Checking in (extended version)

Kalaheo's Kupaa Harrison was hand-checked by Saint Louis' Jimmy Nunuha III at the St. Francis Merv Lopes Classic on Thursday. No foul was called on the play, but Harrison scored on the drive, which leads to this question: If a player has a direct route and can score, should a whistle be blown? (Photo by Bruce Asato / Star-Advertiser)
Kalaheo’s Kupaa Harrison was hand-checked by Saint Louis’ Jimmy Nunuha III at the St. Francis Merv Lopes Classic on Thursday. No foul was called on the play, but Harrison scored on the drive, which leads to this question: If a player has a direct route and can score, should a whistle be blown? (Photo by Bruce Asato / Star-Advertiser)

(The shorter version of this story was published in Tuesday’s Star-Advertiser.)

Some coaches and players are getting downright defensive about it.
One of the three points of emphasis in basketball by National Federation of State High School Associations this season is simple: enforce the hand-check rule. But the actual enforcement or lack of it has left players and coaches bewildered.

From the NFHS site:

Guidelines to Enforce Illegal Contact – When contact occurs that affects the rhythm, speed, quickness and balance of the player, illegal contact has occurred. When illegal contact occurs, fouls must be called. Officials must not refrain from calling these type of actions that create an advantage for the opponent. Illegal contact must be called regardless of time and score.

In boys hoops, the early season showed this: OIA referees interpreted the emphasis and rule 100 percent. That was very much the case in the ILH-OIA Challenge at Moanalua, where OIA officials were at work. Quick whistles came on a defender’s hand-to-body contact with an offensive ballhandler when the ball was dribbled. But there were also whistles on contact before there even was a dribble in some cases.

It’s shown up on the court in the OIA, where Kailua and Kaiser have played a 94-90 overtime game. Kailua’s slashing guard, Delcie Williams scored 44 points — half on free throws. Scoring is up in the OIA, where offense is being rewarded.

In the ILH, girls games are not so offensive. Same with the boys, where ILH officials worked the recent St. Francis Merv Lopes Classic. Some veteran referees allowed a lot of pre-emphasis type of contact. That was highly evident in a game between Saint Louis and Santa Margarita (Calif.). Saint Louis coach Keith Spencer hollered about hand checks at least a handful of times.

So why the difference? One OIA official says it’s because of this: the ILH officials are using a college-level interpretation of the rule, while the OIA refs are using a high-school interpretation.

Kamehameha-Hawaii coach Dominic Pacheco was not happy with officials during his team’s loss to Kamehameha (Kapalama) at the St. Francis Merv Lopes Classic. It was a classic case of a team from the BIIF, where officials are known to call games tightly (and whistle sales are brisk) not being able to adjust on the fly to a crew of ILH referees who permit so much more contact on the dribble and in the paint.

“It’s strange,” he said.

Alton Mamiya is head of the Hawaii State Basketball Officials Association, which won the bid to work OIA games this season. He sees resistance to the NFHS’s emphasis by the ILH’s officials, who are part of the 50th State Basketball Officials Association.

“Some old dogs have a hard time learning new tricks. When I took over the association (this year), my goal was to stick with high school rules and we’re not going to deviate from it. The rule book says if you displace the player with a hand on the hip or an elbow, that is a foul. Any displacement. If a player’s speed, rhythm, balance and quickness are interrupted at any time, that’s a foul,” Mamiya said.

He also said HSBOA values a balance between hard, cold rules on paper and the physicality of the sport.

“It depends on the game, also. If the game is two top teams in the state, you want them to play a little bit. The less you notice an official on the court, that’s best for the crew.”

Some ILH officials don’t believe they’re circumventing the NFHS’s recommendation. They see advantage versus disadvantage — verbiage that supposedly didn’t exist in the rule book and points of emphasis, but is common knowledge to any competitive coach and player. And it is included in the language of the 2013 emphasis.

Tony Collazo, who has a long background as a referee (ILH) and assistant coach (OIA), seeks that balance. It requires a unified effort.

“It comes down to our pre-game. As a crew, we’ve got to be consistent on hand checks and arm bars. It’s all about being consistent on the floor,” Collazo said.

Eric Morales is a 23-year ILH official who was a standout player at University High. He believes in communicating with players — preventative officiating.

“We warn the players. We let them know that we’ll talk to them, but if you keep putting your hands on the guy who’s dribbling, we’ll call it,” he said, noting that the definition of contact and impeding the dribbler is a gray area.

In one Lopes Classic game, Kalaheo’s Kupaa Harrison drove the baseline and appeared to be ridden slightly by the forearm of a defensive player. He scored, but there was no hand-check call.

“If he extends (the arm), then we have to call it,” Morales said. “All referees are different. We don’t want to interrupt the flow of the game, but we have to enforce it. Hopefully, when the (regular) season starts, the players can pick it up.”

Saint Louis guard Haka Johnson sees a slight difference since last season.

“Only in the beginning of the game. They’re on it. Toward the end of the game, they let it go,” he said. “The OIA refs call it more. The ILH (refs) are more lenient.”

Johnson noted that the rule emphasis has changed the way he uses his hands on defense, but that Saint Louis — which likes to press fullcourt — remains aggressive defensively.

St. Francis had to make radical changes on defense. Coach Sol Batoon previously taught his players to use their arm length to determine distance from the ballhandler.

“It took us a couple of weeks to get that down,” he said, recalling a whistle-prone game against Kalaheo in early December. “An accidental hand on the body shouldn’t be a hand check. But if he’s impeding (the offensive player), that should be. The consistency (by officials) will come with time. On the ILH side, it’s a lot better because we communicate with officials before, during and after ILH (tournament) games.”

