Something amazing happened during Monday night’s otherwise unremarkable game between the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards. In the fourth quarter, Wizards guard Bradley Beal gathered the ball and took six clomping steps through the lane and under the hoop without dribbling. It was as clear a traveling violation as you’ll ever see in the NBA, but the referees didn’t call it. Even Beal had to laugh.
What made the incident truly incredible was the NBA Referees Association’s response on Tuesday morning. Their evaluation, sent via their official Twitter account, concluded that Beal didn’t break any rules as he performed his elaborate line dance through the Pistons defense. In their words, “This is legal.”
After the tweet incurred some inevitable blowback, the referees’ account further clarified its judgment. When Beal lost control of the ball early in his journey, this was actually a “fumble” and he was permitted to “re-establish possession and his pivot foot.”
NBA jurisprudence apparently rewards moments of uncoordinated bumbling by permitting extra steps, even when an opponent failed to make contact with the ball.
Players have been excused for instances of borderline traveling before. LeBron James’ infamous “crab dribble” was acknowledged as legal during a 2009 playoff series despite his opponents’ protestations. James Harden’s trademark “gather step” gives the Houston Rockets star space to take 3-pointers. Last January, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr tweeted that Harden’s move was “outrageous.” The tweet was deleted (he would later blame his iPhone X for sending out the would-be DM), and the gather step remains a key component of Harden’s game.
What’s crucial to understand about those moves is that they each require some level of skill. Beal’s revolutionary fumble, meanwhile, can be pulled off by anyone who’s ever spilled a bowl of soup. Beal didn’t just get away with traveling—he discovered a completely legal way to avoid dribbling altogether. He’s a modern-day Constantin Fahlberg.
Fahlberg was a chemist doing routine work on coal tar at Johns Hopkins University in 1879. “One evening,” Fahlberg would later recall, “I was so interested in my laboratory that I forgot about supper until quite late, and then rushed off for a meal without stopping to wash my hands.” When he shoveled a piece of bread into his mouth, he noticed that it tasted abnormally sweet. This was because of the residue of benzoic sulfimide on his palms. Thanks to his absentminded dash, Fahlberg invented artificial sweetener.
Likewise, Beal’s clumsy rush to the basket stands to be a sweet invention that may well democratize basketball. If NBA referees are true to their word, this fumbling will allow even the most brick-handed klutzes to slash through defenses like their favorite pros. We have traveled to the future, and it is glorious.
Update, Feb. 13, 12:10 a.m. ET: On Tuesday, NBA vice president of referee development and training Monty McCutchen told ESPN that the National Basketball Referees Association was wrong and that Bradley Beal did in fact travel. “Bradley Beal gathers the ball and takes two steps, but then loses control of the ball,” said McCutchen, who is clearly afraid of the future. “Once he has lost control after taking the two steps, he must regain control and pass or shoot before taking another step in order to be legal. Since he does not regain control until another step, the play is a travel.”