February 27, 2004 -- FOLLOWING a game in New Jersey at last season's Finals, The Mysterious J. was introduced to Jack Nies. "I never heard of him," she said later, taking me by surprise. After all, Nies and Dick Bavetta, at 66, are the NBA's oldest active referees.
"He must be one of the better ones," The Mysterious One remarked.
I thought so, too. Until Wednesday night, anyway, which only goes to show we all make mistakes. Unfortunately, some are conspicuously more harmful than others.
With less than a half-minute remaining Wednesday, Nuggets up two and in possession following an offensive rebound by Carmelo Anthony, Nies teamed up with Jess (Larry Johnson's court-appointed guardian angel) Kersey and Michael Henderson to lavish the Lakers with a chance to confiscate an undeserved victory at the Soda Machine, er, Pepsi Center.
Naturally, L.A. capitalized, 112-111, relying at crunch time as always, on Luke Walton's cunning penetration/pristine passing and the outpost accuracy of Kareem Rush.
Otherwise, the whistling-while-they-foul-up crew would only be receiving a glossed-over dishonorable mention on the east coast and a covert fine by boss man, Stu Jackson.
Instead, the wrong team won, which was undeniable to one and all . . . minus three. The refs maintain their lapse in judgment was "consensual."
Instead of simply admitting Henderson's inadvertent tweet was an honest mistake (there had been no 24-second violation; Andre Miller's corner jumper drew iron) and giving the ball back to the Nuggets, the motley crew decided a jump ball (Shaq was allowed to steal it) was the appropriate course of action; Jackson concurs, which as usual makes no sense whatsoever.
Instead, the reverberations, repercussions (the 32-27 Nuggets now have dropped six of ten in their battle with the on-rushing 29-28 Blazers for the West's eighth playoff spot) and treacherous current of unrest are massive.
Yesterday's public disclosure by Jackson that at least one ref screwed up cannot diminish the damage to the declining reputation of the officiating corps. As a whole, their competence has never been more under attack on a daily basis. Over the last 35 years, I cannot recall so many abrasive complaints by executives, coaches and players. And it's not as if the frequent fines (minnow bites compared to what these people bank) by the league office are about to silence the across-the-board outcry.
OK, so Jackson uncharacteristically confessed an injustice occurred. Good for him! For the good of the league and its credibility, it was a righteous message that needed to be made. Now, what? What benefit do the Nuggets gain from that acknowledgment?
OK, Jeff Bzdelik and Marcus Camby probably won't get well-earned suspensions for their uncivilized post-game behavior. That would be big, definitely a step in the right direction.
Still, should Denver get eliminated from the playoffs by a single game, how does the league intend to appease the Nuggets and their fans? What's David Stern's game-plan? How 'bout replaying the final 27 seconds or so from the point of blunder? How 'bout a do-over from scratch? You've heard of a make-up call? How 'bout a make-up game? Just don't tell us which one.
Better yet, how 'bout weeding out at least one-third of the ineptitude by returning to a two-ref system? It worked for me. One less decision-maker. One less guy to get in the way on an already overcrowded surface. One less busy body to infringe on a partner's territory — which too often leads to late calls, no calls or out-of-position calls. In other words, one less inflated ego to deal with and muck things up.
Better yet, how 'bout eradicating refs altogether? Let players call their own fouls? They can't do any worse. There can't be more confusion or hostility.
"You know the refs are going to hurt you at some point during the game, maybe even over a long stretch," a Midwest Division team president groaned to me over the phone. "The most you can hope for is they don't decide the game. But, if you watch the game at all, you know those expectations stopped being realistic long before last night."
As long as we're evaluating right and wrong, Kobe Bryant can only hope all future forays into Colorado are adjudicated with the same minimal attention to detail.