There probably never has been an NBA season that's generated more complaining about the quality of officiating than the one just concluded.

From coaches to players to fans, this season has produced a seemingly endless litany of complaints and protests, on such varied topics as call-switching for superstars to Karl Malone's flying feet.Some of it is groundless whining, as in David Robinson's not-so-subtle suggestion - via the media - that Malone should control the flight pattern of his sneakers. But much of it is legitimate, as when a referee sparked a scandal by admitting that he gave a foul to one player that should have gone to another, thus saving the latter "star" from fouling out.

Blame the IRS, blame league management, blame genetics or blame coaching, but the fact is officials have to some extent lost control of the game. It bears little resemblance to what basketball was as recently as 15 or 20 years ago.

Longtime NBA observers are reluctant to discuss officiating because, well, it's just not done. It's been drummed into them since they took their first dribble that you can criticize on the court, you can disagree with calls, but you don't come right out and say the referees reek, because hey, there's is a tough job and they do the best they can.

But with four veteran referees unexpectedly taken out of service prior to this season by an ongoing IRS investigation, and two more who retired, the referee pool was seriously depleted, and it showed.

"The quality's just not there," said Rod Hundley, longtime Jazz broadcaster and former NBA player. "They've brought in people that are new to the league, and it's made a big difference."

"As tough as I recognize that it is to officiate an NBA game, I do think officiating is definitely down a little bit," said Ron Boone, Hundley's broadcasting partner and also a former NBA player.

Naturally, such opinions are hard to quantify. You can't look at the number of fouls called, for example - as one national NBA writer did this season - and conclude that because those totals are about the same as always, officiating must be about the same as always. The number of fouls called doesn't reflect the number of fouls not called, the obvious violations that are ignored, and it's those non-calls that irritate everyone.

So what we have is a sense that, somewhere along the line, NBA officiating got off the track. That it became a system designed to achieve certain goals rather than to enforce the rules.

The incident that most exposed the officiating system for the quixotic entity it is occurred in January. That night, the Washington Wizards were hosting the Vancouver Grizzlies. With six minutes left in the game and the Grizzlies up by 10, Vancouver's Blue Edwards drove to the hoop and was fouled by Wizards marquee forward Webber. It was Webber's sixth foul, which meant his game was over. At least until referee Joe Borgia walked to the scorer's table and said the foul had been committed by Wizards guard Calbert Cheaney.

Cheaney and coach Bernie Bickerstaff went ballistic, until Borgia explained the situation to them. And Webber, given a reprieve, had seven points and a blocked shot in the final minutes as the Wizards came from behind to win.

Asked about the situation after the game, Cheaney told reporters what had happened, and the story was widely reported. Borgia tried to defend himself by saying Cheaney and Webber had both committed a foul on the play, and he merely chose to give it to the guy with fewer fouls, but replays showed Cheaney nowhere near Edwards. The league fined Borgia.

Borgia wasn't the only ref to ever do this, just the only one foolish enough to admit it out loud. They've all done it. They still do it.

"To me it wasn't a shock," Hundley says, noting that in his day it was Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor on the kindly end of such treatment. "Maybe letting the world know was a little surprising, but we all know that superstars get special treatment. We all know that Michael Jordan gets protection. The protection policy is definitely there. It's not official, but it's there."

What this incident leaves us with is a sense that it's just the tip of the iceberg, that games aren't being officiated based on what's happening but on what the men in the striped shirts have determined is best. That results in inconsistency, and if professional athletes - or any athletes - in any sport detest anything, it's inconsistency.

"Inconsistency is the most difficult thing to deal with," said former Jazz center Mark Eaton. "One night they let you bang the snot out of each other, and the next night, you can't touch anybody. You never know what they're going to call, and it changes from night to night. You adjust to one team in a playoff series, then you go into the next series and it's a whole different deal."

The question is: Why should the officiating be so inconsistent? Where has it all gone wrong? Various theories exist, namely:

- The Darrell Garretson factor. For the past 17 years, Garretson has been the chief of NBA officials, the person primarily responsible for hiring and training referees. As a result, what the NBA has now is a core of officials who have been molded in Garretson's likeness - arrogant, aloof, stiff.

"The current philosophy is definitely his philosophy," Boone said. "He did have that air about him. It doesn't seem like officials today are having fun out there. They're not allowed to have fun. You look at the young guys, they're afraid to have fun."

"The younger guys have been afraid to express themselves, or even say `Boo,' for fear Darrell might be watching," said former NBA coach Tom Nissalke.

