Livingston-Kirkland incident a teachable NBA moment

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Golden State Warriors guard Shaun Livingston, right, argues a call with referee Courtney Kirkland before he was ejected, during an NBA basketball game against the Miami Heat, Sunday, Dec. 3, in Miami. (AP Photo/Joe Skipper)
Golden State Warriors guard Shaun Livingston, right, argues a call with referee Courtney Kirkland before he was ejected, during an NBA basketball game against the Miami Heat, Sunday, Dec. 3, in Miami. (AP Photo/Joe Skipper)

Miami (AP) – Referees have a thankless job.

Someone inevitably complains about almost every call they make. Fans scream at them. Players scream at them. Coaches scream at them. They get the overwhelming majority of calls right. The ones they get wrong become big news.

That being said, they’re not without flaws.

So that’s what made what the NBA did Monday so significant. The league suspended Golden State guard Shaun Livingston for one game because he got involved in an on-court altercation with referee Courtney Kirkland, a justifiable sanction because players cannot be permitted to angrily make contact with referees, ever.

But the NBA also suspended Kirkland for a week over his role in what happened in the game against Miami.

“We regret the recent incident between Courtney Kirkland and Shaun Livingston,” the National Basketball Referees Association said. “The NBRA has reached out to the National Basketball Players Association to explore ways to improve on-court communications and civility.”

It’s time to have those talks.

The player-referee relationship, while never buddy-buddy, seems very strained right now. Kevin Durant has been ejected from three games already this season, after getting kicked out of one in his first 700 NBA games. Goran Dragic was so angry over a non-call last week that he kicked a basket stanchion. LeBron James recently got the first ejection of his 15-year NBA career.

“At this point, it’s like they’re trying to turn me into a jump-shooter,” James said after his ejection last month, repeating a stance he’s offered plenty of times before that he doesn’t always get the same sort of calls that others get when they drive to the rim. “I can’t be a jump-shooter. I’m not a jump-shooter.”

Referees are taught to defuse situations and not add fuel to the proverbial fire. That’s where Kirkland failed. Livingston got in his face to argue that he had been fouled seconds earlier, and replays suggested he had a case. Kirkland then took two steps toward Livingston, hardly in a menacing way, but in a manner that didn’t help the situation.

“Both the official and the player were part of it,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.

Kerr took the high road, though it was clear that whatever happened shouldn’t have happened. Livingston loses a game check and now might find himself wondering if he’ll be watched more critically by referees going forward. Kirkland loses a week of work, and when he’s eligible to return starting Monday, he’s probably going to face even more scrutiny.

It’s a teachable moment for the NBA. The league would be foolish to not take advantage.