NBA is pushing for more former players to become game officials
POSTED: Mar 3, 2015 1:57 PM ET
UPDATED: Mar 3, 2015 3:22 PM ET
Making the Call: Leon Wood
NBA official Leon Wood talks about the life of an NBA official and shows an in-depth look into his gameday routine.
Leon Wood still remembers the first time he whistled a traveling violation on the great Michael Jordan.
"He laughed," said Wood, now in his 19th season as an NBA referee but, in his previous basketball life, a teammate of Jordan on the 1984 U.S. Men's Olympic team. "Basically, he wasn't buying what I was doing. He was like, 'Dude, you were just one of us. That's just one of the moves you used to do.'"
"Used to do" means playing, something Wood did in the NBA for five seasons in six years from 1984-85 through 1990-91. "Does" is what matters now to Wood, one of two active referees who used to play in the NBA and three overall. Haywoode Workman, a journeyman guard whose playing career spanned eight seasons and 11 years, has been an NBA ref since 2008-09. Now retired, Bernie Fryer played a total of 120 games in the NBA and the ABA before logging 28 years as a pro hoops whistle blower.
It's a transition as bold as it is rare. Far more NBA players have climbed into the coaching ranks or the front office as scouts, general managers, even presidents or VPs of basketball operations than have gone zebra. And yet, the league wants to court more of its alumni -- or those who played the game in college -- to consider a second career as a referee.
Mike Bantom, NBA executive vice president of referee operations, said former players have obvious attributes to become effective refs. "One, you have to be athletic and fit," Bantom said. "Two, you need to have an understanding of the game. If you've spent years of your life playing a game, you're familiar with the game, you know the game, you know the nuances of the game.
"And then you have to learn, as anyone does, the intricacies of refereeing a ball game. But you start off with a couple of key characteristics already in your back pocket if you're a college athlete or a professional player."
So why haven't we seen more of them? Bantom mentioned the years of seasoning that a fledgling referee needs, sometimes starting at the sport's lowest level -- pro-am leagues, high schools -- and pass through the Development League as a necessary stop before the NBA. Also the salaries, while comfortably into six figures for the most senior officials, pale next to the players' paychecks.
Then there's the mental hurdle of crossing over to sports' so-called dark side. To some players, referees are "bad guys with whistles." To others, they're just furniture, part of the game's support structure. And for the highly competitive types who populate the NBA, it could seem odd to run up and down the court all night without a chance to win.
"Going back to when you're a kid, it's just human nature -- you have players and then you have officials," Wood said. "The majority of 'em say no, based on what we have to do for a living: the travel, watching all the video, being watched at all times for evaluation. A lot of them are like, 'No way. I can't do it.'"
Workman said he has approached several NBA players with the idea, including Orlando guard Luke Ridnour, whom he believed had the aptitude and attitude to referee. They all have shaken him off.
"I tell people, it's the best gig ever," said Workman, who lives in Tampa, Fla. "I tell guys, 'Hey, I'm working on a second pension here.' The pay is pretty good. You're still in the loop. And another thing was, I didn't want to get heavy as I got older. It keeps me in shape.
"I would think some of those guys would be good referees. They're used to getting yelled at. They're not going to be surprised by anything out there. But you do have to have some cajones to be a ref."
This had been tried before. Fryer made the switch successfully, but two who did not were former Buffalo guard Ernie DiGregorio and longtime player-turned-Hall of Fame coach Don Nelson. DiGregorio never could shake his player's view of the action, according to those who recall his officiating forays, while Nelson had a different habit leftover from his time with the Lakers and Celtics. "He would jump so he could see better what was happening in the lane," recalled one veteran ref. "They had to tell him, 'Nellie, refs don't jump.'"
I tell people, it's the best gig ever. ... You're still in the loop.
– NBA game official Haywoode Workman
Neither Wood nor Workman came up butting heads with referees. Workman said he never paid them much attention at all, focusing only on his play, his team, the opponents and the game. Wood said his mother, Evelyn, taught him from an early age to be respectful, with the possible benefit of having a close play called his way every so often.
