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'Iron man' Bavetta known for fun-loving attitude, rapport

Official never missed an assignment in 39-year career

POSTED: Sep 10, 2015 5:16 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Inside Stuff: Class Act

Inside Stuff looks at Dick Bavetta's 39-year career as one of the most respected officials.

The trait that helped Dick Bavetta earn enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame is a trait for which NBA officials generally are neither rewarded nor lauded: Personality.

When you think of Bavetta and the 39 years he spent as an NBA referee from 1975 to 2014, you think of the spring in his step, the pride he took in never missing an assignment across 2,635 games and the rapport he appeared to have with the league's players, coaches and fans. You think about the fun he was having throughout, too, because he let you see it.

"We will never, ever see another Dick Bavetta-type in the NBA again," said longtime ref Danny Crawford. "A guy like Dick and a guy like Joey Crawford and Jake O'Donnell and Earl Strom, those guys had names. After that, I think we're all pretty uniform and nobody knows who the hell you are.

"They don't want us to bring attention to ourselves. Back then they could show that individuality. But after Dick and Joey Crawford, that era of guys who were well-known is over. All of us blend in from that point on."

GameTime: Dick Bavetta Retiring

Legendary NBA referee Dick Bavetta retires after 39-years of service in the league.

It's an observation that doesn't much bother the modern NBA, which likes its game officials to be efficient and largely unnoticed. No offense to anyone, but what sort of public profiles do Bennie Adams, Mike Callahan or Courtney Kirkland have? Could casual or even avid fans pick Scott Foster, Ken Mauer or Derek Richardson out of a crowd?

But people know of and have opinions about Bavetta, same as with Joey Crawford, same as with Strom and O'Donnell before them. They worked back in the days when Big Brother was smaller, when exposure of the NBA hadn't yet gone global, bringing with it worldwide second-guessing of officials' calls.

The thing that kept coming back to me was, 'We find you very approachable. We can talk to you and that's very important to us.' That's what I tried to carry throughout my career.

– Dick Bavetta

A foul is a foul, a no-call is a no-call, but back when Bavetta, 75, was getting started, referees had more latitude and some were even considered part of the show. He learned quickly, cutting his teeth in the Eastern League in 1966, that he was suited more to the professional game than to NCAA work.

"You're allowed to express yourself more," Bavetta said. "Don Nelson was one of those who told me, 'You can defuse situations more with a sense of humor or some personality, rather than to be stringent all the time.' So that was just my way."

Nelson, the NBA's all-time winningest coach and a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, will be one of Bavetta's presenters when he is enshrined next week as the Hall's 15th referee. Former Detroit/Milwaukee big man Bob Lanier and legendary power forward-turned-broadcast analyst Charles Barkley are the other two. His relationships with all three developed over the years, professional yet warm, warm yet professional.

"Where I think [my personality] was advantageous, it didn't take much for me to convey when I wasn't happy with a particular situation," Bavetta said. "I always had a smile on my face, I always enjoyed what I did, but if something was happening that was taking the smile off, people could pick it up very quickly and back off."

Open Court All-Star: Charles Races Bavetta

Charles Barkley talks about racing Dick Bavetta during All-Star weekend.

From the upper bowls of modern NBA arenas, Bavetta may have seemed to be simply a scrawny traffic cop perpetually in motion. But fans closer to the court could pick up on the excitement he brought to his job and some of the interplay with the participants. He was precise -- none of the NBA's refs knew the intricacies of the rule book better -- but he was playful too.

"Dick was a guy who was having a lot of fun on the court," Danny Crawford said. "He'd get on an ice cream cart; he'd play around with the mascots. He was doing his job, but at the same time, he was having fun."

"So when I think of Dick Bavetta, I laugh. Just because of his attitude in the sport. They stopped [the hijinks] after a while, saying, 'That's just not professional.' But when they allowed it, Dick back in the day was the best."

