How to decipher basketball’s unwritten rules

The Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James, left, gets tangled with the Golden State Warriors' Draymond Green, right, during the fourth quarter in Game 4 of the NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland on June 10. The Warriors won, 108-97, for a 3-1 series lead. (Phil Masturzo/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS)
The Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James, left, gets tangled with the Golden State Warriors' Draymond Green, right, during the fourth quarter in Game 4 of the NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland on June 10. The Warriors won, 108-97, for a 3-1 series lead. (Phil Masturzo/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS) TNS

You could argue the off-ball incident proved pivotal in last month’s NBA Finals, won by Cleveland after trailing three games to one.

Golden State’s Draymond Green and Cleveland’s LeBron James tangled at the edge of the Cavaliers’ mid-court logo during the waning minutes of Game 4, an eventual Warrior win. Green fell, then scrambled to his feet. As he rose, James stepped over his head, and Green responded with a swipe aimed between his opponent’s legs.

Already on notice the league would punish him if he transgressed again, Green was retroactively assessed a flagrant foul and suspended for the following game. In Green’s absence, Cleveland began its rally to three straight victories and the title.

Warrior players complained James’ step-over was disrespectful, an intentionally provocative violation of basketball’s unwritten rules. TV’s Charles Barkley insisted Green had a “moral obligation” to retaliate. “You’re supposed to pop him in his junk if he steps over you like that,” Barkley said with typical elegance.

These references to tacitly understood guidelines sparked a flurry of internet discussion and inevitably raised a pressing question, even among close followers of basketball: What unwritten rules?

“I played baseball,” said Steve Donahue, the former Boston College basketball coach (2011-14) now at Penn. “There’s a ton of unwritten rules in baseball.” Attentive fans are acquainted with baseball’s boundaries, from disdain for flipping a bat after hitting a home run to eschewing a bunt to break up a no-hitter. Written or not, a player defies these rules at their own peril – inevitable consequences like knockdown pitches are traditional parts of the much-savored game within the game.

It’s about respect

Basketball has its own host of unwritten rules, many immediately apparent upon a moment’s reflection, according to Donahue and other coaches gathered at the Peach Jam prep all-star tournament earlier this month. That was not a universal view, however. Another contingent of college coaches, many of them older, cited basic standards of basketball conduct rather than specific rules.

“I only know the rules that are written down,” said Miami’s Jim Larranaga. Yet, as a man attuned to nuance, he soon thought better of that declaration. “I would say, if you’re looking for one unwritten rule, I believe, it’s don’t disrespect the game. The game is about competition. If you abuse any aspect of the game, in my mind you’re disrespecting the game.”

Well-traveled Tubby Smith, now head coach at Memphis, said, “It all comes down to etiquette. It’s all about respecting others. In the game of sports, or life, you should never show someone up or disrespect them.” Maryland’s Mark Turgeon went with “common sense” in shaping oncourt behavior. Tennessee coach Rick Barnes, once of Clemson (1995 through 1999), joined those who insisted that “when people talk about unwritten rules, it’s about respect.” He called this simply “sportsmanship,” a quality lauded on a gym door sign at the Nike event as “what makes a good athlete GREAT.”

I don’t know if there are unwritten rules in basketball. If there are, I violated every one of them as a player.

Davidson coach Bob McKillop

Then again, concepts like respect, sportsmanship, etiquette and common sense essentially lend form to accepted, but uncodified, understandings. In other words, they encompass the game’s unwritten rules.

“I don’t know if there are unwritten rules in basketball,” objected Davidson’s Bob McKillop, who attended college at East Carolina and Hofstra. “If there are, I violated every one of them as a player.” He did cite several givens in game conduct that sounded suspiciously like rules – not fouling a 3-point shooter and taking care when saving a ball inbounds to avoid throwing it off an opponent’s head or groin. “We teach the throw off the chest,” the Wildcats coach said. Mostly, though, referring to the James-Green incident, McKillop said basketball’s unwritten rules were “more time and score things than stepping over somebody.”

Donahue agreed. “I think a lot of them are involved when there’s a large discrepancy in the score,” the Penn coach said of unwritten rules. “Up 20 with 5 minutes to go, and you’re still pressing. Down 20, shot clock’s dead and you’re still trying to score.”

Courtesy vs. rules

Empathy was a prominent late-game consideration. “If you’re up really big on a team, you play zone. Go back and play zone, just play zone,” said Notre Dame’s Mike Brey.

“If the shot clock is off and the game is over, you don’t take a shot,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins added. “That’s because everybody’s been on both sides of that.”

Larranaga regarded offensive restraint in such circumstances as “a courtesy,” not a rule. “If you’re talking about college basketball, and there’s a 30-second clock, you must play the game,” he said. “I would never tell another coach how to play offense or defense because there’s far more involved than that game and that score. But I think it is a courtesy, if the shot clock is off and you have the basketball and you’re ahead by a substantial margin, not to shoot. Just to hang onto the ball and let the clock expire.”

Constraints governing a game’s waning minutes weren’t the only situations that came to mind for Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. “The unwritten rules of basketball are things players know not to do with other players,” Izzo said. “I don’t know what they are. Talking about your mother would be an unwritten rule in basketball. Stepping over a player would be an unwritten rule in basketball.” (Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton observed, “I’d rather have somebody step over me than on me.”) Izzo continued: “I don’t know what the unwritten rules are. There are so many rules, I have to worry about the written rules, not the unwritten rules.”

Handshakes, too

The Spartans’ Hall of Fame coach was in accord with colleagues in the belief that, as Brey put it, “You don’t talk to the other team’s players.” Izzo did cite one exception – if a player he‘d recruited acted like a jerk during a game (he used a different descriptor), he felt free to tell him he was a jerk. “It’s probably another unwritten rule, but that’s trying to be the guardian of the game,” he said, joking that Brey, seated within earshot, had not yet reached that lofty status.

Perhaps Mike Krzyzewski was similarly motivated after Dillon Brooks hit a long 3-pointer, up 11 points with 10 seconds to go, against Duke in the 2016 NCAA tournament. Brooks then celebrated a bit ostentatiously, earning praise mixed with chastisement from the Duke coach during a post-game exchange. “The shot had nothing to do with it,” Krzyzewski said at the Peach Jam.

Coaches assembled at the event in North Augusta, S.C., also said the manner in which they shake each other’s hands prior to, and after, a game was subject to unwritten rules. Several mentioned the imperative that a team avoid calling a timeout, especially a full timeout, with a big lead in the waning minutes of a game. Sentiment also was strongly against unnecessary manipulation by a coach to augment a player’s statistical achievements. “If you have a comfortable lead, you should never put a guy back in to get a double-double, or something like that,” noted Northwestern’s Collins.

Ultimately, it fell to third-year BC coach Jim Christian to offer the most succinct explanation for what governs appropriate game conduct. “Anything that angers guys, that’s an unwritten rule,” he said.