The Kaiser Invitational girls tourney, worked by OIA refs, saw some extremes. Lahainaluna’s swarming fullcourt press led to games of 30 or more fouls for the speedy Lady Lunas nearly every night. But they won two of three games anyway and coach Todd Rickard’s team is currently (as of Sunday) ranked No. 1 in the state, including a 51-50 win over Punahou.

The Buffanblu, with former head coach Mike Taylor back on the staff as an assistant under Kevin Velasco, no doubt will keep playing the tough, tight man defense that Taylor made his trademark en route to four state crowns. But with officials calling the hand-check much more, even Punahou has adjusted. Or, perhaps, it has found the confines of the ILH much more homey.

“The hand-check rule is a Catch-22. It’s hard,” Taylor said. “Since we started league, it’s been fairly consistent. You have mixed crews coming in (with different interpretations). It was boring, becoming a free-throw challenge and the flow of the game wasn’t there, it wasn’t fun to be part of it.

“I think our officials are doing a great job. Main thing is you want to keep the flow going rather than stopping the game. And the refs are catching it from the fans, how frustrated and angry they’re getting. As an official, you’re just doing your job.

Like Pacheco, Taylor got to see the extremes of the spectrum.

“When we were at the Kaiser tournament, I remember the game against Lahainaluna, they were calling touch fouls and it was crazy. You’re trying to figure it out but at the same time you’re trying to help your kids understand what’s being called.”

OIA officials worked the Kaiser tourney. Conversely, when some ILH officials permit a lot of contact — as if there were no new emphasis — it’s can be maddening.

“Sometimes the communication from the referee to the coaching staff is not always clear. For us, if it’s a 50-50 play that doesn’t impede progress, and they say they’re doing college rules, No. 1, these kids aren’t college players. Understand that,” Taylor said. “Now you have different associations working high school basketball. Let’s be consistent.”

And yet, Taylor prefers the old way.

“Since we started league, it’s been fairly consistent. I think our officials are doing a great job. Main thing is you want to keep the flow going rather than stopping the game,” he said.

In all, coaches may need two scouting reports instead of one: an analysis of the opponent and another of the crew. At the very least, coaches are re-teaching the importance of defensive footwork and even getting lessons from referees.

“We’re lucky,” Taylor said. “We have Ki‘i (Spencer-Vasconcellos), who’s a college ref, and Keisha (Kanekoa), who has also reffed. Ki‘i explained the interpretation. You can’t put your forearm on someone’s back in the post, but you can put two hands on them.”

ILH officials are big part of the prep hoops food chain. They’ll be working at the state tournaments. The onus may be on them to change, but success often goes to those who adapt fastest.

Kamehameha coach Greg Tacon, who has coached at Punahou and Moanalua, doesn’t even bother arguing semantics with officials.

“I can’t tell them how to call a game,” the longtime coach said.

Instead, Tacon’s defensive-minded teams simply adjust to the officiating. Training any team to be armed for different styles of battle — that might just be the true emphasis after all.


  1. Tim Harrison December 31, 2013 11:50 am

    What if Harrison does not score? I don’t think it would be ok for the ref to now go back and say it was a foul after not calling it immediately. Sort of like the foul on the shot. If it goes in, they let it go. If not, they call it. The hand check is farther from the basket and more removed from the attempt to score. I personally think the ref should make a determination at the time of the contact. Did the contact interfere with the rhythm, speed, …..etc. of the offensive player? If so, it should be a foul. The problem is that it can become a real subjective thing that may have a big impact on the outcome of the game. I think the federation is trying to clean that up, and make officiating as objective as possible. Not sure that is possible when you have “human nature” involved and the rule can be open to interpretation, like it is.

  2. afriend December 31, 2013 1:00 pm

    Could you please check on Coach Mike’s statement regarding post play, “You can’t put your forearm on someone’s back in the post, but you can put two hands on them.” Wouldn’t putting two hands on the back of a post player imped the movement of the post player?

  3. Paul Honda December 31, 2013 4:10 pm

    I think it makes sense, even though it was startling to hear at first. A forearm can be interpreted as a setup for a shove or push. Hands may or may not, especially in the low post.

    It’s very, very, very, very GRAY AREA. I don’t think there’s a pure science to officiating, though some might say robots would do better. It’s part science, part art. And part reflexes. I’ve seen officials lose their reaction time over the years, and that’s unfortunate. Happens to all of us. Father Time is undefeated!

  4. Paul Honda December 31, 2013 4:13 pm

    Most excellently put, Coach! And this is the significant difference between ILH and OIA officials at this point. I will add this: the ILH referees called much more hand-checking/impeding progress fouls in the championship game of the Merv Lopes Classic. Different crew from the one that worked the Kalaheo-Saint Louis game.

    Part of it is affiliation/league. Part of it is individual official’s interpretation. Then we get to pre-game. When one guy in a crew calls it one way and another guy calls it another, now we have chaos on the court.

  5. Ernesto Macadangdang January 8, 2014 11:41 pm

    Paul did you see the results of the Saint Louis Maryknoll boys game on Wednesday?

    83 total Free throw attempts combined. Absurb! Maybe some of yours and comments in this post cause a change in the ILH haha. That’s crazy though. James Nunuha went 22-28 at the FT line. That’s way too much Free throws.

    I know hand checks are the law, but a game like this is never entertaining. Refs as a whole have to be consistent from preseason to regular season and playoffs.

    Regardless, players and coaches have to react to how a certain group of refs call the game. 83 FT attempts are still crazy.

    What are your thoughts Paul?

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