As promised earlier, here are a handful of excerpts from David Stern's favorite book, Blowing the Whistle, by Tim Donaghy.
On gambling refs:
To have a little fun at the expense of the worst troublemakers, the referees working the game would sometimes make a modest friendly wager amongst themselves: first ref to give one of the bad boys a technical foul wouldn't have to tip the ball boy that night. In the NBA, ball boys set up the referees' locker room and keep it stocked with food and beer for the postgame meal. We usually ran the kid ragged with a variety of personal requests and then slipped him a $20 bill. Technically, the winner of the bet won twice — he didn't have to pay the kid and he got to call a T on Mr. Foul-Mouthed Big-Shot Du Jour.
After the opening tip, it was hilarious as the three of us immediately focused our full attention on the intended victim, waiting for something, anything, to justify a technical foul. If the guy so much as looked at one of us and mumbled, we rang him up. Later in the referees' locker room, we would down a couple of brews, eat some chicken wings, and laugh like hell.
We had another variation of this gag simply referred to as the "first foul of the game" bet. While still in the locker room before tip-off, we would make a wager on which of us would call the game's first foul. That referee would either have to pay the ball boy or pick up the dinner tab for the other two referees. Sometimes, the ante would be $50 a guy. Like the technical foul bet, it was hilarious — only this time we were testing each other's nerves to see who had the guts to hold out the longest before calling a personal foul. There were occasions when we would hold back for two or three minutes — an eternity in an NBA game — before blowing the whistle. It didn't matter if bodies were flying all over the place; no fouls were called because no one wanted to lose the bet.
We played this little game during the regular season and summer league. After a game, all three refs would gather around the VCR and watch a replay of the game. Early in the contest, the announcers would say, "Holy cow! They're really letting them play tonight!" If they only knew...
During one particular summer game, Duke Callahan, Mark Wunderlich, and I made it to the three-minute mark in the first quarter without calling a foul. We were running up and down the court, laughing our asses off as the players got hammered with no whistles. The players were exhausted from the nonstop running when Callahan finally called the first foul because Mikki Moore of the New Jersey Nets literally tackled an opposing player right in front of him. Too bad for Callahan — he lost the bet.
I became so good at this game that if an obvious foul was committed right in front of me, I would call a travel or a three-second violation instead. Those violations are not personal fouls, so I was still in the running to win the bet. The players would look at me with disbelief on their faces as if to say, "What the hell was that?"
On star treatment:
Relationships between NBA players and referees were generally all over the board — love, hate, and everything in-between. Some players, even very good ones, were targeted by referees and the league because they were too talented for their own good. Raja Bell, formerly of the Phoenix Suns and now a member of the Charlotte Bobcats, was one of those players. A defensive specialist throughout his career, Bell had a reputation for being a "star stopper." His defensive skills were so razor sharp that he could shut down a superstar, or at least make him work for his points. Kobe Bryant was often frustrated by Bell's tenacity on defense. Let's face it, no one completely shuts down a player of Kobe's caliber, but Bell could frustrate Kobe, take him out of his game, and interrupt his rhythm.
You would think that the NBA would love a guy who plays such great defense. Think again! Star stoppers hurt the promotion of marquee players. Fans don't pay high prices to see players like Raja Bell — they pay to see superstars like Kobe Bryant score 40 points. Basketball purists like to see good defense, but the NBA wants the big names to score big points.
If a player of Kobe's stature collides with the likes of Raja Bell, the call will almost always go for Kobe and against Bell. As part of our ongoing training and game preparation, NBA referees regularly receive game-action video tape from the league office. Over the years, I have reviewed many recorded hours of video involving Raja Bell. The footage I analyzed usually illustrated fouls being called against Bell, rarely for him. The message was subtle but clear — call fouls against the star stopper because he's hurting the game.
If Kobe Bryant had two fouls in the first or second quarter and went to the bench, one referee would tell the other two, "Kobe's got two fouls. Let's make sure that if we call a foul on him, it's an obvious foul, because otherwise he's gonna go back to the bench. If he is involved in a play where a foul is called, give the foul to another player."
