Thursday, May 29, 2008

Nobody Likes a Sore Loser

At the end of Tuesday night's Western Conference final game 4, Brent Barry attempted a 3-point shot that would have given his San Antonio Spurs the victory and tied the series 2-2. Barry missed badly, but not before he appeared to have been fouled by Los Angeles Lakers guard Derek Fisher. Under the NBA's "continuation" rule, Barry would have been awarded three free throws with no time on the clock, and Barry, an excellent free throw shooter, could well have won the game right there. To make matters worse, the referee who did not call a foul was Joey Crawford, who has had a stormy relationship with the Spurs---most famously calling a technical foul on Spurs All-Star Tim Duncan for laughing while seated on the bench.

Yet to their great credit, the Spurs have not complained about the non-call. To be sure, their case would not be especially strong. For one thing, it's not entirely clear that Fisher fouled Barry. Barry pump-faked, Fisher jumped, but then Barry dribbled once to put himself in Fisher's path. Perhaps Adrian Dantley or Reggie Miller might have gotten that call on the defensive player, but under the rules as written and as they are often interpreted, no call, or even an offensive foul on Barry, might have been the right response from the referee. Even the NBA, which, after reviewing the video after the game said a foul should have been called on Fisher, said it should have been a non-shooting foul. And the refs blew a call---failing to reset the 24-second clock---in favor of the Spurs on the previous play.

Nonetheless, by uniformly refusing to blame the refs, the Spurs have shown a great deal of class. (Some might say atypically so: Bruce Bowen regularly punches and otherwise takes cheap shots at players he's defending; Manu Ginobli acts as though he has been shot in the abdomen if a defensive player gets to close to him; and Tim Duncan stares in disbelief whenever a foul is called against him.) And this brings me to the law. (You thought I was going to tie this to Hillary Clinton, didn't you. Ha!)

The widespread admiration the Spurs have earned for their refusal to blame the refs reflects a politically conservative sentiment: People should take responsibility for their own misfortunes rather than ascribe responsibility to external factors. One sees this principle at work in the movement that ended welfare (AFDC) and the movement away from explaining criminal behavior in terms of social factors. One also sees a closely related principle in conservatives' hostility towards tort plaintiffs, even though people who suffer injuries as a result of others' negligence or misconduct are not, as a class, responsible for their misfortune at all. Nonetheless, the same basic principle applies and goes something like this: "Life's unfair. Suck it up. Stop whining."

Whatever one thinks of this principle in these policy domains, the fact that nobody likes a sore loser shows that, in some contexts, it has considerable appeal.

Posted by Mike Dorf


Jamison Colburn said...

It was SO clearly a foul (don't tell me that, in the absence of the Knicks, you've taken to the Lakers!!!) -- but not a foul while Barry was shooting. I don't remember if SA was in the bonus or not. But if so, he should've gotten two shots.

Michael C. Dorf said...

I have no rooting interest at this point, given that all the remaining teams except the Celtics have won recent championships, and it's not as if Boston fans have been starved for winning teams lately (or Celtics fans over the long haul). I was backing the Hornets but now that they're out I'm just calling it as I see it as a fan of the game.

Jamison Colburn said...

Balls and strikes . . . ;)

Won Joon said...

Dear Prof. Dorf,

While I am an admirer of your work in constitutional law, I am forced to conclude that your *basketball punditry* proves yet again that Stanley Fish was right to remind us (esp. undisciplined legal academics!) that "Being Interdisciplinary is So Very Hard to Do." (But then the culpability is less here, because getting a foul call wrong is of less momentous consequence than, say, misreading the philosophical [or to employ the terminology oh so current "ideological"] origin of the American founding--or imagining that a vigorous, nay, tyrannical conception of executive power is alien to liberalism, and found only in fascists like Schmitt).

Nonetheless, two things:

1. The play was so transparently and unambiguously a foul. That the NBA, an organization notoriously lacking in public self-introspection, took the rare step of acknowledging it says volumes.

