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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 4)

Schedules are made 20 days before the start of the following month, and kept confidential, in part to thwart gamblers. Officials stay in one of three designated hotels in each league city, hotels that have been given clearance as free of gamblers, drug pushers and prostitutes. Most are near the airport because league rules require that officials take the first flight out of a city in the morning, if they haven't been able to leave the night before. The average official works between 70 and 80 games, as much as a player, and he's on the road 22 days of every month.

Unlike the Lakers-Celtics game that follows, when the Celtics will try to compensate for their lack of a physical presence underneath the basket by playing staccato, half-court basketball and fouling O'Neal at every opportunity, the Clippers-Raptors game flows well. In part, this is because the players are running up and down the court of their own accord, but also because Fryer has kept the game moving. However, the second half is always more heated than the first—it's about winning and losing now, Nunn notes, not just scoring points—and when L.A.'s Marko Jaric heads to the basket, Toronto's Donyell Marshall gets a hand up high and contact is made. None of the three officials calls a foul.

Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy thinks Jaric was hit in the head on the drive and lets Fryer know he blew the call and cost his team the game. The crew has a plane to catch to Salt Lake City, but Nunn wants to see the play again on videotape, as well as a half-dozen others he has jotted down in his notebook. With the aid of a state-of-the-art computer system, the plays are downloaded directly onto a television screen in the dressing room. The three officials and Nunn sit in a semicircle and watch the play again and again. It is clear from the replay that Marshall gets a hand only on the ball and never touches Jaric. The call—non-call, actually—was the correct one.

That won't stop Jerry Crowe of the Los Angeles Times from serving as Dunleavy's mouthpiece in the following day's newspaper. Under the headline "Clippers Cry Foul After Loss," Crowe will write, "[The Clippers] wondered how officials Bernie Fryer, Tony Brothers and Zach Zarba could all have been looking the other way when Marko Jaric was bopped on the head by Raptor forward Donyell Marshall." If you hadn't seen the videotape, you would have thought the referees had blown the call.

But they hadn't. Neither had they blown all but one of the others Nunn had noted in his pad. With the exception of an obvious offensive foul that went uncalled earlier in the game, the referees haven't missed a thing. They've worked about as close to a perfectly officiated game as it is possible to have in professional sports.

If the Clippers and Raptors had been achieving on as high a level, which is something of an absurd notion in itself, their game would have been celebrated as an instant classic. But because these achievers are officials, not players, almost nobody realizes what they have seen.

Fryer and his crew leave the arena walking on air. Working a game like that with all three team members clicking together is like turning a double play or scoring a goal with a flurry of passes off a three-on-two rush down the ice. The sense of jubilation makes up for a lot of 5 a.m. wake-up calls. Yet they walk to their rental cars as anonymous as when they arrived, and head for the airport unmolested.

What They Talk About When They Talk About Life
At about 12:30 p.m., on March 3, umpire Joe West arrives at Fort Lauderdale Stadium pulling a steamer trunk of equipment behind him. Since October, he has been idle, soaking up the sun at his Florida home. From now through the end of the season, he will umpire five or six games a week. He'll board perhaps a hundred planes, eat dinners in mid-afternoon and late at night, and file away countless memories.

West, 51, is a big man with a big personality. He has the down-home charisma and folksy manner of a country music singer, which he actually happens to be. He has performed with the likes of Merle Haggard at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry, and even cut his own CD, a twangy 1984 release called Blue Cowboy. As an umpire, he's all business. In 1984, he ejected two cameramen from Shea Stadium when they insisted on showing a controversial replay. In 1990, he shoved pitcher Dennis Cook to the ground during an altercation. Still, flashes of wit show through. When the Orioles' batboy tells West he's the son of manager Lee Mazzilli, West says, "Tell your father you're lucky you take after your mother."

At 1:07 p.m., West cleans home plate for the first time in 2004, flicking away the accumulated dirt with a brush he keeps in his shirt pocket. At 1:13, he calls a hitter out on strikes. And at 1:22, West gets booed for the first time since last fall, at least publicly. He follows a Josh Beckett curve down and out of the strike zone, judging it a ball. Marlins fans sitting tens and even hundreds of feet away don't agree, and they let West know it. West is unmoved, but his vacation is now officially over.


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