Similarly, when games got physically rough, we would huddle up and agree to tighten the game up. So we started calling fouls on guys who didn't really matter — "ticky-tack" or "touch" fouls where one player just touched another but didn't really impede his progress. Under regular circumstances these wouldn't be fouls, but after a skirmish we wanted to regain control. We would never call these types of fouls on superstars, just on the average players who didn't have star status. It was important to keep the stars on the floor.
Allen Iverson provides a good example of a player who generated strong reaction, both positive and negative, within the corps of NBA referees. For instance, veteran referee Steve Javie hated Allen Iverson and was loathe [sic] to give him a favorable call. If Javie was on the court when Iverson was playing, I would always bet on the other team to win or at least cover the spread. No matter how many times Iverson hit the floor, he rarely saw the foul line. By contrast, referee Joe Crawford had a grandson who idolized Iverson. I once saw Crawford bring the boy out of the stands and onto the floor during warm-ups to meet the superstar. Iverson and Crawford's grandson were standing there, shaking hands, smiling, talking about all kinds of things. If Joe Crawford was on the court, I was pretty sure Iverson's team would win or at least cover the spread.
Madison Square Garden was the place to be for a marquee matchup between the Miami Heat and New York Knicks. I worked the game with Derrick Stafford and Gary Zielinski, knowing that the Knicks were a sure bet to get favorable treatment that night. Derrick Stafford had a close relationship with Knicks coach Isiah Thomas, and he despised Heat coach Pat Riley. I picked the Knicks without batting an eye and settled in for a roller-coaster ride on the court.
During pregame warm-ups, Shaquille O'Neal approached Stafford and asked him to let some air out of the ball.
"Is this the game ball?" O'Neal asked. "It's too hard. C'mon, D, let a little air out of it."
Stafford then summoned one of the ball boys, asked for an air needle, and let some air out of the ball, getting a big wink and a smile from O'Neal.
On makeup calls:
I remember one nightmarish game I worked with Joe Crawford and Phil Robinson. Minnesota and New Orleans were in a tight game going into the last minute, and Crawford told us to make sure that we were 100 percent sure of the call every time we blew the whistle. When play resumed, Minnesota coach Flip Saunders started yelling at us to make a call. Robinson got intimidated and blew the whistle on New Orleans. The only problem was it wasn't the right call. Tim Floyd, the Hornets' coach, went nuts. He stormed the court and kicked the ball into the top row of the stadium. Robinson had to throw him out, and Minnesota won the game.
Later that week, Ronnie Nunn told me that we could have made something up at the other end against Minnesota to even things out. He even got specific — maybe we should have considered calling a traveling violation on Kevin Garnett. Talk about the politics of the game! Of course the official statement from the league office will always read, "There is no such thing as a makeup call."
On his fellow referees:
Crawford wanted the game over quickly so he could kick back, relax, and have a beer; [Dick Bavetta] wanted it to keep going so he could hear his name on TV. He actually paid an American Airlines employee to watch all the games he worked and write down everything the TV commentators said about him. No matter how late the game was over, he'd wake her up for a full report. He loved the attention.
That very first time Jack and I bet on an NBA game, Dick was on the court. The team we picked lost the game, but it covered the large point spread and that's how we won the money. Because of the matchup that night, I had some notion of who might win the game, but that's not why I was confident enough to pull the trigger and pick the other team. The real reason I picked the losing team was that I was just about certain they would cover the spread, no matter how badly they played. That is where Dick Bavetta comes into the picture.
From my earliest involvement with Bavetta, I learned that he likes to keep games close, and that when a team gets down by double-digit points, he helps the players save face. He accomplishes this act of mercy by quietly, and frequently, blowing the whistle on the team that's having the better night. Team fouls suddenly become one-sided between the contestants, and the score begins to tighten up. That's the way Dick Bavetta referees a game — and everyone in the league knew it.
Fellow referee Danny Crawford attended Michael Jordan's Flight School Camp years ago and later told me that he had long conversations with other referees and NBA players about how Bavetta propped up weak teams. Danny told me that Jordan himself said that everyone in the league knew that Bavetta cheated in games and that the players and coaches just hoped he would be cheating for them on game night. Cheating? That's a very strong word to use in any sentence that includes the name Dick Bavetta. Is the conscious act of helping a team crawl back into a contest "cheating"? The credo of referees from high school to the NBA is "call them like you see them." Of course, that's a lot different than purposely calling more fouls against one team as opposed to another. Did Bavetta have a hidden agenda? Or was he the ultimate company man, making sure the NBA and its fans got a competitive game most times he was on
Studying under Dick Bavetta for 13 years was like pursuing a graduate degree in advanced game manipulation. He knew how to marshal the tempo and tone of a game better than any referee in the league, by far. He also knew how to take subtle — and not so subtle — cues from the NBA front office and extend a playoff series or, worse yet, change the complexion of that series.