"I never had trouble with officials as a player," Wood said. "My mom talked me into trying to get referees on my side. ... When my teammates would get into it with a ref, I'd be the one to step in to calm them down."
Wood had been a player of some repute, drafted 10th overall in 1984 and taking a roster spot on the Olympic team that Charles Barkley and John Stockton didn't make. But he averaged just 6.4 points, 3.2 assists and 16.5 minutes with six different teams, spent a season in Spain and was only 28 when he got waived for the final time, by Sacramento on Christmas Eve 1990.
Wood dipped a toe in as a high school referee in California, which led to working some college games in the Ohio Valley and Trans America Athletic conferences. The native of Santa Monica also worked summer pro-am leagues and three seasons in the Continental Basketball Association before reaching the NBA.
When he got back to this league, some of Wood's peers still were around. "Early in my career, it was kind of difficult. They were still looking at me as a ballplayer," Wood said. "By the time Jordan, Barkley and those guys retired, a new generation of players came in and I think that's when I was starting to come into my own. Now the guys who are left are coaches. I think I'm very comfortable with what I've established and who I am as a referee."
Workman, a second-round pick by Atlanta out of Oral Roberts, had the seed of this second career planted by veteran ref Bob Delaney, now the NBA's VP of referee operations. He started out officiating middle school girls games, advancing to the high school and CBA levels, then spending more than five seasons in the Development League.
"I looked at it as, I had to learn," Workman said. "But the main thing was, that's the way I came up to get to the NBA. So this wasn't going to be anything different."
One current NBA coach said that, in his view, Wood and Workman don't get flustered when players or coaches confront them, attributing it to their playing backgrounds. Another said they both appear to tolerate more physical play, since the NBA rules allowed for that when both of them were players.
Uh, not exactly. Both Bantom and veteran NBA referee Danny Crawford said the league doesn't allow for much latitude in making calls. It's not like MLB home-plate umpires and their (unofficial) personal strike zones.
"Someone might think that, but they're evaluated and expected to make the same calls as any other referee," Crawford said.
Said Wood: "The game is obviously different from when Haywoode and I played. The rules change. We go along with it. We call plays the way [the league] wants us to call them, but how the players or coaches see it, their expectations might be a little different. 'Hey, you guys were players, c'mon, let us play a little more.' But we still have to call the rules like everybody else."
Wood and Workman do believe their playing backgrounds have been an asset, both in familiarity with the league and in how they see the game.
"I know how to play angles, I know different sets, I know situations from being in them," Wood said. "What I bring to the table, if I see a situation that's likely to happen in the game, I can kind of prepare myself for that.
"The fans, the general public don't really have an idea because they're so into their teams. But what we do is almost like a craft. It isn't a thing where, 'Give me a whistle, I can do it.' The first thing you do when you go to a game, all eyes go to the ball. ... We have to train ourselves not to follow the ball."
Workman sounds like he's able to shut out any personal chafing with players and coaches the way he once did with refs.
"You're going to have disagreements," Workman said. "But sometimes you'll get a player or coach who's like, 'I don't like that ref.' What? We're doing a job. Just because we don't agree all the time doesn't mean that referee doesn't like you. It isn't personal."
Workman likes the job and the life well enough that, he jokes, he hopes to "surpass Dick Bavetta" in games and seasons worked.
The best thing about it? "I like that I'm not in the spotlight anymore," Workman said.
"I like that I get to pick and choose what I want to do now, whereas before as a player, there were always people coming at you. Now, you never see me come in, you never see me leave -- there's nobody really interested in the refs."
Wood's enjoyment of the job, meanwhile, doesn't sound much different from when he was a player. "I like being on the floor with the greatest athletes in the world," he said. "And having the opportunity to basically give it my all as far as decision-making, judgment and what-not."
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