Frankly Speaking - One of the Toughest Jobs in Basketball
Originally published in Utah Jazz HomeCourt Magazine in December 1996.
One of the Toughest Jobs in Basketball
by Frank Layden
Of all the sports, basketball is the toughest to officiate, and in many cases, the officials are much more dedicated and know the game better than coaches or players. They do a marvelous job, and we owe them a debt of gratitude for their work over the last 50 years because without them we wouldn't have reached the level of popularity — and sanity — that pro basketball has enjoyed in recent years.
I enjoyed the officials of a couple of decades ago a little more than the current group because back then, they put their personalities into the game. Today there is not enough interplay and patience on the part of the officials. Coaches and officials both have jobs to do, and if the referee does a good job, the coaching job is going to be better.
When I first came into the league, there was an official by the name of Norm Drucker, a veteran official who was about to retire. He said to me years later that when he saw me come into the league, he knew there was a lot of pressure on me because I was a young coach, and he said he kept an eye on me. He told me he tried to listen to me and be patient with me and help me through the first few years. I always respected him because of that, because he was more interested in people than he was in one call here or there.
Walter Rooney, an official who recently retired, was a very close friend of mine. We went to school together and were pals off the court. But during the years that he was officiating and I was coaching, I never saw him do anything that in any way altered that relationship. He was the referee and I was the coach, and sometimes we yelled at each other, but after the game was over, it was over.
I got off to a bad start one year in the playoffs with Jess Kersey, a referee who is still working in the NBA. I have to say that I was wrong, because Jess Kersey is a referee's referee. I think he loves the game and he performs very, very well. But in this playoff, we were really having a bad time, and before a game at the start of the following season, a ballboy came and got me and told me Jess wanted to see me. I went to the referee's room and he said, "You and I don't see eye to eye, we don't get along, but we have to work together. I love basketball and I think you're a great coach, so what's wrong? If you have a problem with me, I want to know what it is, because maybe I'm wrong, and I'll try to change." That's exactly what he said. And I said, "There's nothing wrong with the relationship, it's me, and I'm going to try to better recognize the tough job you have." The two of us shook hands and I never had another problem with him. He had the guts to recognize that there was a problem that couldn't be taken care of on the floor and he decided we needed to face each other man-to-man. That's the way it should be.
Last year an official by the name of Lee Jones worked his last game at the Delta Center and the fans gave him a standing ovation for 25 years of working NBA games. I went down and wished him luck and told him I thought he's had a great career and that I hoped the rest of his life is healthy and happy. Keep in mind that Lee Jones and I did not see eye-to-eye for many years, but there was a mutual respect. He wasn't the type of guy to just turn around and call a quick technical on you. We communicated, and by doing that, we worked out what might have been some tough situations.
I enjoy the officials that are able to referee a fine game and are also able to avoid being arrogant and can understand that players sometimes have a right to complain, as do the coaches. Those referees who are able to stave off possible uprisings in the game earn the respect of the players and coaches and are able to do a better job. There's an old saying in sports that the best official is the one you don't even see out there, and there are many officials that fall into that category.
I've seen a tremendous effort on the part of the NBA to do everything that they can, at great expense, to bring us the best officials. The NBA has worked very hard to bring officiating to the highest level to match the quality of the athletes who play the game.
Is it perfect? No, nothing is perfect. But the officiating integrity throughout the years has been impeccable.
As we recognize the five decades of the NBA, we'd miss the call if we didn't recognize the referees and their contribution as well.