Poke ‘Em, Burn ‘Em, Clock the Ref

Maybe Indiana Pacer Ron Artest was longing for the basketball past when he denounced his season-ending suspension for fighting as unfair. Bill Himmelman, a former National Basketball Assn. historian, recalls a time when a player could knock out a referee and not have to leave the game.

“The referee would get clocked, they’d revive him, he’d fine the player $10 and they’d go on with the game,” Himmelman said.

When professional basketball leagues appeared at the end of the 19th century, player-fan altercations were impossible because the game was played inside chain-link cages. But when the players got too close to the cage’s perimeter, “fans would poke them with something sharp or burn them with cigarettes. The players never reacted, because they knew their home fans were doing the same things to visitors,” Himmelman said.

When the last of the cages came down in the mid-1920s, player abuse ceased immediately. “Fans lost their bravery when the cages came down,” Himmelman said. “They realized they had better coexist with the players.”


Violence was limited to the court, where defenders routinely broke the noses of shooters who attempted layups. But that practice seldom provoked an altercation between teams.

“It was just the code of how they played back then,” Himmelman said.

-- Travis Hunter