The 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings presents a stunning example of game and series manipulation at its ugliest. As the teams prepared for Game 6 at the Staples Center, Sacramento had a 3–2 lead in the series. The referees assigned to work Game 6 were Dick Bavetta, Bob Delaney, and Ted Bernhardt. As soon as the referees for the game were chosen, the rest of us knew immediately that there would be a Game 7. A prolonged series was good for the league, good for the networks, and good for the game. Oh, and one more thing: it was great for the big-market, star-studded Los Angeles Lakers.
In the pregame meeting prior to Game 6, the league office sent down word that certain calls — calls that would have benefitted the Lakers — were being missed by the referees. This was the type of not-so-subtle information that I and other referees were left to interpret. After receiving the dispatch, Bavetta openly talked about the fact that the league wanted a Game 7.
"If we give the benefit of the calls to the team that's down in the series, nobody's going to complain. The series will be even at three apiece, and then the better team can win Game 7," Bavetta stated.
As history shows, Sacramento lost Game 6 in a wild come-from-behind thriller that saw the Lakers repeatedly sent to the foul line by the referees. For other NBA referees watching the game on television, it was a shameful performance by Bavetta's crew, one of the most poorly officiated games of all time.
The 2002 series certainly wasn't the first or last time Bavetta weighed in on an important game. He also worked Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals between the Lakers and the Trail Blazers. The Lakers were down by 13 at the start of the fourth quarter when Bavetta went to work. The Lakers outscored Portland 31–13 in the fourth quarter and went on to win the game and the series. It certainly didn't hurt the Lakers that they got to shoot 37 free throws compared to a paltry 16 for the Trail Blazers.
Two weeks before the 2003–04 season ended, Bavetta and I were assigned to officiate a game in Oakland. That afternoon before the tip-off, we were discussing an upcoming game on our schedule. It was the last regular-season game we were scheduled to work, pitting Denver against San Antonio. Denver had lost a game a few weeks prior because of a mistake made by the referees, a loss that could be the difference between them making or missing the playoffs. Bavetta told me Denver needed the win and that it would look bad for the staff and the league if the Nuggets missed the playoffs by one game. There were still a few games left on the schedule before the end of the season, and the standings could potentially change. But on that day in Oakland, Bavetta looked at me and casually stated, "Denver will win if they need the game. That's why I'm on it."
I was thinking, How is Denver going to win on the road in San Antonio? At the time, the Spurs were arguably the best team in the league. Bavetta answered my question before it was asked.
"Duncan will be on the bench with three fouls within the first five minutes of the game," he calmly stated.
Bavetta went on to inform me that it wasn't the first time the NBA assigned him to a game for a specific purpose. He cited examples, including the 1993 playoff series when he put New Jersey guard Drazen Petrovic on the bench with quick fouls to help Cleveland beat the Nets. He also spoke openly about the 2002 Los Angeles–Sacramento series and called himself the NBA's "go-to guy."
As it turned out, Denver didn't need the win after all; they locked up a spot in the playoffs before they got to San Antonio. In a twist of fate, it was the Spurs that ended up needing the win to have a shot at the division title, and Bavetta generously accommodated. In our pregame meeting, he talked about how important the game was to San Antonio and how meaningless it was to Denver, and that San Antonio was going to get the benefit of the calls that night. Armed with this inside information, I called Jack Concannon before the game and told him to bet the Spurs.
To no surprise, we won big. San Antonio blew Denver out of the building that evening, winning by 26 points. When Jack called me the following morning, he expressed amazement at the way an NBA game could be manipulated. Sobering, yes; amazing, no. That's how the game is played in the National Basketball Association.
