THE 2008–09 SEASON was one Washington Wizards fans would prefer to forget—and that’s saying something given the franchise’s woeful history.
Their offseason decision to octuple down on a core with zero playoff series victories to its name was going horribly wrong. Gilbert Arenas, in the first year of a six-year, $111 million contract, was set to miss most of a second straight season with a left knee injury. Running mates Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison were underperforming and rolling their eyes at a group of young teammates that seemed to lack basic professionalism. A 1–10 start cost longtime coach Eddie Jordan his job, and interim Ed Tapscott wasn’t faring much better.
One moment, at around 3:30 pm ET on the first Sunday after New Year’s, made Wizards fans forget about all that misery. For a brief instant, those few remaining broken-down Wizards fans sitting inside Verizon Center or by their televisions erupted in a roar. What could’ve possibly caused such a hopeless fanbase to react as if their team won the championship?
LeBron James finally got called for traveling.
The Wizards clung to a two-point lead with 10.5 seconds left as the Cavaliers inbounded at half court. James crossed the ball between his legs, hopped backwards to draw Butler out of his stance, and surged past him to his left, swinging the ball over his head to avoid a second defender. He took a massive leap off his right foot to split two Wizards at the free-throw line, then finished the move with a left-right one-two step sequence into a powerful layup while being fouled.
But as James surged to the hoop to finish, outside official Bill Spooner greeted him with a series of whistles. The call was for traveling. No game-tying basket, no accompanying foul to give Cleveland a chance to take the lead. Finally, a small source of karmic retribution for Wizards faithful who remembered the uncalled James traveling violation that cost them a crucial Game 3 victory in their first-round playoff series three years earlier.
“He traveled!” Wizards announcer Steve Buckhantz shouted in shock. “A traveling has been called on LeBron James!”
James was baffled. “Bad call,” he said bluntly after the game. “We all make mistakes.” Then, he uttered a phrase that would become immortal in basketball lore:
“I took a crab dribble.”
“A hesitation dribble, and then two steps.”
“It’s a play that you don’t see in this league much but myself,” he elaborated. “It’s one of those plays where you have your trademark play, and that’s one of my plays. It kind of looks like a travel because it’s slow, and it’s kind of like high steps. But it’s a one-two, just as fluent as any other one-two in this league. I got the wrong end of it, but I think they need to look at it again and need to understand that’s not a travel.
“What happens is when you take a crab dribble and you hesitate, that is not one step, because you still basically have a live ball,” he said after another follow-up question. “And then when you go into your one-two that’s when the steps get counted. So if you look at the play, I take a crab dribble and find a crease and then I take my one-two. So it’s a perfectly legal play, something I’ve always done and always been successful with.”
Within hours, “crab dribble” became one of the most popular (proto) memes in modern NBA history. Most fans and media had never heard this term before, and many players even admitted their ignorance. Images and videos of James’ face superimposed on crab legs flooded the Internet. (One argued, facetiously, that LeBron didn’t travel because 18 itty bitty crab steps was the same as one human step.) An increasingly loud cacophony of James critics began using “crab dribble” as a catch-all term for the special treatment The King supposedly received from the league.
“A crab dribble is when you, uh, travel,” Caron Butler said, echoing their thoughts.
The silly ensuing conversation overlooked two critical points. First: the “crab dribble” is a real basketball move. It’s when a player uses their back to shield their defender, crouches down, and dribbles while hopping their feet to the side like a crab. It’s usually performed when posting up, but it can also carve out space underneath the hoop, ward off a pressuring defender in the backcourt, or, as James showed, feign a step backward as part of a perimeter hesitation move.
Secondly, and more importantly, James traveled anyway. The crab dribble was irrelevant. The actual confusion centered on when, exactly, James gathered the ball to terminate his dribble. Did he do that and then take a one-two step, as he claimed, or did he take three steps?
The answer is three steps. The call was correct. LeBron was wrong. But the margin was a lot narrower than the naked eye suggested.
James almost nailed the footwork using hacks similar to Iverson’s and Ginóbili’s signature moves. Had LeBron taken that first giant leap forward before gathering the ball, that step wouldn’t have counted as one of his two permitted ones. Instead, LeBron, perhaps fearful of a second Wizard reaching in for a steal, snatched the ball over his head just before his toes could lift off the ground for that giant stride. That meant it counted as one of his postgather steps, which meant the extra two he took added up to three, which is illegal. That very slight mistiming made all the difference.
In practice, at least. The actual language of the 2008–09 NBA rulebook was far less clear.
“A player who receives the ball while he is progressing or upon completion of a dribble, may use a two-count rhythm in coming to a stop, passing or shooting the ball,” it read. “The first count occurs: (1) As he receives the ball, if either foot is touching the floor at the time he receives it. (2) As the foot touches the floor, or as both feet touch the floor simultaneously after he receives the ball, if both feet are off the floor when he receives it. The second occurs: (1) After the count of one when either foot touches the floor, or both feet touch the floor simultaneously.”
