POSTED: Sep 21, 2015 4:27 PM ET
A former official, Bob Delaney is now the NBA's VP of Referee Development and Performance.
James Williams was in trouble. His confidence was in ruins, and he knew that everyone could see his failings. He was an NBA referee.
"I was making way too many mistakes in the crucial parts of the game," says Williams, who had begun refereeing in the NBA in 2010-11. "When the game was on the line I was making the wrong decision. It happened four times in my third year, which is a lot. This profession can be isolating, and I was so isolated - because my confidence was totally gone. That is the worst thing a referee can do is to lose his or her confidence, the same as it is the worst thing for a player to lose his confidence on the floor."
He didn't know what to do.
"It was an awful year," says Williams. "I was borderline depressed. I didn't want to eat, I didn't want to talk to anyone. I was contemplating resigning and saying this is not for me. In this business the scrutiny is off the charts and the negativity is so great. It is consistent. It constantly plays on your mind. I had never been this low in officiating. I had always loved it, but this one year I absolutely despised it."
He had been a referee since graduating from Purdue in 2001 -- for a decade in the NCAA, and then for years more in the WNBA and the NBA D-League while working his way into basketball's most demanding arenas. Williams was 33 years old during his 2012-13 season of crisis. He was still young enough to launch a new career.
"I was on the verge of resigning," he says. "I was going to take the LSAT, go to law school and practice law. I was thinking, this is over."
But his fellow referees were not going to let him give up.
"They walked me off the ledge that summer," says Williams. "They said: 'Don't quit. Stick with it. It will get better.' They said, 'This is part of the game."
They had been where he was -- all of them, to varying degrees -- and they were insisting that he could recover his confidence and his promise. But he couldn't see how.
"On the floor I was worrying about screwing up," Williams says. "The moment you do that, you're not going to be good out there. You have to be confident. It really is just like being a player: If a player thinks the shot is not going to go in, then it's probably not going to go in. But if he's thinking nothing but net, then that's what is going to happen."
This is one of the secrets to refereeing as prescribed by Bob Delaney, the former referee who is now one of Williams' NBA supervisors. In their defeatist profession, understood by few and criticized by all, the only way to survive -- and thrive -- is to focus on the positives.
"After every game we ask all of our referees to do a video review -- a self-critique as well as a team-critique as a crew," says Delaney, the NBA's VP of Referee Development and Performance. "I ask them to emphasize what they are doing right. We live in a negative world. Fans, coaches, players -- even the office at times has called to tell them what they're not doing right. We need to tell them what they are doing right."
The idea is to raise the rate of refereeing in the same way that the best coaches encourage their players: By emphasizing the good.
"The first thing we tell them is what they are doing positive, and then we reinforce the positive so that they can repeat the positive," Delaney says. "Let's say we're getting 90 percent or more of the plays correct. If we can move that number up to 91 percent, to 92 percent and to 93 percent, it will serve the game better."
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Delaney understands the power of negative thinking. For three years in the 1970s he worked undercover for the New Jersey State Police while digging up evidence that would lead to indictments of 30 members of the Genovese and Bruno crime families. His first book, "Covert", (written with Dave Scheiber) detailed those experiences; in a second book, "Surviving the Shadows: A Journey of Hope into Post-Traumatic Stress", he and Scheiber explored the issues of dealing with high-stress situations.
"High levels of anger, frustration, paranoia, isolation -- those are all telltale signs of post-traumatic stress," says Delaney, who feared for his life in the years following his undercover work. "I was isolating myself from those kinds of things.
"I was trying to live up to this heroic tough-guy figure that everybody was painting me out to be, when inside I knew I was experiencing fear and feelings that were not reflective of this image they were making me out to be. It was not until I processed it that I realized it was not about being in fear -- it was about doing my job in spite of the fear. And it was OK to say that I was afraid, that I was throwing up, that I had nightmares as a result of doing that undercover job."
His experiences were in the extreme. And yet they resonated with the experiences of refereeing in the NBA, which became Delaney's second career for 25 years until he retired as a game official in 2011. He realized that referees need to confront their feelings and anxieties amid the demands of mythical perfection.
"The foundation of our 'Performance Enhancement Program' was the willingness to be open about my own emotions and feelings and what took place as a result of that undercover job," Delaney says. "The more that I talked about what my inner-feelings were, the more that I didn't see it as a weakness. In fact it was giving me strength."