In a follow-up email to the referee staff and the league office, Crawford railed about the lack of respect players had for referees and the NBA's failure to back him up. Then, in a direct shot at the league's embracing of referees like Dick Bavetta, he fired a sharp rebuke:
"I also told [Stu Jackson] that the staff is an officiating staff of Dick Bavetta's — schmoozing and sucking people's asses to get ahead. Awful, but it is reality."
Crawford also touched on the fact that he was being excluded from working the playoffs that year:
"Look on the bright side everybody, MORE playoff games for you guys and Dick, maybe you will get to be crew chief in the 7th game of the Finals, which is a travesty in itself you even being in the Finals."
My favorite Tommy Nunez story is from the 2007 playoffs when the San Antonio Spurs were able to get past the Phoenix Suns in the second round. Of course, what many fans didn't know was that Phoenix had someone working against them behind the scenes. Nunez was the group supervisor for that playoff series, and he definitely had a rooting interest.
Nunez loved the Hispanic community in San Antonio and had a lot of friends there. He had been a referee for 30 years and loved being on the road; in fact, he said that the whole reason he had become a group supervisor was to keep getting out of the house. So Nunez wanted to come back to San Antonio for the conference finals. Plus, he, like many other referees, disliked Suns owner Robert Sarver for the way he treated officials. Both of these things came into play when he prepared the referees for the games in the staff meetings. I remember laughing with him and saying, "You would love to keep coming back here." He was pointing out everything that Phoenix was able to get away with and never once told us to look for anything in regard to San Antonio. Nunez should have a championship ring on his finger.
Derrick Stafford and Jess Kersey
Of course, Stafford had some friends in the league, too. I worked a Knicks game in Madison Square Garden with him on February 26, 2007. New York shot an astounding 39 free throws that night to Miami's paltry eight. It seemed like Stafford was working for the Knicks, calling fouls on Miami like crazy. Isiah Thomas was coaching the Knicks, and after New York's four-point victory, a guy from the Knicks came to our locker room looking for Stafford, who was in the shower. He told us that Thomas sent him to retrieve Stafford's home address; apparently, Stafford had asked the coach before the game for some autographed sneakers and jerseys for his kids. Suddenly, it all made sense.
Referee Jess Kersey was another one of Isiah Thomas' guys. They'd talk openly on the phone as if they had known each other since childhood. Thomas even told Kersey that he was pushing to get Ronnie Nunn removed from the supervisor's job so that Kersey and Dick Bavetta could take over. This sort of thing happened all the time, and I kept waiting for a Knicks game when Stafford, Bavetta, and Kersey were working together. It was like knowing the winning lottery numbers before the drawing!
And then there was the ongoing feud between Javie and 76ers superstar Allen Iverson. The rift was so bad that Philadelphia general manager Billy King often called the league office to complain about Javie's treatment of Iverson during a game.
Iverson was eventually traded to Denver, and in his first game against his former team, he was tossed after two technicals. Afterward, Iverson implied Javie had a grudge against him, saying, "I thought I got fouled on that play, and I said I thought that he was calling the game personal, and he threw me out. His fuse is real short anyway, and I should have known that I couldn't say anything anyway. It's been something personal with me and him since I got in the league. This was just the perfect game for him to try and make me look bad." The league fined Iverson $25,000 for his comments, but most of the league referees thought the punishment was too lenient and were upset he wasn't suspended. As a result, we collectively decided to dispense a little justice of our own, sticking it to Iverson whenever we could.
Shortly after the Javie-Iverson incident, I worked a Jazz-Nuggets contest in Denver on January 6, 2007. During the pregame meeting, my fellow referees Bernie Fryer and Gary Zielinski agreed that we were going to strictly enforce the palming rule against Iverson. Palming the ball was something Iverson loved to do, but if he so much as came close to a palm, we were going to blow the whistle. Obviously, our actions were in direct retaliation for Iverson's rant against Javie. True to form, I immediately excused myself and made an important phone call.
Sticking to our pregame pledge, each of us whistled Iverson for palming in the first quarter — we all wanted in on the fun. The violations seemed to affect Iverson's rhythm and he played terribly that night, shooting 5-for-19 with five turnovers. After getting repeatedly whistled all night long, Iverson approached me in an act of submission.
"How long am I going to be punished for Javie?" he quietly inquired.
"Don't know what you're talking about, Allen," I responded.