- Referees haven't kept up with the game. As basketball has grown higher, faster and more rugged, officials may have been left in the dust, physically incapable of matching the game's pace.

"There's no question the game's picked up speed," Hundley said. "Players are running faster, jumping higher. When I played nobody dunked; now everybody can dunk. And there's a lot of contact that didn't happen before."

- Youth. This argument maintains there's nothing wrong with the system or the officials that experience won't cure. This situation could worsen if, as rumored, more officials fall in the IRS' continuing investigation.

- Human nature. Over the years, coaches, players and fans have become expert at influencing and even intimidating referees.

"A lot of players intimidate referees," Hundley said. "I think that's true of every sport, not just basketball. Maybe it's just human nature. I wouldn't want to be the guy to call strike three on Ted Williams."

Coaches have to share the blame, too. How many times have you seen Jazz coach Jerry Sloan get an illegal-defense call in favor of his team because he's screaming in an official's ear? And then, in the second half, when the teams are on the other end of the floor, the illegal-defense calls suddenly start going the other way? Another way refs get suckered is through repetition.

Teams figure that if they go out and foul an opposing team's star - and Jazz fans have seen this at various times with Karl Malone and John Stockton - on every play, the officials will look the other way most of the time because they won't want to appear whistle-happy.

"After a while it's like, well, we can only send him to the line so many times, so we're not going to blow the whistle," Eaton said.

Officials also can be influenced to make calls based on who is involved - if one player has a reputation as a hacker, he's going to get the whistle. In 1990, the Jazz met Phoenix in the playoffs, and time and time again Suns' guard Kevin Johnson would drive the lane and jump into the chest of a stationary (and frustrated) Eaton, who time and time again got hit with a blocking foul.

"Just because I was willing to take a hit and not fall down, they'd say I moved something, twitched an arm muscle or something," Eaton said. "I'd say, `What do you want me to do, fall down? Fall into the first row of chairs to get a call?' "

Sadly, the answer to that is an unqualified "Yes," which is why the NBA is breeding a generation of flop artists. Touch them and they collapse to the floor in a heap. Often, they'll do their act without being touched. But they wouldn't do it if it didn't pay off, and that's the officials' fault.

Whatever the reasons, observers generally agree that officiating needs an overhaul. If nothing else, the league's vision of the ideal referee needs to change. Eaton says today's officials apparently have been taught that a good referee is an aloof referee, and that's not right.

"You can be a good official if you stay in control of yourself and have good rapport with the players," Eaton said. "I always appreciated the officials who were willing to talk to you on the court, rather than just blow a whistle and walk away."

Eaton mentioned a game this season between the Jazz and Timberwolves, in which three Minnesota big men were in foul trouble - and frustrated - in the first quarter.

"Why didn't one of the officials, instead of just blowing all the whistles, say, `Hey guys, clean it up under there. I'm not going to let that go'?" Eaton said.

Hundley and Boone both nominate former NBA referee Earl Strom as their ideal official.

"Earl used to come over and say, `Hey, did I blow that call?' That's the mark of a good official," Hundley said. "Integrity. The guts to admit it if he misses a call."

"First of all, he was fair," Boone says of Strom. "He wasn't afraid of the home crowd. Every player liked to have Earl Strom on the road. He wasn't going to back down from players, and he wasn't going to let the crowd force him to make a homer-type call. He'd argue with players if he thought he was right, but he'd also admit when he'd made a mistake."

Ultimately, though, while acknowledging that officiating isn't what it used to be, or should be, NBA types are also quick to point out the referees rarely decide a game.

"Sure, a call at the end of the game can decide it, but why not look at the shot you missed earlier in the game?" Hundley said. "That's just a crybaby attitude, when you blame the officiating."

"They do have an effect, but ultimately you just have to adapt," Eaton said. "If you do everything right, the officiating is taken out of the game."

Despite that stoic - and correct - attitude, it's clear that NBA officiating needs further review. Maybe officials do make calls based on entertainment value, but is that what fans want? Or does it make the game a joke, one notch above pro wrestling?

"You're always cognizant of the fact it's entertainment," said Eaton. "The big stars are going to get the calls. That's just a fact of life. Michael Jordan is going to have more latitude than John Stock-ton."

And Stockton, no doubt, will have more latitude than Avery Johnson. So everyone acknowledges that the rules are enforced selectively. Refs don't stifle Hakeem Olajuwon by calling traveling or put a crimp in Jordan's game by calling palming, because - they'd reason - fans want to see points, not turnovers; stars, not scrubs.

And refs, like everyone else, ultimately want to be liked.

"They're in an unpopular job," Eaton said. "And they don't have any home games."