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Game 4, 2008 Western Conference Finals, and the Spurs are down by two in the final seconds. Well behind the three-point line, Brent Barry gets Derek Fisher up in the air and gets the contact just before getting his shot off, but no one with a whistle actually confirms Fisher leaping into Barry. As one of the best free-throw shooters in the NBA, Barry would have had a very good chance at putting the Spurs ahead by one with three shots. This was bad enough for the NBA to post a retraction later, though it didn’t change the outcome of the game. The Lakers went up 2-0 and went on to win the series 4-1.

Joey Crawford, I swear I’m not picking on you, but you show up in here several times. All are notable, but this one involves his direct action, when he physically runs through Miami’s Damon Jones in the ’05 Eastern Conference Finals. You can’t give a referee a foul, though, so Chauncey Billups gets the personal foul. If you thought Crawford’s speed getting to the play was impressive, his startlingly wrong call is even more so.

Grandmama LJ hit a huge three for the Knicks with a hand in his face — not an arm in his side. “Four” of four-point play is a four-letter word in Indianapolis still after the call that cost the Pacers Game 3 of the 1999 Eastern Conference Finals. Antonio Davis got called for the phantom foul where he was standing straight up. Maybe, just maybe, it could have been blamed on Davis’ arm passing through the slack of LJ’s trademark loose-fitting jersey. It’s the only way I can justify the call, anyway, and it’s not a very good reason.

Don’t Donnie Walsh‘s comments sound familiar to Packers coach Mike McCarthy‘s after Monday’s loss? I especially love the mention of referee Jess Kersey’s look at Larry Bird.

“I don’t know if it was the right call, I’ve just never seen a call like that,” Pacers general manager Donnie Walsh said.

With New York trailing 91-88, Johnson took an inbounds pass with 11.9 seconds left and held the ball outside the 3-point circle. Moving to his left, he was fouled by Antonio Davis and released the shot.

“If I did foul him, I thought I fouled him early,” Davis said.

Although it appeared the whistle blew about a half-second before Johnson released, referee Jess Kersey counted it — looking Indiana coach Larry Bird right in the eye as he thrust both hands in the air to signal a made 3-pointer.

“His arm continued up in a motion to take a shot at the basket, and that is a continuation play,” Kersey explained.

Crawford will make yet another appearance here — one even more blatantly wrong, if you can believe it — but this phantom foul on Marcus Camby 12 feet from Steve Nash in the 2010 NBA Playoffs deserves its own meditation. There’s a minuscule chance that Crawford is actually our first artist-referee and, like Picasso, sees possibilities where no one else does. It’s more likely, however, that he blew the whistle out of instinct and couldn’t own up that he whistled inadvertently.

Would 2012 be the year of the 16-over-1 seed upset in the NCAA Tournament? No, because a call not six feet in front of a referee last March was ruled to have gone off a UNC Asheville player, not Syracuse’s Brandon Triche (Hint: It went off Triche). If the call was made correctly, Asheville would have had a chance to tie only down three with 37 seconds left. Forgotten in the 16-over-1 significance is the realization that this win would have finally given Asheville a distinction other than being the place that signed 7-8 behemoth Kenny George.

The referees’ handling of this Big East Tournament game in 2011 didn’t just fail the smell test, it reeked. There’s time on the clock, there’s a player out of bounds, there’s a ball in the air, and yet the refs were like, we’re good. The closest parallel I could draw is when you’ve got your friend beat at the end of a video game, with seconds to go, only to have them turn off the system to void the win.

The Knicks are down one with 7.6 seconds left, when Hubert Davis got “fouled” by Scottie Pippen. As if life without Michael Jordan was hard enough for Pippen, he wasn’t getting the calls MJ would have, either. Everyone in Chicago seemingly appealed to referee Hue Hollins, but Davis would win Game 5 of the 1994 Eastern Conference semis with his two free throws. In fact, Scottie hit air on this.

The Knicks lost Game 6, but took Game 7 before making it to the Finals, where Houston won. Michael Jordan would soon return to Chicago, and all would be righted again in Chicagoland when it came to beating the Knicks.

It’s likely the NFL has given the replacement referees this season a strict directive not to respond in the slightest degree to the flood of hatred they are receiving from fans, coaches and players. Being publicly thin-skinned is the one thing we cannot pin on these referees. It’s not the same for Joey Crawford, for giving a technical and ejecting Tim Duncan in 2007. It was so blatant, so bizarre, that even if it didn’t cost the Spurs the game it still cost Crawford the rest of his season as he was suspended indefinitely. It might not have gone that far if for the fact that Crawford, um, challenged 7-foot Duncan to a fight.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Do you want to fight? Do you want to fight?”‘ Duncan said. “If he wants to fight, we can fight. I don’t have any problem with him, but we can do it if he wants to. I have no reason why in the middle of a game he would yell at me, ‘Do you want to fight?'”

With Jordan’s status as an icon player untouchable, it feels like blasphemy to point out what everyone knows, even if it’s been said before: He pushed Bryon Russell out of the way to win the Bulls’ sixth NBA title. Just because he got away with the call didn’t automatically give him the bucket, of course, and that’s one reason why we’re all still in love with this play despite the non-call. Few besides Jordan could get the steal and then hit that shot to win the NBA Finals, period. His hold of the follow-through on the bucket is iconic; the coda it gave his career (or so we thought) was perfect.

Monday night in Seattle was frighteningly incompetent, but it didn’t cost a Super Bowl title. Jazz fans will go to their grave knowing this play epitomizes Jordan, in the best and worst ways.

1. 1972 OLYMPICS: USSR vs. U.S.
You know the tale: The USSR gets three tries to re-do the final three seconds of the ’72 Olympic gold-medal game after Doug Collins hit two free throws to put the U.S. ahead by one. A mysterious error by a clock operator is cited by FIBA’s president, R. Williams Jones, to give the team a do-over. The 40-year reunion of the United States team happened this summer in Lexington, Kentucky, and every man on the team is still adamant they were cheated.

It isn’t just that the 12 U.S. players won’t accept their silver medals and have unsuccessfully petitioned for gold medals several times. No, it took more than 20 years in some cases (Collins tells later of meeting with ’72 Russian player Sergei Belov in 1994) to even acknowledge the opponents.

Instead, Chris (Collins) absorbed the full meaning in a California gymnasium when, with Doug Collins coaching the NBA’s Chicago Bulls, father and son attended a summer-league basketball game in 1987.

Two players from the 1972 Soviet Union national team happened to be in attendance. They sent word through a third party that they’d like to speak with Doug.

Chris saw anger immediately fill his father.

“I have nothing to say to those guys,” Doug Collins said.

For the unabridged story of the biggest mistake in basketball history — making Monday night’s Clueless in Seattle episode look quaint — check out the videos below.

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