Sports Nut

Do-Over Dos and Don’ts

The NBA dares to trifle with the sports-time continuum.

Shaquille O’Neal

On Saturday evening, the Atlanta Hawks and Miami Heat will suit up for the rarest of NBA occasions: a doubleheader. Before their regularly scheduled matchup, the teams will replay the end of a game that originally took place on Dec. 19. The Hawks defeated the Heat that night 117-111. After the game, the Heat filed a protest alleging that, in the contest’s waning moments, the Hawks’ statistics crew incorrectly counted Shaquille O’Neal’s fifth foul as his sixth. The NBA checked and, sure enough, the Heat was right. Commissioner David Stern declared Atlanta’s victory null and void and ordered the teams to replay the last 51.9 seconds of the game this weekend, starting with the Hawks up 114-111.

There’s not a lot riding on the outcome of this replay—Miami is one of the worst teams in the league, and Atlanta, if they’re lucky, will be the worst team to make the playoffs. Yet this rematch is fascinating nevertheless, not because anyone cares about who wins but because it offers a rare glimpse into what happens when you try to redress an error after the final whistle has blown.

This is not something any of the major sports leagues are in the habit of doing. The NFL allows coaches to challenge plays, but the window to turn back time is incredibly small—once the next play has started, the previous one is in the books. Pro football seems to have recognized that any more aggressive attempt to turn back the clock would be hubris. Generally, the NBA and Major League Baseball have agreed. But every now and then, these two leagues have tried to right a wrong after the fact. Remember the curious case of the pine tar game, when George Brett’s homer was disallowed because he used too much of the stuff on his bat? The American League president overturned that call, ruling the game should be restarted in the ninth inning. The NBA last replayed a game that same year, 1983, when Ronald Reagan was president and a Los Angeles Laker named Norm Nixon got it in his head to fake a free throw.

When it decided to grant Miami’s protest, the NBA probably thought these were ideal circumstances for its first do-over in a generation. The matchup was low-stakes, and the disputed call occurred at the very end of the game, meaning there wouldn’t be much replaying to do. Yet even taking those factors into account, there’s no way the replay will be anything but a farce. Every fan who’s demanded ex post facto justice after a referee screwed his team out of a win should be forced to tune in this weekend to see the folly of this idea. Watch Hawks-Heat Part II on Saturday night—it will only take a minute—and you’ll see that the old saying is true: You can’t put the genie back in the bottle, particularly one as big as Kazaam.

Why will Saturday’s mini-game be such a shambles? Replaying a pro basketball game is a lot more complicated than replaying a point in your mom’s driveway. For starters, you’ve got to schedule it. In this instance, the NBA did the only sensible thing, instructing the teams to hold the replay before their next meeting in Atlanta. The problem is that a lot has happened since Dec. 19. In the weeks following the original game, Miami’s Dorrell Wright injured his knee, rookie guard Daequan Cook was sent to basketball’s minor leagues, and Shaquille O’Neal—the man ostensibly at the center of this replay—was traded to Phoenix for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks. The Hawks, meanwhile, unloaded 25 percent of their active roster for Mike Bibby and have been without rookie point guard Acie Law IV, who’s on the shelf with a tweaked wrist.

If the idea was to replay the game under something approaching the original conditions, that has not come to pass; the teams that take the court on Saturday will be merely rough approximations of the teams that duked it out in Hawks-Heat Part I. But what are the alternatives? Should the NBA force each team to play with the skeleton crew of guys left over from the original game? Should the Heat be forced to recall Cook, now running point for the NBDL’s Iowa Energy? And what about Alonzo Mourning, who tore his patellar tendon in an excruciating play in the original game? Should he be forced to shake off that career-ending injury and suit up one last time? Wait, I’m not done: Should the league fly Shaq in from Phoenix so he can play out those 51.9 seconds he was wrongly denied in December? Or would it be fairer to give Shawn Marion five fouls, a No. 32 jersey, and a fat suit and enlist him to do his best Shaq impersonation?

These are the kinds of crazy questions you face when you dare to trifle with the sports-time continuum. After a bit of dithering, the NBA came up with a set of replay rules inspired more by pragmatism than a platonic ideal of the replay. The Hawks and Heat will both be allowed to sub in their new players (Marion, Bibby, and the rest) at will, and neither team’s castaways will be trucked in for cameo appearances. This saves the NBA from having to worry about getting Shaq back to Arizona in time for the Suns’ game on Sunday against the Spurs. But the league’s decision also means Hawks-Heat Part II will look nothing like Hawks-Heat Part I. The players will be different, the refs will be different, and even the fans will be different—the Hawks aren’t honoring tickets from the Dec. 19 game. The only constant, in fact, will be Atlanta’s hometown stats guys, none of whom lost their jobs despite demonstrating an inability to count to six.

In the mind of a fan, the replay is a tantalizing opportunity to write a counterfactual history: What would have happened if Shaq hadn’t fouled out? But Hawks-Heat Part II suggests that this is a virtually impossible promise to fulfill. Given everything that’s changed since the casus belli, you’ll get a better approximation of what might’ve happened in the last minute of the Dec. 19 game by watching … the last minute of the Dec. 19 game. Reviewing the tape, it isn’t at all clear that Pat Riley actually wanted Shaq on the court for that last minute. Remember, the Heat was down 3 at that point, and Shaq is an abomination at the free-throw line (and both teams were in the penalty). Even if Shaq hadn’t been improperly ejected, he may well have sat out the last minute of play.

Still need proof that Saturday’s minute-long replay will be inauthentic? No less an arbiter of fairness than the director of the sports book at Las Vegas’ MGM Mirage has said the casino will not honor the results. The NBA, of course, is likely less concerned with ensuring a fair outcome here than with assuring that such an error isn’t made again. The league probably sees the replay as a punitive measure—a punishment for Atlanta for conduct unbecoming an NBA franchise. The irony is that the Heat, the victim in this soap opera, is being punished as well. They initiated the protest back before Christmas, when they were still trying to salvage a respectable season; now, they’re fighting the Timberwolves and the Grizzlies for the worst record in the league and all the lottery balls that come with that honor. They’d just as soon take the loss and be done with it.

But like it or not, for 51.9 seconds on Saturday night John McCain will have no chance of winning the GOP nomination, I Am Legend will be atop the box office, and it will once again be Hawks 114, Heat 111. And this intrepid reporter will be heading to Atlanta to take it all in. For though this undertaking may be absurd, it offers a rare chance to tell a cautionary tale that needs telling, something for every sports fan to consider before crying “protest!” The Democratic National Committee, currently contemplating do-over primaries in Michigan and Florida, ought to study the game as well. Perhaps Howard Dean could learn something from Pat Riley, who coached Norm Nixon and the Lakers the last time the NBA forced a do-over and thus will be drawing on deep replay experience. Will Riley design the perfect minute of basketball and avenge Shaq’s disqualification? Will Shawn Marion prove he’s the NBA’s greatest time traveler by helping to win a game that took place on the same night he scored 23 points for the Suns in Dallas? Check back in this space on Monday to find out and for a Slate first: a dispatch … from the past.