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NBA players, coaches working to build better relationships with NBA referees

NBA’s Officiating Advisory Council, other programs spearhead conversations between groups

David Aldridge

David Aldridge TNT Analyst

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Apr 30, 2018 10:03 AM ET

Raptors guard Kyle Lowry was a part of recent meetings between NBA players and officials.

This Week in Officiating Outrages brought a blown no-call goaltend on LeBron James against Victor Oladipo in the final seconds of the pivotal Game 5 between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Indiana Pacers, and a dubious no-call foul on the Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert against Paul George in the final seconds of Utah’s close-out series win in Game 6 against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

It is a rite of this season, in this age where everyone seems to be outraged all the time: if your team loses in the playoffs, it’s because the refs either stink or are crooked. It is a position that gathers even more momentum after a year in which some run-ins between refs and players (and a few coaches) have gotten significant attention, feeding a narrative that the relationship between said people has never been worse.

Yet, quietly, meetings behind the scenes during that same time have created some pressure releases, and fostered better understanding and empathy between some of the aggrieved.

Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry has participated in recent coach-referee meetings.

The meetings have been part of the NBA’s Officiating Advisory Council, one of more than a dozen initiatives created over the last year to try and strengthen the officiating program, from increased transparency in detailing officials’ performance, to enhance “respect for the game” during meetings between officials and the 30 NBA teams in-season, to using new tools to improve their training and evaluation, to bringing in new staff at the league office level to oversee the multi-pronged programs.

Retired Air Force Lieutenant General Michelle Johnson was named Senior Vice President and Head of Referee Operations late last year. Former referee Monty McCutchen, generally considered the league’s best official the last several years by players and staff -- was pulled off the floor last December and named to the new position of Vice President of Referee Training and Development.

They have pushed to implement the initiatives, which fall under the office of the NBA’s President of League Operations, Byron Spruell.

Since last year, three meetings have taken place that have included current and former NBA and WNBA players, coaches, referees, broadcasters and league office members. Two occurred last year; the third was last week in Chicago. The fourth will be held in Dallas in August.

There’s that accuracy, and how hard you have to work to be accurate and good at your craft. And that’s sort of action-to-whistle. But we’re really starting to focus on another part of being an effective referee, which is whistle-to-the-next-set-of-action."

Monty McCutchen, NBA's Vice President of Referee Training and Development

“We’ve had great sessions, and a lot of issues were discussed,” Spruell said Sunday by telephone.

The three meetings have included a broad cross section of NBA constituencies. Among them are the standing members of the Advisory Council -- former U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair General Martin Dempsey; former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan; Hall of Famer Doug Collins; TNT studio analyst Kenny Smith, WNBA superstars and future Hall of Famers Tamika Catchings and Maya Moore and former NBA referee Steve Javie -- with New Orleans Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry, Sacramento Kings coach Dave Joerger, Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon, Bulls associate head coach Jim Boylen, referees Marc Davis and Eric Lewis, Toronto Raptors All-Star guard Kyle Lowry, Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon, Brooklyn Nets forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Grizzlies play-by-play man Pete Pranica and several league officials from different departments.

The meetings and initiatives, Spruell said, all touched and touch on either the perception of the officials, or the performance of the officials.

“You’re trying to have people understand their expertise, and be able to relate it to the group in their own shoes,” Spruell said. “But then be able to put yourself in the other people’s shoes. And what I mean by that is focusing on the main three actors in the games -- coaches, players and officials -- and then certainly the influential aspect that broadcasters bring to bring the game to fans.

“The magic that happened was, you had Kyle Lowry (in the meeting last fall), exceptional ballplayer, but very in tune with the game and the respect for the game. You had Monty McCutchen -- the best in the game in the officiating, and at this time, Monty was not in his (current) role, but was getting ready for the season; Alvin Gentry and Becky Hammon … really opening up to understand another person’s point of view … and from there we kept saying ‘what else can we put on this group’s agenda?’ ”

McCutchen said Sunday he has been encouraged by the continuing dialogue among the various constituencies.

For me the most important thing I found is that people can come to these middle grounds with two perspectives: one being an authentic desire to contribute to a solution, but there’s also the possibility of everyone coming to these situations trying to win, creating a debate-like atmosphere where you’re trying to win a perspective and show how bright and smart you are and that you have “the” answer,” he said.

“And I think the thing that deeply impacted me was that all the constituents who came, came with the former process in mind: how can I contribute? How can I come looking inward for a solution rather than outward for a solution. And I have a role in this problem being solved, rather than ‘it’s your problem to solve.’ I think Kyle had a great perspective that way.”

I have no problem to bring some folks like that into the tent for some part of the Council … to be able to dispel the myths and conspiracy theories that are out there with some fans, and fold them into the Council in some form or fashion."

NBA’s President of League Operations, Byron Spruell

Lowry told the Toronto Star last December that the environment was “non-hostile” and had a new appreciation for the job referees had to do, and the scrutiny that they are under by the league office, after speaking with McCutcheon.

“He really did start to comment, internally, on a different perspective on refereeing,” McCutcheon said Sunday. “Kyle’s always been a really good man; that’s not at stake here. But this year he clearly has shown a more measured approach to referees. He’s still passionate. He still disagrees with some calls and at times, he may still occasionally get a technical foul. But when you’ve been around Kyle for a decade, there’s a marked and different approach to referees this year.”

In such ways -- maybe gradually, maybe not all at once, and certainly, maybe, not in the heat of the playoffs -- the relationship is going from DefCon 1 down to 2 or 3. The long view is where the potential payoff is.

“I think we did see less tension as the season went on,” Spruell said. “I think you see it ramping back up for the playoffs, which you would expect with the level of competition. But the direct relationship between players and officials, I think you have seen that tamp down a bit, based on some of the elements of the Officating Advisory Council and the Respect For the Game initiatives.”

