In Richard Deitch's latest SI media column, news has been broken that ESPN has finally made an innovative, interesting, and risky hire for their coverage of the NBA Finals. No, it's not a professional carnival barker or even a former or current player/coach. Instead, ESPN has hired Steve Javie, one of the most high-profile, controversial officials in recent memory as a pre and post-game analyst during the NBA Finals. While the move might seem minor to some, it's incredibly important for both the quality of ESPN's broadcast and the NBA's credibility.
Of course, the hiring of Javie is inspired by FOX's Mike Pereira, the former head of NFL officiating who has become one of the most important on-screen figures on any network in any sport. Pereira's unique perspective has allowed him to educate fans and announcers alike as he has guided viewers through replays and rules disputes. Seemingly, Javie would serve a similar role for ESPN to provide fans with an official's perspective on the most important calls during the NBA Finals.
For once, ESPN is making a solid decision to strengthen their tepid studio coverage of the NBA. Their decision to skip a traditional host to create their own dynamic chemistry ala Inside the NBA has been largely ineffective. Also, Magic Johnson continues to prove why star players don't make the best transition to television. Although, at least the absence of the Lakers removes his glaring conflict of interest. The inclusion of Javie finally gives the NBA on ESPN something different and better than their competition at Turner.
But, the move isn't a "slam dunk" (sorry for the obvious pun) for ESPN. While Javie was often regarded as one of the league's best officials, he was known for his quick trigger and "look at me" attitude. This flamboyance could make for a superb analyst. But, as Deitsch reminds us, Javie has ridiculously ejected both mascots and announcers in the past and was suspected to have a long-running feud with Allen Iverson. Javie's quote in Deitsch's article in reference to the officiating of star players also leaves a lot to be desired:
"I believe when you have great players, they make the game easier to officiate. They do great things and people are astonished by it... Does that mean there won't be difficult plays? No. But the better the player they are, the easier to the game is to officiate in my experience."
Will Javie be able to criticize his former colleagues if they give LeBron and Durant too much of the star treatment? It doesn't really sound like it. What about obviously blown calls? According to Javie, he will be able to tell fans "9 times out of 10" why a call might have been blown by a ref. But, will Javie be willing and able to call out his fellow zebras? These questions should be answered rather quickly when Javie premieres on ESPN.
However, the stakes for David Stern and the NBA are much, much higher than ESPN. The simple reason? Javie would be the best rebuttal against the culture of suspicion towards NBA officials that has only heightened since Tim Donaghy. For whatever reason (well, actually there are many), the NBA has more conspiracy theories than any other sport. In the last year alone, David Stern has basically taken Chris Paul away from the Lakers, the formerly league-owned Hornets have won the Draft Lottery, and the Miami Heat have once again made their way to the NBA Finals to ensure monster TV ratings.
In isolation none of these events seem suspicious. But, take them together with the history of convenient occurances under David Stern's leadership and fans have grown accustomed to viewing the NBA as part sporting reality, part reality TV. The most common complaint has been towards suspect officiating that seems to favor star players, marquee teams, extending playoff series, or all of the above. These playoffs have seen criticism of officials reach a fever pitch. Even when calls have gone against a star player this postseason (see LeBron James fouling out in Game 4), fans have complained due to obviously inconsistent officiating. But hey, at least they're better than the judges of the Pacquiao-Bradley fight.
Basketball is by far the hardest professional sport to officiate due to the exceptional pace of the game combined with the amazing athletic ability of the players. Thus, the added perspective of one of the game's best officials can quell some of the complaints fans have lodged during these playoffs towards the inconsistent calls being made.
If Javie can be objective and transparent, he can be a valuable addition to ESPN's coverage and an answer to the continuing questions surrounding the NBA's integrity. On the other hand, if Javie shirks away from controversy or seems like he's toeing the company line for the league, fans will ignore him quickly in favor of the latest NBA conspiracy theory.