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Scott Howard-Cooper

Violet Palmer, the lone female referee in the NBA, has carved out a solid officiating career.
Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Palmer now sees significance from her debut as a referee

Posted Feb 17 2012 2:31PM

Once upon a time, it was a big deal. A female referee in the NBA. Of course it got attention.

Violet Palmer hardly ever hears fans play the gender card anymore. She gets treated as an equal, which is all she ever wanted -- to get the same verbal hailstorm as any ref.

It's a funny thing, though.

Palmer spent all those years trying to downplay the social significance of the hire, hoping to be noticed for her work alone and not because she gets into uniform in a different locker room. In 2012, the view has changed.

"I can see it now," Palmer said.

That she was a pioneer.

"At the time, no," she said. "I had no clue. Wasn't in my vision, wasn't a forethought. Wasn't anything. Looking back on it, you kind of sit back and you go, 'Wow, I am the only woman doing this.' I'm more aware of it now than in the beginning."

Violet Palmer, shown here in her first season, has been an NBA referee for 14 seasons.
Andy Hayt/NBAE via Getty Images

That was 1997, when Palmer and Dee Kantner became the first women to referee regular-season games. They did interviews in a break from usual league protocol. Players and coaches were routinely asked about the breakthrough. (Common responses: How will the females handle all that bad language? How can they possibly be expected to keep the peace when play gets especially physical?) It was a historic moment for the NBA.

Kantner was fired in the summer of 2002 for poor performance, telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that "I had my Andy Warhol 15 minutes of fame five years ago, and I guess I got 15 more minutes this week, so I should be happy because I got a total of 30." The arrival generated unusual attention for the job and so did the departure that surprised her.

Palmer, though, is adding years to the resumé with no end in sight and has earned playoff assignments, a duty that goes only to the game officials with the highest ratings. On April 25, 2006, she became the first woman to ref in the postseason as the Nets and Pacers met.

Fourteen seasons later and with 757 regular season games (her total before this season began) and eight playoff games under her belt, Palmer has become a regular in the NBA officiating circuit.

There is a feeling of accomplishment that didn't exist when she made the actual breakthrough. Mostly, just getting to the NBA wasn't the achievement to Palmer.

Staying there is.

"I think that's how I feel," she said. "I feel now I am who I am and I've survived. Maybe the pioneer part is there. That feels kind of way down the line for me. But I do, at this point, know that I've accomplished something that no one else has accomplished. I know that I'm a good referee and I deserve to be on our staff and I work just as hard as the next guy, to be honest."

Though reluctant to start "bragging on" herself, Palmer sees the long-term value in her staying power in the NBA.

"If my story can motivate another female or another guy -- it doesn't really matter who it can motivate -- to say, 'Hey, you know what? Try something that no one thought you could do.' If somebody can read it and get something out of it to motivate them, I think that's fantastic. No question. But it is kind of hard for me, being the person in the moment right, to say, 'Wow, it's actually me.' That's a bit much sometime."

The Southern California native won back-to-back Division II titles playing for Cal Poly Pomona. Before joining the NBA, she spent nine seasons as a college ref, working the women's Final Four five times and championship game two times. She spent two seasons as a referee in the Continental Basketball Association and officiated in the WNBA as the final step to the move to the NBA.

She is also coordinator of women's basketball officiating for the Pacific 12 Conference and the West Coast Conference.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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