NEW YORK • Bubba Wells waited until Dennis Rodman had jogged across the centre circle before grabbing him near his shoulders.
Rodman tried to wriggle free as play continued around them, and the players grappled for a few seconds before a referee noticed and whistled a foul. Wells walked away, chewing gum, smiling sheepishly.
It was Dec 29, 1997, and the Dallas Mavericks had travelled to play the Chicago Bulls. Before the National Basketball Association game, Mavericks coach Don Nelson asked Wells, then a 23-year-old rookie, if he would be willing to help execute a curious new game plan.
Nelson wanted to foul Rodman repeatedly, whether he had the ball or not, to send him to the free-throw line, where he was shooting just 38.6 per cent.
"It wasn't a big thing," Wells said last week. But, in the years since, it has become one.
Nelson was pleased with his experiment that night - even though Rodman made 9 of his 12 attempts from the line and the Mavericks lost their 12th straight game.
The coach used the tactic often, with Shaquille O'Neal becoming his most famous target, and it caught on around the league. After all this time, though, it may finally have crossed a line.
The tactic has become controversial for the way it seems to subvert the point of the game.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver has called the tactic Hack-a-Somebody - a nod to its original name, Hack-a-Shaq.
Kiki Vandeweghe, the league's vice-president for basketball operations, calls the plays off-ball deliberate fouls.
Whatever the fouls are called, Silver said last month that he hoped the league's owners could come to an agreement over the coming weeks about how to outlaw the tactic before next season.
As the league sees it, things are now out of hand: There were 420 deliberate fouls away from the ball in the regular season, up from 179 last season and 115 the season before that.
The league is officially tired of it.
"There's clearly an emerging consensus, both from the members of the competition committee and the owners, that we need to address the situation," Silver said.
"Exactly what the new rule should be is still open for debate. I'm hoping that between now and when the owners next meet in July, we can create and form a consensus as to what the change in the rule should be."
The league found this season that games that featured three or more off-ball deliberate fouls took 11 minutes longer to play, on average.
Silver said it was important for the NBA to respect the 21/2-hour window that broadcasters set aside for games. From an aesthetic standpoint, the ploy can make the league's entertainment product unattractive. The league also has a philosophical objection.
"It goes against the spirit of the rule book," Vandeweghe said.
"Free throws are to compensate and deter fouls, not to encourage them."
The league would need to decide how exactly to discourage the move.
Nelson, who seemed to acknowledge that he had created something of a monster, like many, suggested that teams subjected to an off-ball deliberate foul should get to choose a player to take one shot and retain possession.
NEW YORK TIMES