Eliminate the charge, save the game

by Jeff Laughlin

Iwas in middle school the first time I heard a coach tell me to take a dive. Of course, he did not frame it that way. Instead, he called it “drawing a charge.” I was a guard, pre-growth spurt, and until that point I had been told that I should stay out of the paint. Big men controlled that area. That’s where moves were calculated, slow and painfully physical. Lowered shoulders, then, were not cardinal sins.

I left organized basketball shortly after that season, having never understood nor mastered falling down. I thought my coach was crazy. Years later I still do.

In the late ’90s, I started watching more televised ball. I had long quit the sport, but I became so enraptured that I started little traditions: taking off of work to see the opening night of the NBA. Sitting alone in bars to see the Celtics-Lakers games.

Basically disappearing altogether for the ACC tournament.

But nothing compared to my ritualistic viewing of the NCAA Tournament. Each year in March, I bought four days worth of pizza and fried chicken. I wrote down every complete thought I had on each team, having already predicted their fate, as they played. Unpaid and barely read, I liveblogged a majority of the games.

For one wonderful weekend a year, I stare at the television entranced yet fully available — affording no energy but to the only sport that made sense to me.

Now, the sport makes less sense than ever.

I love the tournament, but there comes a time when everyone starts pining for the old days. I try not to succumb to that. I do not want to name the greats, bore casual fans with tales from the past or discuss how refs and coaches control the game more than ever before. Moreso, I do not want to admit what plagues me.

This year’s tournament delivered a promised spectacle, but did so at the behest of a true problem: basketball creativity has been stultified.

I should have already known this. Lower scoring should have tipped me off. Even this season, though, the egregious amount of fouls being committed—whether called or not—surprised me. The collection of crumpled bodies in the paint shocked me. In all of the excitement and pageantry, the low-scoring, high-fouling and slow-moving basketball overshadowed my favorite weekend of the year. To solve the scoring dilemma, the NCAA governing body must set an example for all levels, including the professionals.

Basketball must rid itself of the charge. Eliminating the toughest call in the game would increase offensive output exponentially, eliminate the officials’ control of point production and increase player safety.

Despite my middle school coach’s mentality, playing defense does not mean falling down. Players no longer contend to block shots or battle for position. They just fly backwards onto the ground, often with a dramatized shriek of pain. Then they look to the referee for verification that they have sufficiently acted as though they were fouled.

Depending on an arbitrary idea of a rule written and re-written over decades of basketball, a referee must apply his vast knowledge of said rule in microseconds. Can fans expect those refs to make the correct call so quickly? Without a replay official, which would unnecessarily restrict the flow of the game, the men on the floor cannot be expected to make the right calls. Take that call away from them and they cannot make a mistake.

Furthermore, despicable flops would be eliminated. Masterful acting left to those on stage, teams could practice defense instead of laying on the ground in fake agony. Participants could rely on offensive prowess instead of free throws.

Most importantly, the game’s creativity would return. Driving the lane should not be an art form; it should be a normal consequence of speed and space detection. Having to worry about players undercutting each other, last-second slide-overs or tiny guards waiting near the basket with no intent on altering shots denies offenses of their right to create space, use speed and hit shots.

Contact in motion creates the beauty of sport. While not as violent as football or hockey, basketball uses the perfect amount of motion-precision and violent action. The charge besets the beauty of the game. Defending the basket should involve calculated awareness of where a shot comes from, not running in the way of a shooter. Defense is altering a shot, not screaming for attention.

I miss scoring. I miss layups that count. I miss talented players getting to the rim and finishing a play they create without fear. I miss basketball.

I wish I had the courage to tell my coach he was wrong. Call it what you will, taking a dive belies the true intentions of basketball. Unless someone outside of the game stands up, falling down will continue to harm the best weekend in sports.