This is a strange time of the sports year, particularly if you are interested in the rules and regulations that supposedly govern our games. Kerry Fraser is pilloried for calling a penalty during a Stanley Cup overtime period, Michael Jordan is lauded for supreme greatness and accused of palming the ball and Kentucky's first step toward opening a new page in its basketball history includes hiring a coach who will reportedly make $5 million in seven years while returning the Wildcats to the top of the college hoop ladder, supposedly without any indiscretions.
Fraser, you will recall, had the temerity to assess a two-minute boarding penalty against the Calgary Flames deep in the second extra period of Game 3 in the Stanley Cup final. Everybody knows that the referee is not supposed to penalize anybody during overtime; if absolute mayhem requires some measure of law enforcement, the conventional wisdom says "send one from each team to the box" and let well enough alone.Indeed, such is hockey lore that we all accept the nostrum, "let players decide the game" in the third period or overtime. What nobody ever says is, "let the players decide the game within the rules." The tacit understanding is that close hockey games require the officials to ignore transgressions for fear of upsetting the competitive balance. Such nonsense makes hockey the worst officiated of all major sports. That condition isn't helped when Fraser, one of the game's best arbiters, is routinely criticized for doing his job.
Jordan's performance for the Chicago Bulls during this year's NBA playoffs was nothing short of remarkable. It has led, inevitably, to questions about his place among the game's all-time greats. That, also inevitably, seems to involve a comparison of not only the player, but also the rules of his sport.
Jordan, it seems, shoots better than Jerry West, jumps higher than anyone who has ever played and is capable of a kind of leadership that earns favorable comparisons with Bill Russell. However, we also keep hearing that Jordan can achieve these things not only because he is bigger and quicker than some former stars, but also because he doesn't have to play by the rules.
"Jordan turns the ball over," Walt Frazier was saying on one of those endless talk shows. "NBA players take three or four steps all the time," Bud Palmer offered on another. Two fine former players, each of whom made a significant contribution to the sport, couldn't give unqualified support to today's excellent athletes; that the rules have been stretched to accommodate their special skills stood out too clearly.
The Kentucky situation is testimony to another type of willing suspension of disbelief. Here is a school with a legendary reputation fornce, but one that has been hauled up before the NCAA more than once. Apparently happy to escape the suspension of its hoop program altogether, how does Kentucky go about demonstrating its intention to rejoin the ranks of law-abiding colleges? By dangling huge money in front of a succession of coaches, then finally luring Rick Pitino away from the New York Knicks to Lexington.
Pitino, whose self-proclaimed integrity was a feature of an introductory news conference in the Bluegrass State, may very well be the man to bring a fresh, honest wind to Kentucky basketball. Yet how does one look at that mammoth contract and believe that Kentucky hoops aren't wildly out of proportion? If Pitino can keep the boosters out of the locker room, yet maintain the high profile of a UK basketball coach, he'll be a miracle worker. It is the fans and the hype, after all, that helped blow things beyond control to begin with.
We all know, however, that few want anything changed. Hockey coaches and players seem to prefer their own law of the jungle to tight officiating in close games; the NBA's style of rule interpretation almost makes the game unrecognizable as basketball; and one suspects that everything at Kentucky will be just fine as long as Pitino posts enough victories to make that huge income look well-earned.
As a society, we not only ignore the rules, it sometimes seems that we have forgotten them; winning makes up for any little deviations along the path to success.
Of the three cases, one admires Fraser for doing what he knew was correct in a situation where he was certain to be castigated, but realized the futility of his gesture. We're amazed by Jordan and simply agree that the modern player operates at a different level and needs a different interpretation of rules made long ago. And we can't help but think that Kentucky exemplifies much of modern college athletics. Don't blame Rick Pitino for being wooed by the big bucks; instead ask how the president of any major university can allow such a situation to exist.
Maybe this isn't a strange time, after all. Business as usual is more like it.