Calling Foul: In Basketball, Crunch Time Goes Limp

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One thing that distinguishes most team sports is that the game is suddenly played differently at the end. Often, this adds to the fascination, too. Nothing, for example, gets a rise out of me like when the hockey goalie skates off the ice with a minute or so to go, his team down a goal, leaving an open net.

In championship soccer, tie games go to a shoot-out, which is totally alien with all that came before. Neat stuff.

In football, the team ahead suddenly goes into a prevent defense –– or "PREE-vent DEE-fense," as we pigskinners say –– even though playing an entirely different way the rest of the game is why it got ahead in the first place.

In baseball, the strategy may not change, but the personnel does. All kinds of new pitchers and pinch-hitters appear.

These sorts of climactic upheavals all have the potential to make the ends of games much more exciting. But, oh my ... then there's basketball.

Basketball has just never been able to figure out how to make its ending better than what came before. That's because everything grinds to a halt as the team behind fouls intentionally to get the ball. And sometimes now, the team ahead fouls intentionally, too, so that the team behind has to shoot a foul or two instead of trying for a three-point field goal.

It's not a sport; it's like watching plea-bargaining.

It's also all something of a sham, because most of the fouls are intentional, which should call for additional penalties, but everybody pretends that they're not. Even Referee magazine, which is to officiating what the IRS is to taxes, admits it's a fraud.

The end of the game "has become a Kabuki dance," says Referee, "in which even though everyone knows what's going on, the officials pretend that they don't." The officials don't officiate!

Basketball has never come up with a better answer, so the team ahead dribbles all around, boring us, wasting time — while the team behind chases the dribbler, looking for a chance to mug him, accidentally on purpose.

There are always proposals about how to discourage fouling and make the end of the game honest, but nobody ever seems to want to try anything new. So, I guess basketball will keep on pretending.

After all, fouling gives the team behind a chance, and gives the coach the image of a "never-say-die" guy. And above all, while aesthetically the climax of a basketball game is ugly, it does allow for hope. There is no cliché any sports announcer likes better than: "Now don't go away, folks. This game isn't over yet."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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