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In Your Face!

Grey Matters

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We used to call them zebras, because they used to wear shirts with bold black stripes.

Now however it seems there is an explosion of colors in referee fashion. In some games they wear a bright yellow, reminiscent of emergency signals.

In some tournaments they wear orange, like life savers and lifeguards sometime do.

For the most part however, the modern basketball referee wears grey. Even in the ongoing UAAP Season 80 basketball tournament, it has been their uniform color of choice.

For those of you who've watched the post-season of Season 80 you already know where this is going.

It all began with the Final 4 match between reigning champion De La Salle and Adamson. That was a game won handily by the Green Archers 82-75, coming back from as many as 15 points.

And that is where things start to get interesting.

Franz Pumaren, head coach of the Soaring Falcons and a UAAP veteran, called it "the worst officiating" he had ever experienced in a few interviews after that game.

Considering there was a free throw disparity of 39-5 in favor of La Salle, it seems Pumaren wasn't merely going all sour grapes or whining. Let me repeat that: 39-5.

Now La Salle is a strong team, the reigning champion, and the consensus Number 1 seed going into this year's tournament. Surely they - of all teams - wouldn't need any help from the referees just to win a game. Right?

That sort of misses the point. The actual point is that glaring disparity in free throws. It was so glaring that even people who had nothing to do with either side took notice and had opinions about it.

"For the first time in three years, it was a first that aside from the losing team which you expect the complaint from, there are some sectors who checked what happened. So of course, I cannot be insensitive to the public cause at the end of the day, they are the audience. We have to address the outcry," said Commissioner and Executive Director Rebo Saguisag.

Saguisag, a lawyer, and son of former Senator Rene Saguisag, also suspended all three referees who worked this game. At least two of these referees were already singled out in previous controversies. That they were even calling a critical playoff game is beyond me.

Hardly had the sound and fury of this game died down when suddenly Game 1 of the Finals rolled around, and was done.

Both the league and ABS CBN had its dream match, with the Ateneo De Manila disposing of Far Eastern in their knockout Final 4 game in overtime to set up the title series with La Salle.

Leaning on the clutch baskets of center George Go in the last few seconds, the Blue Eagles went on to take Game 1 76-70.

Once again however, the referees were in the thick of the conversation.

Videos circulating all over the Internet, especially social media, showed at least four specific instances when La Salle players had committed clear violations while the referees inexplicably did not blow their whistles.

1. Ricci Rivero low-blowed Vince Tolentino after Tolentino had taken a free throw, with a closed fist.

2. Benoit Mbala hit a driving Thirdy Ravena in the face, with a closed fist. This time with Referee Number 59 right there at the baseline with a clear view of this bit of action.

3. Abu Tratter punched Raffy Verano in the side as Verano hit the deck to try and go after a loose ball.

4. Benoit Mbala, on a cut, snapped an elbow into Tolentino's chin as the latter went to cover the former.

5. Prince Rivero also had a closed fist throughout his attempts to get rebounds and box out.

It is one thing to try to get an advantage through tough / clever play, "kung ayaw mo masaktan, mag-chess ka na lang," as my good friend Wang-bu always says.

It is however quite another thing for an entire team to make it part and parcel of strategy and tactics to go out and deliberately hurt the opponents.

This might be an opportune time to remind the league that closed fists are such a huge no-no in this game that just brandishing them (such in a "fighting stance" as the FIBA rules say) could get a guy tossed from a game and even suspended.

"I'll do whatever it takes to win. But I won't go out there and deliberately injure a fellow player," explained former UP star Jett Manuel in one interview.

You'd think after the Ateneo had been given 29 free throws in the first half of this game that La Salle would tone it down, but no, the Green Archers just kept going.

"I've never in 35 years had a consultation with a referee at halftime. I thought it was reduntant. They were just saying what is obviously happening and what will obviously continue to happen," said Tab Baldwin, head coach of the Ateneo and a veteran international mentor.

"I thought it was telling that Mbala and Tratter played (54) minutes in the game and have eight fouls. Ikeh and George (Go) played 38 minutes and had nine fouls. We consider it a victory somehow," added Baldwin.

It really would make one think wouldn't it?

"Alam mo, kapag ganyang hindi tinatawag, kahit harap-harapan na, isa lang ibig sabihin niyan: AYAW talagang tawagan, haha!" declared Mr Libog over dinner that night after Game 1.

"Kaya bilang reporter, ang dapat mong ma-investigate is BAKIT AYAW na pumito nung referees nung second half," he added.

In any event, with the various videos now circulating, it looks like Game 2 will be placed under a microscope, because the Game 1 "oversights", should they be repeated, will likely result in what a lawyer-fan of the Ateneo termd a "tumutuous affray" come Wednesday.

Should the referees suddenly call every little ticky tack foul of course that would still be bad for the overall game experience, so somehow the right balance must be struck, meaning the dirty tricks are caught and called as they are, but without turning this into a tennis match where no contact at all happens.

And in that sort of game, who will be favored?

"If they call it think I think it will favor the Ateneo," Manuel said.

"Bilog ang bola, tignan natin kung ganun nga mangyayari at sino mas makaka-adjust," said Mr Libog.

The guys in grey will, ironically, wind up taking a lot of the spotlight away from the teams and the game.

See you tomorrow, folks.

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