Delaney had been consulting with the U.S. military, police, firefighters and football programs -- including the Baltimore Ravens, Florida State and Alabama -- when Mike Bantom, the NBA's Executive VP of Referee Operations, saw the potential for Delaney's program to be applied to refereeing. His Performance Enhancement Program, launched for NBA referees last season, amounts to an ongoing discussion group that enables game officials to pursue their best work while dealing openly with the stresses of their highly-public careers.
"Mental conditioning, mental rehearsal, ethics, leadership, teamwork, communication and resiliency -- these are all areas that help make the full person," says Delaney. "We've implemented all of these into our referee training. The same way we can increase our speed in running and get into physical shape, we can also get into mental-conditioning shape. We can have a plan and develop other skills to serve us on the basketball floor as well as in life."
He encourages referees to watch video of NBA games at fast-forward speed, so that the games in real time will appear to slow down. He also asks them to post videos of difficult plays that they got right, link those plays to a favorite song and then watch their self-made highlight video before they enter the arena. "The beat of the sound of positive reinforcement will be in their heads," says Delaney. "I did the same thing for the Baltimore Ravens, and it resonates."
In a program that will continue this season, NBA referees will meet online every two to three weeks via webinars to hear guest speakers explore themes that are germane to their ambitions, as well as to their troubles and concerns. In between those sessions, Delaney's office will send out additional points of discussion to complement the referees' ongoing dialog on the mechanics of play-calling. "We do not have to be sick," says Delaney, "to get better."
"People think we are like robots," James Williams is saying. "The truth is that many of us -- all of us -- have had sleepless nights because of the errors we make in games. It is not pleasant. It's a lonely world, pro officiating. There are only so many people who can relate to what you do, and even more so today in the 24-hour news cycle -- as soon as something goes wrong, it's everywhere. And the bigger the game, the more exposure you have to your errors, if you happen to make them. Every man or woman on staff can tell you they've all been there.
"The problem is that we are all Type-A personalities. We're in charge of running games and being in front of thousands of people and managing really big egos every night. We have this personal armor over us that we try not to let people penetrate. But we are human. When we make mistakes, it cuts to the core because we pride ourselves on what we do. Players go on with their lives, but as a referee you're replaying that moment of your mistake for a long time. It's the part of the profession that most people don't have any insight on. As much as we don't like to make mistakes, we do make them."
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Williams was enabling those mistakes to define him two seasons ago.
"When I was going through it, I didn't know why -- I thought the world was against me," says Williams. "But then I confronted the situation. I realized that I brought a lot of this on myself by the decisions I made late in games, and I had to get better at that. A lot of people were saying, 'James can't really do this.' Even the office lost all faith in me."
He went back to basics. Instead of trying to defend his place in the league, he set out to compete for the right to be an NBA referee. His summer workouts were not unlike those of the many NBA players who are dedicated to improving themselves each offseason. Williams was competing against himself.
"I became so determined to get better," Williams says. "If you want to motivate me, just tell me I can't do something: I will be so motivated. I developed a gameplan to be better at the end of the games."
Each day in the summer of 2013 he reviewed one of his own games as if it were someone else he was studying. He needed to be honest with himself in an impersonal, bottom-line way.
"I don't have an ego, I really don't," says Williams. "I don't have a problem going to somebody and saying that I'm having trouble with this, or asking why are we doing it this way? I don't know it all and I'm not afraid to speak up about it."
He leaned on the advice of accomplished referees like his friends Sean Wright and Monty McCutchen, who ranks among the best in the NBA. "I love the way Monty approaches this profession: He is ready every single night," says Williams. "He puts so much into it, and for me it's an awe factor. I am always picking his brain, and we don't have to be in the same room. I could be watching the NBA Finals and something is going on, and maybe I'm not sure why we did this -- I'm texting Monty and right away within seconds there is a response."
He looked over his own shoulder game after game after game, he refereed in summer leagues in Atlanta, where he lives in the offseason, as well as in New York, and he studied the NBA rulebook as well as the referees' manual and casebook every day. "The casebook is an extension of the rulebook," Williams says. "The casebook covers 450 plays: If this play happens, what is the rule? It gives you your precedent, like a law review -- you go to the casebook to see how the rules are applied when these things happen.