The one word conspicuously absent from that paragraph? “Step.”
Instead, the rule referenced a “two-count rhythm” that is related to when the players’ feet touch the floor, but is obfuscated with legalese that muddies their precise relationship. It’s sort of like counting to two once the player picks up his dribble, except that count starts at slightly different points. If you can say “one-two” naturally without an abnormally long break between the two words, the move was legal. If you couldn’t, it wasn’t.
Talk about a subjective measure! No two people count the same way, so of course nobody could agree on traveling violations.
By relying on a “count” rather than the feet actually hitting the ground, the rule unofficially considered post-dribble steps legal if they seemed like natural extensions of the move itself. It rested on the theory that players made dribble moves consciously and then finished the play in a continuous motion. “Two-count rhythm” was enough to cover the natural transition between the two.
The sudden rise of the Eurostep and the dribbling creativity of Iverson and his disciples shattered that framework. How could the Eurostep be considered a “dribbling move” when players had to terminate their dribble before executing it? How did the “one-two count” apply to the tempo changes and gather ambiguity of Iverson’s hang dribble? Referees found themselves at a loss trying to assess those moves with the letter of the traveling law at the time. Neither required extra steps, but they didn’t necessarily shift from gather to finish in a continuous motion, either.
James’ one-of-a-kind athletic profile presented another complication. As a high school phenom and early NBA sensation, James developed a jump stop-esque move to leap through creases and finish around the basket. While the jump stop had been a common driving tactic for years, James’ footwork was different. Whereas prior jump stoppers needed to leap off both feet to generate enough power to pull the move off , James was so explosive that he could leap off one foot and cover as much ground, if not more, than most people’s two-footed hops.
That revealed an additional gray area in the traveling rule’s language. A two-footed jump stop was considered a non-continuous move because the leap itself requires a slight pause to execute properly. Those players were thus required to maintain a pivot foot upon landing, so they could only use a jump stop if they landed on both feet, then went back up off both feet. (Iverson, ironically, was adept at doing just that to elude bigger defenders for short jumpers and floaters.)
LeBron, however, interpreted his signature move differently. Because his initial leap was a one-footed move, he wasn’t “jump stopping.” Instead, he was performing something now known as a “pro hop”—a slow, yet continuous move in which his launch step operated as the first part of his “two-count rhythm.” It didn’t matter that the first step looked like a jump stop and traveled as far as a jump stop. It couldn’t be one because it was off one foot rather than two.
By that logic, he should be allowed to take another legal step before incurring a traveling violation. If people thought it looked like a travel, that was because they weren’t looking at his feet. Why should he be blamed for possessing supreme athletic gifts that allowed him to fly off one foot when most players could only dream of levitating off two?
The league initially disagreed, telling James that referees were instructed to view his move as a jump stop and thus a traveling violation. But they found it impossible to enforce consistently, only following through in a few isolated incidents. Despite James’ repeated claims that the league took away his signature move, referees mostly let him get away with it.
The confusing status of James’ one-footed jump stop/pro hop move was not the specific reason he got called for a travel on that pivotal January 2009 afternoon in D.C. As Spooner reiterated to a pool reporter, James took three steps after his gather regardless. But that history, combined with the rise of the Eurostep and the influx of players who mimicked Iverson’s dribbling techniques, helps explain why the crab dribble controversy was the league’s last straw. Nobody knew what traveling was, and players had exploited that vagueness to make a mockery of the rulebook definition. Something needed to be done to fix that.
That something trickled out a couple months later. In a story published in March of 2009, vice president of referee operations Joe Borgia told ESPN’s Henry Abbott that officials had long been told to permit two post-gather steps, even if the rule’s language did not explicitly state that. “We really don’t reference the rulebook,” he said.
To rectify this problem, Borgia drafted a new version of the traveling rule that the league approved that summer. “A player who receives the ball while he is progressing or upon completion of a dribble, may take two steps in coming to a stop, passing or shooting the ball,” it read. No more “counts.” No more confusion. The unwritten rule had become a written one. Players got two steps before they were whistled for traveling.
Though NBA officials pushed back on the idea that they had “changed” the definition of traveling, the significance of that language alteration (or clarification, if you prefer) would soon become clear. The players’ creativity had outstripped the written rules of the game. The league was forced to play catch up.
This was not the last time they fell behind.
Mike Prada is the founder and first site manager of Bullets Forever. You can follow Mike on Twitter at @MikePradaNBA, and buy “Spaced Out: How the NBA’s Three-Point Revolution Changed Everything You Thought You Knew About Basketball” now.