Updated: April 16, 3:20 PM ET
The truth about refereeing in the NBA
By Ric Bucher
ESPN The Magazine
Joey Crawford, Nolan Fine and Violet Palmer have commandeered a corner of the bar for a late-night meal in a Sea-Tac hotel lobby lounge. They've got one eye on their plates of food, one eye on the TV screen above their heads, one ear on their conversation and one ear saved for their cell phones. When you're a referee, you're used to having your senses working in different directions.
Highlights of their game that night, Miami at Seattle, appear on the TV screen. Conversation stops. All eyes are on the screen now. The game gets a passing mention. The crew appears to collectively exhale. A cell phone rings and they momentarily tense up again, until they realize it's not one of theirs.
In the normal midday meeting at the hotel, Crawford cautioned the crew that Riley might turn the game into an ugly scrum, knowing that his young road-weary team had no chance of winning and had been pummeled the night before in Portland.
These elements, incidentally, are mandatory for every ref to know -- the disruptive personalities on every team, how long a team has been on the road, how their previous games have gone, what changes they've had to make to their personnel, their favorite plays, what other controversies that might affect a team's or player's demeanor. This, for every game they work. Aside from the 59-page rule book, the 76-page case book and 71-page official's manual, of course, which is tested with weekly quizzes and regular videotape you-make-the-call tests online.
None of which, however, can stop a coach bent on wreaking havoc. Riley did uglify the game, yanking rookie Caron Butler after 30 seconds because Rashard Lewis scored on the tip-off. Riley's not-too-subtle message to his young team: I don't care if you're tired or overmatched, I want you to take a piece out of them. Former Sonic Vladimir Stepania had his own grudge, chapped that Seattle dealt him two years earlier to the Knicks, who then cut him. A second-quarter loose ball in Miami's backcourt results in Stepania diving on top of Desmond Mason and elbowing him in the scramble for the ball. Crawford and Fine are already up court, but Palmer is trailing the play when Mason and Stepania square off. She jumps between them and Ts both.
In the locker room at halftime, Crawford isn't happy that Palmer couldn't tell him where the ball was when she fired off the Ts, which determines how the game should be re-started. "Joey, I looked for it but I was trying to keep them apart," she says. He also asks Fine if, in hindsight, he should've called a flagrant foul on "Seattle's foreign kid" (Vladimir Radmanovic) for a hard foul to stop a Stepania layup shortly before halftime. "I'm saying it's just something to think about," Crawford says.
Then they review tape of Palmer's blocking call on Travis Best. Crawford, hoping to keep Miami from turning the game into a wrestling match, would've called a charge on principle, because it was a 50-50 play and that kind of call tones down a game's physicality, whereas the other encourages it. But the replay shows Palmer's call is technically correct. "Way to go, Violet," Crawford says. This is a case, however, when the technically correct call may not always be the ideal call. If calling Best for a charge might've stopped the second-half shenanigans, the league and every official would've happily taken that trade.
The Heat are down by 16 and have no chance, but Crawford's fears are fully realized. Gary Payton and Butler square off and draw Ts from Fine, then the Sonics' Reggie Evans and Stepania tangle battling for a loose ball. That's two more Ts and Stepania is gone. Midway through the fourth quarter, Lewis and Best go nose-to-nose and a mini-melee breaks out. Two more Ts. As the refs walk under the stands to their locker room, Heat security director David Holcombe informs Crawford that Lewis threw a punch at Best.
Fine rushes for the videotape in the locker room. It takes three different camera-angle replays and a freeze frame to detect Lewis putting a fist to Best's chin as teammates prevent him from actually throwing it. Referees are required to call either Rush or Winick immediately if the game is "atypical." Eight Ts qualifies. The post-game report includes a section for "Personality Problems."
"Everybody," mutters Crawford as he pecks at the keys.
In doing my magazine piece on Palmer, I spent time with four different crews, observing their game-day meeting, their pre-game conference, their locker room chat at halftime and their post-game wrap-up. I saw them review more tape than some teams do. I heard them quiz each other on arcane rules or test each other with what-ifs, situations that the average fan, player or coach has no idea what the correct call would be. They actually get a twisted sort of pleasure trying to stump each other, like the guys in "Diner" testing each other on the B-side songs of obscure 45s.
I saw the officials scrutinize plays the public might've been aware were questionable and more than a few that only they caught as possibly errant. I saw them study tape to get down what league authorities believe needed special emphasis -- defensive three seconds, lane violations, defenders walking up under shooters after they've released the ball. Teams are constantly pushing the boundaries, seeing what they can get away with and it's a never-ending, ever-changing battle.
Which brings us to the harsh truth: you, Joe or Josephine Fan, complain loudest about the aspect of the game you least know. The announcers and analysts you listen to for help know no more than you and that's difficult to admit because I know most of them. I admire Jeff Van Gundy, in that he talks about officials from a coach's perspective, which is what he knows and he's invariably on the money. Other than Mike Breen, the rest are poking around in the dark, yet bellowing as if they should be taken as authorities. Danny Ainge? One of my favorite people. Great insight to playing and coaching. Clueless when it comes to what referees do and how they do it.
Harsher truth: Most players and coaches aren't any better. Why? Mainly because they're interested in tricking the refs, not seeing the game from their perspective. Which is OK until they start talking about what refs do and why they do it.
Yes, I saw the referees make mistakes. Palmer missed a double-dribble violation by Ricky Davis right in front of her. To avoid a possible late whistle, Davis immediately hoisted a 3-point shot. The ball caromed off the rim and hit the shot clock, making it Boston's ball. Antoine Walker still screamed and got T'ed for it. Reviewing the play at halftime, Palmer said, "Thank God it hit the top. Thank you, Jesus." Then Leroy Richardson told Walker they had indeed missed the play but that still didn't warrant going berserk.
As it so happens, one of Davis' tricks is to dribble with one hand and bring the second hand over as if he's about to stop his dribble, thereby freezing the defender. Rest assured every official working his games from now on will know to watch that move closely.
Which is really maybe the point of all this. The referees are indeed far from perfect. They know that. They will tell you that. Some have paid the fines and served the suspensions to prove that. The league, as of now, doesn't believe you need to know who those officials are, anymore than teams are required to announce player fines for team infractions.
The current crew of officials are also younger than they've been in a long time, thanks to a slew of venerable officials retiring, with more leaving in the next few years. They are forever playing a game of catch-up, despite vast improvements in training and technology and technique. Media scrutiny is higher than ever. But they have no choice but to continue the pursuit. They don't expect that you'll ever understand. The best they can hope for is that someday, you might know enough to give them the benefit of the doubt.