Few can forget Bavetta's foot race with Barkley at the 2007 All-Star Game in Las Vegas, a challenge that grew out of some courtside banter from Marv Albert and Barkley's renown for needling. It wound up raising $100,000 for the Boys & Girls Clubs in that city.

He had this happy-go-lucky, don't-sweat-the-small-stuff attitude. I think that's carried him through life.

– NBA referee Danny Crawford on Dick Bavetta

Bavetta, off the top of his head, recalled a boxing skit in which he'd been asked to help San Antonio's Coyote mascot, ostensibly socking the fan favorite in his big, plush snout. Someone's angles were off, however, and Bavetta smacked the fellow in the suit square in the jaw, ending his night before halftime.

After the game, an autographed photo was slipped under the referees' dressing-room door, signed by The Coyote to "Boom Boom Bavetta."

"It gets down to when to be approached and when not to be approached," Bavetta said of his work with the league's fuzzy bulls, dogs, wolves, deer and dinosaurs. "I don't need you coming over and dancing around me after I've just made a very difficult call and now it's a timeout -- you can bring the house down on somebody that way.

"You have to pick the right time to be interactive. Generally it's not late in the game or if the score is close. But they have a job to do as well. That's just part of the game, to enjoy what they do."

Bavetta, a native of Brooklyn and alumnus of Power Memorial High (same as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), enjoyed it all. Through his Cal Ripken-esque streak of never missing an assigned game. Through his daily runs of five to eight miles (game night or not). Through the three-hour naps he carved into his routine. Through the five pairs of socks he wore to cushion his aching feet from all the hardwood pounding. And through carefully orchestrated itineraries that had him eating most of his meals, gratis, in the concierge lounges of Marriott hotels.

Hall of Fame Interview: Dick Bavetta

Legendary NBA official Dick Bavetta chats with Rachel Nichols after being selected as a member of the Class of 2015 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

"He never went to lunch with guys," Danny Crawford said. "He never went to dinner with guys. You always wondered, the man's got to eat.

"He had this happy-go-lucky, don't-sweat-the-small-stuff attitude. I think that's carried him through life. The man would work off the court smiling, knowing he gave you his best and hopefully that was good enough."

Bavetta worked 270 playoff games, including 27 in the Finals, and three All-Star Games (1989, 1995 and 2006). He also was the first NBA referee selected to officiate the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, famous for the original Dream Team of NBA superstars.

Bavetta's family -- wife Paulette, daughters Christine and Michele -- were able to enjoy that experience with him. They're the ones, too, who voted annually on whether he should continue in his NBA pursuits, the outcome finally swinging in favor of retirement last summer. Bavetta splits his time these days between a ranch in Ocala, Florida, and a home in upstate New York.

He's grateful for the added family time, he said. But then, Bavetta also considered himself -- and frankly still does -- a member of the NBA and pro basketball families. That's how he viewed the principals, the players and coaches, even when they might not have felt so loving toward him.

Hall of Fame Press Conference: Bavetta

Bavetta, a native of Brooklyn, NY, served as an NBA Official for 39 consecutive years.

Bavetta learned early that relationships were what mattered in this people business. He cultivated them in simpler times, back when teams and officials would travel on the same commercial airline flights and kill time at airports. He encouraged young referees to consider the same approach in these faster, less clubby times.

"I would always try to discuss with the players and the coaches, 'Help me out here, anything you see in how I referee that can be improved upon?' " Bavetta said. "The thing that kept coming back to me was, 'We find you very approachable. We can talk to you and that's very important to us.' That's what I tried to carry throughout my career.

"I knew there was no way I was going to referee a game without missing calls. But I had no problem during a timeout or after looking at plays at halftime in going over to somebody and saying, 'I owe you apology.' When you show your vulnerability with regards to admitting a mistake, I think your acceptance becomes higher. Your credibility is greater.

"There's a comfort level that's established when people say, 'I know if there's a question about a play, I can come over to you and get an honest response.' "

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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