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Making the Right Call

It isn't easy being a sports official, but modest salaries, lots of travel and constant criticism take a backseat to the camaraderie and challenges of the game
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Sharon Stone, July/Aug 2004

(continued from page 3)

Watching from the Staples Center stands, Ronnie Nunn leans forward in his seat. "He should get a technical for that," the NBA's director says to himself, watching referee Violet Palmer step in to sort out the mess. Moments later, Palmer turns toward the scorer's table and makes the T sign for a technical foul. Nunn is pleased. "Attagirl," he shouts, more to himself than to the NBA's only female official. "It was the right call, and a gutsy call."

Nunn has flown to Los Angeles from New York for the unique opportunity of seeing two officiating crews in one day. Earlier, the Clippers played the Raptors in the same arena with a three-man crew headed by veteran referee Bernie Fryer. Now the Lakers and Celtics are playing with Jack Nies's crew. Nunn has come unannounced, much as a team's general manager would make a road trip to watch his players.

But Nunn is there to do more than observe. At halftime, he makes his way down to the officials' spartan dressing quarters to talk to Palmer about the technical foul. He praises her for making the call, but lets her know that she bears some of the blame for the incident.

Unlike plays that call for a slow whistle, such as drives through the lane that may evolve in a variety of ways, flagrant contact like that bear hug should be immediately whistled, so no escalation can occur. When O'Neal didn't hear a whistle, he started to take matters into his own hands. "Defuse that before it starts," Nunn tells her.

Palmer listens intently—and acts. Moments into the second half, she blows a quick whistle on a similar play. "That's one reason she's going to be an excellent official," Nunn says. "She really responds to advice and criticism."

Officiating in the NBA is a work in progress. In Nunn's first season behind a desk after 19 years as a referee, he has started to implement changes, both procedural and philosophical. Nunn wants his staff to be more open to discussion, willing to talk to coaches and even players about the reasons calls were made. The referee who made a foul call was once required to immediately head down court to get beyond discussion range, but now he takes up the position along the sideline beside the benches, where gripes can be aired and dealt with before they escalate. "We have nothing to hide," Nunn says.

Nunn makes the case that today's referees are already better than their counterparts of a generation ago—more skilled, more athletic, more consistent. The league office, which used to do little more than issue referees a uniform and a whistle and wish them luck, now monitors the work of every one. It uses video, game observers and even computers, putting difficult plays on a Web site for interpretation to help instill exactly the qualities it wants in its 59-person staff. And top salaries of as much as $400,000 mean that the quality of referee coming into the league is higher than ever before.

But as the referees have improved, so have the players. They're faster than ever, quicker and stronger. Contact is inevitable. At one time, contact in the lane during a shot automatically meant a foul on either the offense or defense, but that isn't the case anymore. Today's referee has to have the judgment of when to blow the whistle—"put air in it," in official's parlance—and when to let play continue. They must do that with a clear knowledge of the league-wide guidelines on what should be a foul and what shouldn't be.

Nunn wants to take as much interpretation out of officiating as possible. Technology has made that necessary. Outraged owners and other gadflys are able to compile tape reels of referees acting inconsistently, calling a foul on one play in Houston but letting a similar play go in Indiana. Nunn is asking his charges not to use their own judgment based on game situations, but to stick to the guidelines.

As a result, officiating is now more science than art. "Balls and strikes," Nunn says. "It's a foul or it isn't." Still, each referee is different. Like a player, each has strengths and weaknesses. Since adding a third official on all games with the 1988—89 season, the league has tried to construct officiating teams in which strengths complement one another. Sixteen of the 59 officials are full-time crew chiefs and don't work with each other until the playoffs. The others rotate, crews staying together for two or three games at a time.

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