Can’t argue with the ref? Why, that’s almost un-American!

Life can be good when you’re young, talented and playing for guaranteed money in the NBA.

Your every whim is catered to, and there’s a posse around whose job it is to always say yes.

Then somebody comes along and spoils it all by saying no.

No more tantrums. No more whining. No more drama.

No wonder David Stern’s new zero-tolerance edict is making him more unpopular among the NBA’s elite than the caterer who forgot to include chilled Alaskan crab legs in the postgame buffet.

Can’t argue a call anymore? What’s a baller to do?

It seems, well, almost un-American. Actually, to Kevin Garnett, it is.

“That’s almost like Communism,” the Timberwolves’ star said last week. “That’s like Castro.”

Stern isn’t likely to grow a beard and start wearing olive-green fatigues, but to some, the NBA commissioner has become about as close to a dictator as anyone you’ll find in sports these days.

Dictators love decrees. And Stern has issued more than his share _ to make players dress better, act nicer, and appear like they actually care about the guy who spends $200 of his hard-earned money to take the family to a game.

As any dictator will tell you, though, those who are being dictated to sometimes have their limits.

Making sure players don’t board the team plane in shorts that billow down to their ankles is one thing. Stopping them from playing the game the way they’ve been doing since their first shirts-and-skins game is quite another.

Take away trash talking and eye rolling? Next thing you know, they’ll be changing the ball and calling traveling.

“It’s not anything new like a dress code, when you can make a couple calls and get some suits,” Miami’s Dwyane Wade said. “It’s something that really goes with the way that you play.”

That’s true for any kid who ever grew up on a playground, where disputes over whether fouls are legitimate can spawn heated discussions that usually focus on someone’s manhood or his mother.

Those who look at these things in a black and white way might even suggest it’s racially tinged, part of a campaign by Stern to eliminate the hip-hop influence that was so prevalent only a few years ago and make the league more palatable to the middle-class whites it needs to buy tickets.

Complaining, though, tends to be an equal opportunity practice. Larry Bird would run up and down the court arguing with referees if a call went against him, and Christian Laettner believed he spent his entire NBA career getting repeatedly fouled without ever committing one.

Little matter that players were wearing tight shorts and shooting flat-footed the last time a referee actually listened to someone’s argument and reversed a call. Mark Cuban can’t get Stern to listen to him, either, but that doesn’t stop him from talking.

Stern insists his latest decree is no big deal, more a return to the ways of old than anything new. Coaches, he believes, actually like it because a player called for a foul while on offense will hustle down the court to play defense instead of hanging back to make faces at the referee.

Judging from the early returns, making faces is going to become very costly.

Rasheed Wallace made one in the first quarter of the first game of the season for the Pistons and got a technical. By the middle of the third quarter he was out of the game, one of three marquee players tossed in the first two nights of the season alone.

Wallace, who had 16 technicals called against him last year, believes the new policy might as well be called the Rasheed Rule.

“I know they’re going to have to do something about this crazy zero-tolerance law,” Wallace said during the weekend. “In my mind, it’s kind of like a slave and master or father and son. You’ve got your little son and (you say), ‘Don’t say nothing back to me.’ And to me, that’s totally wrong. It ain’t like that in any other sport.”

Actually, Rasheed, it is. Baseball players can kick dirt and scream themselves silly over a call on the bases, but they know better than to even mutter a sarcastic “nice call” over a disputed strike or they’re out of the game.

And Terrell Owens may do a lot of stupid things, but arguing with NFL referees usually isn’t one of them.

Still, there has to be more important things to worry about in the NBA than players making faces and making their opinions known. This isn’t exactly World Cup soccer, where the histrionics of players befuddled referees so much that games were decided by phony falls and even phonier calls.

Besides, complaining about calls is such a time-honored tradition in basketball that it wouldn’t be surprising if someone argued that they were fouled the same day Dr. James Naismith nailed up two peach baskets in a Massachusetts gym 115 years ago.

It’s part of the flavor of the game. It’s part of the fun of the game.

Even Castro might agree with that.