THE bodies are getting bigger. The momentum has accelerated. And at this time of year, the stakes have mounted to quite simply everything. Basketball's season of champions - culminating in the best-of-seven series between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics, which began Tuesday and continued last night - reaches a runaway velocity and skill under pressure that leaves fans breathless. It also worries the league's managers, who have levied heavy fines for violence that has erupted in this cyclotron environment.
The job of riding shotgun on this violence falls to people like Darrell Garretson and Earl Strom, National Basketball Association officials, custodians of the fine line between incidental contact and malice aforethought; and in a playoff season that has grabbed as many headlines for punches and bodies thrown as slams dunked, the job has moved center court.
Although the Lakers breezed by the Celtics in a nolo contendere 126-113 rout in this week's opener, history indicates that, when these teams get together, tempers heat up. NBA officials must constantly regulate the game temperature.
In Game 7 of the Celtics-Pistons series, for instance, you could see Strom racing the court, teeth clenched around a whistle, silver hair flying, chasing 10 men in two kinds of uniforms into a flurry of passes and thrown elbows swirling like motes in the hot afternoon air; and, as Celtic superstar Larry Bird completed a long drive to the basket, Strom's whistle punctuated the play with the foul call that Bird is so expert at drawing.
During that 15 seconds or so of playing time, Strom and his partner, Garretson, had to keep track of whether any offensive player stayed in the painted area in front of the basket longer than three seconds; look for any shoves; make sure nobody took too many steps while holding the ball; spot any illegal defensive manuevers; keep an eye out for the occasional foot that might stray out of bounds; and generally look after everything else in the 23-page, tightly crammed NBA rulebook.
It's heady stuff, and officials can get as heated up over it as the players. ``I think officials get emotionally involved,'' says Garretson, who also serves as chief of the NBA officiating staff. ``But we are not allowed that luxury. When it happens, an official must get himself back down to that level of no emotion.''
From the beginning of the game, officials are ``trying to set a tone,'' he adds, ``and you hope the players are, too. With the speed and size of players today, everything is intensified. When you talk about the Bird-Laimbeer incident [a fight between Boston forward Bird and Detroit center Bill Laimbeer in Game 5 of the semifinals, which cost a combined total of $7,500 in fines], you are talking about two very big people.''
According to most dispassionate observers, officials get a much-better-than-passing grade on one of the most dizzyingly complex tests in professional sports: riding herd on, and fine-tuning, what has been called the ``controlled violence'' of basketball.
``I would estimate that 98 to 99 percent of the whistles made in a season are accurate,'' observes John Nash, general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers. ``I don't think the game is perfectly officiated. The officials can't see everything. They've got so much to see.''
And so little time to see it.
The basic job is ``keeping the game under control 98 percent of the time and still allowing these guys room to play,'' says Bill Blair, assistant coach of the Washington Bullets, who calls Strom ``a very, very good official - one you feel, no matter where you're playing, that he's going to make the call. He's got the guts to make the big call.''
In this era of a subdued officiating style set by Garretson and the league, Strom is a throwback to a breed of flamboyant referees - a workingman's Seiji Ozawa who pumps the air, throws out his arms, and flings a condemning finger at a player he is calling for a foul.
Garretson played a kind of gray eminence to Strom's animated showmanship in the hotly contested Celtics-Pistons final game; but both men are credited with keeping that potentially explosive match-up within the bounds of accepted basketball behavior.
The credit, Garretson insists, belongs to the players, who - in the sweltering stadium, with everything they had struggled for all year on the line - ``cooperated fantastically well.'' He and other basketball professionals maintain that the rogue player is by far the exception in the NBA; and, most often, violent incidents arise when otherwise reasonable men find themselves propelled emotionally and physically beyond their ability to contain themselves.
Which is what he thinks happened in Game 5 of the Celtics-Milwaukee series, when Milwaukee guard Sidney Moncrief body-slammed Boston guard Danny Ainge under the basket, leading to $5,000 in fines.
``If you were to speak to Sidney,'' he observes, ``you'd find him one of the most mild, pleasant individuals you'd ever want to meet; and he will tell you that he has never been so sorry he has done something in his life as losing his composure that way.''
Players on a number of teams, however, have a reputation as heavyweight hitters and shovers; and many in the league feel that such players automatically get extra scrutiny and, often, undeserved calls from NBA officials.
``I think they look for certain players,'' says Blair. ``And they will call them quickly.''
``You don't referee by reputation,'' counters Garretson, who also hotly contests the common wisdom that NBA officials give makeup calls to a team that may have been unfairly penalized. ``If I ever caught myself doing that, I would quit tomorrow.''
He has, of course, caught himself, and been caught by others, making bad calls.
``Larry Bird banked in a shot in Game 7 [of the Celtics-Pistons series],'' he recalls. ``After the play, he came to me and said, `Honest to God, Darrell, I got hit on the elbow.' I was as sure as I could be that he hadn't been hit. But, lo and behold, I looked at the videotape after the game, and he was right.''
A far more consequential oversight occurred in Game 5 of the Boston-Detroit series, when Celtics center Robert Parish struck several blows to Laimbeer's face, knocking him to the parquet. The officials said they didn't see the incident; and Parish was allowed to play until his injured ankle took him out. Later, however, the league fined him $7,000 and exiled him from the following game to show how seriously they take such incidents.
Just how seriously they should be taken is a matter that will be dealt with by the league's Competition and Rules Committee, which Garretson refers to as ``a group of very learned basketball people.''
The committee regularly issues refined directives on the way to call a game.
In the end, though, the business of controlling a basketball game will fall to two harried men, madly running the court, watching a dozen pots simmer, and riding shotgun on a runaway sport.