"The rulebook itself is extremely complicated. It's only a 60-page book, but there are so many scenarios in those 60 pages. It's a scary feeling to be out there and you don't know everything that you should."
In order to be worthy of refereeing the best players, he was finding that he needed to approach his career with the same discipline and passion as those players.
"I remember Michael Jordan used to make up things to get himself going, that whoever was defending him that night had been talking (negatively) about him," Williams says. "For me, I was hell-bent on proving those people wrong. Going over the tapes and the rulebook and the manuals was me understanding that I was in this position because of mistakes I made. You have to look introspectively and know that this is your fault. If you're quick to blame others, then it is not going to work out so well."
As he looks back now, two summers later, he was applying -- in advance -- Delaney's program for performance enhancement. "To be great doesn't mean that you're competing against other people," says Williams. "Being great is about being a better you every day. The way to become better is by being truly honest with your work. When you do that, you can't deny your work is going to get better."
"When a player has a bad shooting night, you can chalk it up to the fact that you can't expect him to have great nights for all 82 games," says Delaney. "Referees aren't afforded the same luxury."
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The myth of perfection is an issue for referees in a way that it never is for the players and coaches who criticize them. Perfection is unachievable in basketball because it is a sport defined by gray area. Even if a referee believed he had officiated the perfect game, the achievement could never be verified and lauded because the players and coaches and media and fans -- as well as fellow referees and the league office -- would never agree on the outcome of every block-charge call or shooting foul. It is a game of interpretation.
And then there are the other realities: The long road trips, the back-to-backs and three games in four nights, the travel by commercial airlines (as opposed to the charters that are available to teams), the everyday problems of family life that are difficult to -- but must be -- set aside when the game begins. The Spurs remain in contention because coach Gregg Popovich rests his players in order to protect them from these fatiguing realities. Referees receive no such protection or understanding.
Delaney wants the referees to discuss all of these issues openly in order to support one another, so that these concerns do not influence their work during the games.
"The weight of 'perfection' has descended on all of sports, and officiating is a central part of that," says McCutchen. "People focus on the negative. One of the things I like about the Performance Enhancement Program is that it encourages us to have discussions. How do you define yourself as an NBA referee? You can fall into that black hole where you start to define yourself based on this unattainable pursuit of perfection. We want to attain perfection, but at the same time what I'm hoping for is excellence -- because I know I'm not getting out of here with perfection."
Perfection is the NBA's unrealistic ideal; excellence is the achievable goal for players, coaches and their teams -- and referees as well. "People think because they have two eyes, they can referee," McCutchen says. "Refereeing is about decision making based on what you see. And finding the nuance, and making sure that a fundamental core value of fairness is being applied on a nightly basis. We learn to define ourselves up against the outside insatiable appetite for perfection.
"When we do that, then we become a little more forgiving to our failing. It doesn't mean that we like failing. But as a referee, if you're incapable of forgiving yourself, then you are incapable of staying in the present moment -- and the present moment is the only way you are able to referee in a state of excellence."
This was the problem for Williams. He was enabling the inevitable mistake to lead to another mistake and then another. The mistakes were defining him instead of being put into the larger perspective by him. The negatives were poisoning his ambition to excel.
"When everything is chaotic, that's when you want to be most calm," says Sean Wright. "You go into a place of let me be calm. When it's chaotic, most referees go back to their basics: Trust your partner, and go into your quiet space of concentration where you are ready to referee. It is a lot of self-talk."
And then there is the reality of learning to deal with fatigue. "It has an undertow to it," says McCutchen. "You start eating poorly on the road, and you will feel it on the floor. Gaining seven pounds is a big deal on the floor. Poor eating habits don't give you the energy to be effective on the floor. If you quit working out and stretching and keeping to your good habits, then you are going to feel it on the last game of that road trip. For us, our bodies and minds need to come together in order for us to be effective."
The same is true for NBA players. "Officials have got to know how to interact with stress," says Delaney. "A maturing factor for referees is their ability to interact with the will to win. The will to win in the NBA is so powerful among coaches and players that a referee has to learn that it's not personal. The tidal wave that comes at you from players and coaches is not personal, even though in most cases people would take it as a personal affront. But it's not anything like that. It truly is all about the will to win, and in their point of view, we get in the way of their will to win."