Former player Shareef Abdur-Rahim, now the NBA’s Vice President of Operations, participated in last week’s meeting with Joerger, Boylen, Gordon, Hollis-Jefferson, Davis and Lewis.

NBA officials and players are trying to learn from each other's perspectives on the game.

“You get some of the stakeholders in what goes on with the game,” Abdur-Rahim said Sunday. “We spent some time together the night before at dinner and followed it up with a working sessions about what was going on out on the floor. You hear other people’s perspectives, other people’s views on what’s going on -- how it’s evolved, sharing perspective. But it also humanizes people and you share the experiences. It parallels a player’s trajectory, a coaches’ trajectory, officials trajectory. How each cares about the game, and studies, and works. From my time as a player on the court, I didn’t see that.”

Having that diversity of voices “sharing that, you come out of it with at least a little better appreciation of the other side of it and a fuller perspective of how we keep working to take care of the game,” Abdur-Rahim said. “Ultimately, you get better relationships.”

Spruell said the NBA is making headway on many of the other initiatives. Those include improving referees schedules to reduce their overall travel and get them more time at home time, to increasing the number of officials (they have not reached the goal of upping the staff 10 percent by the end of this season, but they did hire four new referees last year and hope to add four to six more, perhaps looking at officials in the EuroLeague or FIBA to add to the existing pool). They also want to continue to explain the rules and officials’ interpretations of same through mechanisms like the Last Two Minute Reports.

(The NBA says its internal data indicates that while the L2M Reports have occasionally been criticized by some coaches and players as either too little too late or an incomplete snapshot of important calls, the transparency they’ve created in whether refs got a call right or wrong down the stretch has improved the perception of officials among fans.)

The league has also tried to improve its officials’ public perception through all-access videos at the workplace and granting more access to officials to let them tell their individual stories, such as married NBA refs Lauren Holtkamp and Jonathan Sterling.

And Spruell says the referees’ accuracy measures have continued to improve -- though that’s only part of what he calls a “holistic view” to maximize officials’ performance.

Said McCutcheon: “quite frankly, accuracy drives frustration, or lack thereof, in a game. One of the things that we’ve been focusing on is that there’s really two meaningful parts to being a complete official. There’s that accuracy, and how hard you have to work to be accurate and good at your craft. And that’s sort of action-to-whistle. But we’re really starting to focus on another part of being an effective referee, which is whistle-to-the-next-set-of-action. I don’t know if we’ve done a great job in the past of educating and teaching our staff. We’ve kind of left everyone to their own devices about how to learn how to handle whistle-to-the-next-set-of-action: ‘oh, he has a way,’ or “he or she doesn’t have a way, or she does have a way.’

“But I think it’s important to have broader contextual conversations on what it means to be a referee. If you’re going around blowing calls left and right, you can’t do this job. There’s a threshold of excellence we have to live at. But we’re really at a high threshold there already … the big steps we can take are how do we start to find the balance between strength without arrogance, and humility without weakness? How do we find this effective way of running a game without being condescending or arrogant or overly authoritative? But the opposite is just as bad. If you have people who have an interest in the win running the game, you have trouble. Because integrity is at stake. So referees do have a role of strength in our game … our league is about strength if nothing else -- strength of character, strength of will, strength of actual physicality. But you have to be a strong person to be successful.”

So referees do have a role of strength in our game … our league is about strength if nothing else -- strength of character, strength of will, strength of actual physicality. But you have to be a strong person to be successful."

Monty McCutchen

The upcoming August meeting, Spruell said, will be the most ambitious yet -- 10 to 12 players, 10 to 12 coaches and 10 to 12 officials. There may be other forums such as golf outings and other team-building exercises between players, coaches and referees as well off the court and continue. And in addition, he said, the league is kicking around the idea of inviting some fans of various teams in to the August meeting to try and demystify the process and allow them to provide their perspective -- as the only constituency that has to pay to get into the event, after all, they may see things a little differently than everyone else -- again, especially at this time of year.

“We want to bring those people into the tent as well,” Spruell said. “Maybe not the ones who are so corrosive and will never change their minds (about officials) … but the folks that bring a different point of view, we absolutely want to bring them in the tent and deal with that sort of perspective, to see what movement we can make with those type of core fans who are so bought into kind of being a homer, or etcetra., who are so hard pressed to be homers. I have no problem to bring some folks like that into the tent for some part of the Council … to be able to dispel the myths and conspiracy theories that are out there with some fans, and fold them into the Council in some form or fashion. I’m absolutely open to that, because I think it can help us with additional perspective.”

McCutcheon said the league, players and coaches have good templates of how the games themselves should look, even as competition and the desire to win may color everyone’s perspectives at crucial moments. The sweet spot is finding common ground when there is disagreement -- not muting passion or wanting to win, but also not putting officials in a position “where they stand on high and they are unassailable in their perfection,” McCutchen said. “We all know that’s not true. We know we make mistakes.”

But there is still a “vacuum of knowledge about our profession,” he said.

“If we’re open to sharing the upright and the upstanding and integrity-based work that we do, out of a natural extension of that, people who are filling in those brackets with their ideas will come to a different understanding of the outcome,” McCutchen said. “The issue for me isn’t the outcome. The real issue for me is that our group should be doing good work, and we should be educating people on the good work that our staff does. If we do good work, the outcome will take care of itself, except than the most extreme cases of people who hold those (conspiratorial) opinions. If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail to you. But I don’t think that’s the case with most people…education on our end can take that low-hanging fruit and turn it on its head and say ‘no, here’s what we’re about, here’s how we can discuss it as authentic people, and then you can make good, informed decisions.”

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Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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