James Harden has had it with referee Scott Foster after fouling out during Thursday’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers. The MVP candidate was whistled for four offensive fouls and fouled out with 1:24 left in regulation, but history says this isn’t the first time a Houston Rockets player has felt this was a “personal” vendetta.
Back in 1995, Jake O’Donnell, largely considered one of the top-tier officials in the league, ejected Clyde Drexler after a questionable clear path foul while chasing a loose ball against Phoenix Suns guard Dan Majerle in the second round of the Western Conference Playoffs.
Drexler and O’Donnell had a nefarious two-year stretch in which the two visibly did not like each other, and the former’s ejection wasn’t helping matters. For all the worst, O’Donnell had refused to shake Drexler’s hand during the customary pregame salutations between players and game officials, something that quickly caught the attention of players and coaches.
The Rockets complained to the league over O’Donnell’s actions and sent a video tape to then-commissioner David Stern, showing the meeting of O’Donnell refusing to shake Drexler’s hand.
Elyse Lanier, wife of Houston Mayor Bob Lanier, personally reached out to Stern to complain about O’Donnell — a phone call that ultimately resulted in O’Donnell officiating his last game in the league, ending a string of 23 consecutive appearances in the NBA Finals.
O’Donnell was paid for working the first three playoff rounds, despite not working past the second round of that Rockets-Suns series. The longtime referee announced his retirement as an NBA official on Dec. 7, 1995, the same day the rest of his fellow referees agreed to return to work following a lockout to start the 1995-96 season.
The league and O’Donnell have long denied that game as the sole reason forcing his retirement, as the referee later told The Sporting News:
“I just don’t take any crap from anyone, and he couldn’t handle that. If he thinks it was personal, fine, but it wasn’t from my standpoint.”
O’Donnell would later tell ESPN:
“I wouldn’t give Clyde Drexler much leeway because of the way he reacted with me all the time. I thought at times he would give cheap shots to people, and I just would not allow it.”
The situation between Harden and Foster isn’t quite as contentious, but Harden’s fiery comments calling him “rude and arrogant” could certainly pour kerosene on an already flaming kitchen that has become the relationship between players and officials.
Harden cited Foster’s lack of communication as a main reason why there’s such a lack of trust, especially given that constant dialogue between players and officials has been a point of emphasis in hopes to improve their relationship moving forward.
The league has made a tough transition from their veteran officials to a much younger crew in the last few years, ensuring to pair a longtime veteran with newer refs. Foster has been officiating for over 20 seasons in the NBA.