But what is truly stunning is that you not merely question whether it was indeed a foul; you actually claim that it may have been an offensive foul!

2. You then claim that "Under the NBA's 'continuation' rule, Barry would have been awarded three free throws."

But where is the "continuation" here? Continuation rule applies only to the layup, not a three point-shot.

Of course, I ought to be remiss if I did not conclude that I agree with your main point: Ms. Rodham is a whiner of Brobdingian proportions, and that fact does not quite endear her to the electorate.

Won Joon said...

"The continuation rule" and not "continuation rule."

Also "Brobdingnagian," not "Brobdingian."

I apologize; I am not a native English speaker, and I tend to make too many grammatical and spelling mistakes when I write too quickly.

Neal said...

I have to partially agree with won joon re: continuation. I think what professor Dorf meant was that he was fouled during a shot, and that would warrant three free throws. I disagree with Prof. Dorf (assuming I captured his argument properly) that it was during the act of shooting.

Barry head faked, was fouled, then put the ball on the floor before attempting a shot.

Won Joon said...


My interpretation of what Prof. Dorf said squares with your interpretation. But Prof. Dorf does not seem to know that taking a dribble negates the "act of shooting," unless the dribble leads to a layup.

Michael C. Dorf said...

1) Nothing in the official NBA rules says that the "continuation rule" only applies to layups. The rules do not even use the term "continuation" rule, but instead refer to "act of shooting," which was obviously what I meant. And won joon you are wrong anyway: For example, a player who is fouled in the act of shooting while attempting a half-court shot would benefit from what is conventionally called the continuation rule even though he is not taking a layup. The notion of the continuation rule differentiates college and international ball from the NBA, which awards act-of-shooting status to fouls committed before college or international refs would deem the offensive player to have begun his motion.

2) I did not say that "no foul" or an offensive foul was the right call. I only said that neither was obviously the wrong call.
According to the NBA Rules: "A defensive player is not permitted to move into the path of an offensive player once he has started his shooting motion." My point was that by taking his dribble after pump-faking, Barry might not be able to claim that he had started his shooting motion when Fisher moved into his path. So yes, as written, the rule could even justify an offensive foul call. But all I was saying was that Barry wasn't obviously entitled to free throws. In the end I agree that a non-shooting foul should have been called (i.e. 2 shots for Barry since the Lakers were in the penalty). That's why it showed class for the Spurs not to protest.

3) I bow to no other law nerd in my knowledge of basketball, obtained by countless hours wasted watching and playing the game.

Neal said...

won joon,

I would give Prof. Dorf the benefit of the doubt on his basketball knowledge. You do know that his jersey number 12(b)(6) is retired in the very prestigious CLS DC Hall of Fame?

Mortimer Brezny said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neil H. Buchanan said...

Mike is right about the continuation notion, which is applied in the NBA in a way that seems absurd but is at least consistent.

What makes this situation especially frustrating is that the Spurs' willingness to "suck it up" is based on a different ridiculous "unwritten rule": the rules are different at the end of the game. Barry even said that he didn't expect to get that call AT THE END OF THE GAME. This is ridiculous because it really means that a team playing defense at the end of the game with a lead of 3 points or less cannot lose if they are willing to do what's necessary to disrupt a shot. "Letting the players decide the outcome" really means letting anything happen, including illegal plays, and not calling them what they are.

Tam Ho said...

MB: Sports metaphors or not, I don't think anyone would agree with your characterization of Prof. Dorf, but I'm glad we can all agree that you are a dick, no matter what you do.

Won Joon said...

Dear Prof Dorf,

I am actually surprised—indeed, shocked!—that you actually respond to anonymous online commenters on your Blog. It is refreshing and unusual that a first rate scholar would do so: I certainly have not seen it either from Prof. Balkin and Judge Posner—the only legal scholars whose Blogs I occasionally read. Perhaps more germane, had I been aware that you sometimes engage your readers, I would have been more rhetorically circumspect. Forgive me, then, if my initial response betrayed a typical drive-by tendencies of online commentary.