And so preparations must be made on a variety of fronts. Referees like McCutchen, Wright and Williams must be strengthened and focused by their preparations in order to pursue excellence in spite of the many berating obstacles.
"When you've done all of those things properly, what the world sees during the game is one-tenth of the iceberg that appears above the surface," McCutchen says. "When you've done all of those foundational things well, now you are free to go out and referee that game with a solid base. I'm really happy with the Performance Enhancement Program from that standpoint. It has opened a dialog for us that many on the outside would see as superfluous or unimportant."
"I talked him out of quitting," says Sean Wright proudly of his friend James Williams. "I told him, `James, you are a phenomenal official. This is the job you are destined to do."'
"James is a shining example of what it means to face yourself and your own decisions and fears and the lapses of confidence that we all deal with," says Monty McCutchen. "James answered to himself. It is not easy for any of us to do. You look at your doubts and insecurities and you have to own up to them and say that I want to be different than what I am showing to myself."
In 2013-14, following the summer of his renewal, Williams was named as an alternate for the NBA playoffs. "I call it a bounce-forward year," Williams says. "I went from being on the verge of quitting to being an alternate for the first round. When the list came out, there were so many texts and calls from so many people who were congratulating me on not giving in, on being resilient and fighting back."
It was those colleagues and supervisors, he sees now, who enabled him to think positively: To envision excellence so that it could be achieved.
"There were a number of guys on the staff who helped me with that, they really did," says Williams. "If anyone were to ask me, I would say that I'm glad I went through that year. I'm glad I went through it and I wouldn't change a thing. It taught me so much, way more than what I could have imagined about what it means to wear that patch on your chest and be an NBA referee."
Last spring Williams found himself working into the second round of the playoffs. "He is a great talent," says Delaney, who sees his programs being affirmed by Williams. The goal is to help referees strengthen their confidence before it is lost -- in the same way that players train in order to stave off injuries.
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"Bob says you can't have a testimony without a test," Williams says. "I had my test. Because of my test, I have a testimony that I can tell."
Instead of putting his past behind him, Williams refers to it constantly. It has become a source of his strength.
"You still have the butterflies there, late in the game, but I tell myself, well, 'You know what not to do now. So just do the opposite of that,"' Williams says. "It's about having laser focus at the end. I mean laser focus. No drop in concentration whatsoever. This is the only play that matters out of the whole two hours I've been in this gymnasium. Focus and do exactly what I have to do. It is more positive self-talk.
"In that third year, it was like if you play baseball and you've made a lot of errors in the field and you hope the next guy doesn't hit it here. What does the guy do? He hits it your way.
"I turned the negative into the positive. You can do it. You can handle it. You're ready for it now. It was a matter of changing my perspective so that I can be successful and not make those mistakes again, and that is still my focus today. When I take the court a month from now, when I'm in the final minutes of a preseason game, I'm going to apply that laser-like focus. I'm going to know the situation, I'm going to concentrate my butt off, I've got this, I've been through it, I can handle it."
If NBA refereeing is to achieve a higher level of excellence, then two things must happen. The referees must view themselves in the context of the game, because they are not alien to the ambition and integrity of the NBA. In fact, they have more in common with the players than the players and coaches themselves appear to realize.
But first the referees must be honest with themselves. They must confront the issues of their own humanity that the old-school referees used to hide with the bravado of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. They must take on their insecurities as James Williams has done with this groundbreaking interview. When was the last time you heard of an active NBA referee admitting that his confidence was in ruins?
Last season, while working a Lakers' game, Williams found himself identifying with guard Jeremy Lin. "He makes a hard drive to the hole, he gets fouled, and I'm the referee," says Williams. "I say to him, 'That's the Jeremy Lin I remember: He's aggressive.' And he smiles back at me.
"I said that to him because I could see it: I could see that his confidence has been so shaken. Because we are all human. We all have the same insecurities that everybody else has. The difference is that we're on this stage with national TV, and we're in these jobs where everybody gets to chime in on our performances."
The admission of weakness leads to strength. As Williams meets with his fellow NBA referees this weekend in New Jersey at their annual training camp, he sees his colleagues as teammates. He can see how it is supposed to work with more clarity now, because in all ways he is healthier than he was before.
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