In retrospect, I think I was guilty of committing the error that Strauss accused of second-rate readers: Reading only the beginning part carefully and the rest casually. So I fixated on your first paragraph:

“Under the NBA’s ‘continuation’ rule, Barry would have been awarded three free throws with no time on the clock.”

That is, I failed to notice your next paragraph, where you acknowledge that “Barry pump-faked, Fisher jumped, but then Barry *dribbled* once to put himself in Fisher’s path,” and that “under the rules as written and as they are often interpreted,” there was no foul.

To me, the fact that Barry dribbled was the controlling fact or context, and that’s why I said there was no “continuation.” That is, I, too, of course recognize that there could be a “continuation” foul even when there is no layup involved. But the dribble that Barry took negates the “continuation,” and the only time a dribble would not negate the “continuation” would be if the dribble resulted in a layup—not a jumper. Moreover, from what I understand, no NBA precise NBA rules text governing this dribble, bump, shot scenario actually exists. (As every serious philosopher since Plato’s Eleatic Stranger have noted, the laws are immeasurably inferior to the phronesis of the wise man, because, among other things, it cannot anticipate all circumstances—or in the more colorful phrase of Machiavelli, all necessities.). Instead, how the “continuation” rule applies to the said scenario is essentially an NBA version of common law that has been developed over time by officials.

Having said all this, it appears to me that the relationship of your original first and second paragraphs is not all too clear and even self-contradictory, though I concede that the fault may be mine, as I am ever mindful that English is really my third language. (I am also mindful that it is not always possible to write online Blogs with the same care that we would devote to our published works.) To be more specific, what is the precise difference between what you call “under the NBA’s ‘continuation’ rule” in the first paragraph v. “under rules as written and as they are often interpreted” in the second paragraph?


Won Joon

Won Joon said...


I recognize that the following post of yours was in (at least half-) jest:

“I would give Prof. Dorf the benefit of the doubt on his basketball knowledge. You do know that his jersey number 12(b)(6) is retired in the very prestigious CLS DC Hall of Fame?”

Nonetheless, I feel compelled to respond, in the admittedly not-likely chance that I become a regular poster here, and I end up challenging the esteemed Professor not on ancillary matters like basketball but matters incontrovertibly pertaining to his expertise.

Yes, “authority” ought to be respected and given at least the benefit of doubt initially or provisionally; nonetheless, my ultimate stance toward all authorities is, to borrow, one of Machiavelli’s favorite phrases, sanza alcuna respetto—“without any respect.” Indeed, the greatest authorities themselves show no respect for authorities—including their own authority. Socrates began testing the authority of all those conventionally deemed wise not only because he questioned the authority of the conventionally wise, but also because he distrusted the authority of Apollo himself—in particular Apollo’s claim that Socrates himself was the wisest men alive (Socrates, contrary to today’s facile liberals or advocates of “open society” was incontestably guilty of impiety and deserved death). Confucius even deferred to the greater capacities of his greatest students—just as Leo Strauss in our time famously said a teacher ought to teach as if there was a silent student who was greater than the teacher himself.

Of course, conventional authorities are not without their value: After all, the approbation of the crowd is a better sign than the solitary, self-absorbed ravings of a lunatic that he thinks he is a knower. I hope I can demonstrate someday that I am not a lunatic.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Interesting comments all, and I encourage more, but now I must post again in my regular mode as prissy twit.

Hamilton said...

The real reason the Spurs aren't complaining is that they realize Barry made a fatal mistake. If he'd simply thrown himself backwards from Fisher as if he'd touched the electric fence in Jurassic Park and lain crumpled on the ground for a while, he surely could have gotten a foul call. If only Manu Ginobili had received that fateful pass...

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