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From hardwood to homilies: Steve Javie's message of hope

Former NBA referee sees an opportunity to strengthen relationships, faith during time of isolation

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

The medical threat of COVID-19 is real, with ripple effects breaking like a tsunami. Shuttering citizens indoors. Slamming livelihoods. Crashing an economy that was so robust just weeks ago. With emotional and psychological effects nearly as profound as the physical, the new coronavirus afflicts both the tested and the untested with anxiety, fear and even loneliness that almost hits as hard as the coughing or the fever.

Where, in this dreadful time, might folks turn for counsel and a sense of calm?

For a segment of people outside Philadelphia, to one of the NBA’s most widely known former referees, an on-court adjudicator considered for many of his 25 years to be one of the league’s toughest officials and quickest whistles.

Dread not, says Steve Javie, ordained deacon at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church in Newtown, Pa.

“People are afraid of what’s going to happen,” Javie said in a phone interview last week. “They’re afraid of the economics, they’re afraid to go out of the house. You have to give them hope that this thing will pass. Now’s the time — this was a lot of my [recent] homily — to trust in the Lord.”

Javie, 65 and retired from active duty as a referee since 2011, gave his homily a week ago in an empty church. The service was taped on Saturday and streamed on Sunday to parishioners who were sheltering-in-place during the coronavirus outbreak.

They could not be there in person, but then, in Javie’s current pursuit, in spirit is what really matters anyway.

“Use the time now not just to watch things on Netflix or spend idle time on your computer, but to get closer to the Lord,” Javie responded when asked for isolation tips. “Take time with the family, set time aside to read scripture and talk about it. ‘What does it mean?’

“My role is about giving hope, saying ‘trust in the Lord’ and then reconnecting at a time when they’re telling us to disconnect with each other.”

Fans might feel they never really have disconnected from Javie, despite the time that has passed since he “left the floor,” as old refs tend to say. For one, he has worked since 2012 as a rules analyst and officiating expert on ESPN game broadcasts, a job that puts him in the league’s state-of-the-art Replay Center while regularly delivering him in high def into your family rooms and man caves.

Refereeing helps Javie mature

For another, Javie’s profile as a referee was as high as any of his contemporaries, from Joey Crawford to Dick Bavetta. He was notorious, even, in his early years for his temper, for his quick trigger on technical fouls and for ejecting not just Portland’s play-by-play announcer one night but tossing the then-Washington Bullets’ mascot from the game on another.

An “enfant terrible” with a “prison warden’s mindset” — so described by Sports Illustrated — after reaching the NBA at 30, Javie cooled off, calmed down, became more secure in his calls and in himself and generally matured. He followed a path, in other words, similar to most players as they journey from rookies to veterans.

“Watching games on TV with my buddies, they’d be blasting Steve Javie,” longtime NBA ref Danny Crawford said. “‘Does he think he’s a cop?’ But I’d tell them, ‘He runs the game. And he takes no grief. Off the court, he’s the nicest man you’d ever want to meet.’ He just had that take-care-of-business style on the floor.”

Bob Delaney spent 24 years officiating in the NBA after being an undercover New Jersey state trooper — every bit as unexpected as Javie’s post-retirement gig. He started in the NBA one year after Javie and they exited together in 2011.

“I never thought Steve was hot-headed,” Delaney said. “He was a strict disciplinarian. He took an approach similar to what I had, that it was a privilege to play [in the NBA], it wasn’t a right.

“Also, in that time frame, the league had more fights. So we were more pre-emptive. … It was about controlling the game. Steve, Joey or myself would lead the league in [assessing] technical fouls, but it was from the standpoint of control.”

Over time, Javie became one of the NBA’s most respected refs and crew chiefs. Yet the leap from where Javie was to what he’s doing now was a big one, truly a leap of faith.

“I’ve been a sports junkie my whole life,” said Javie, who has been self-quarantining more assiduously than most at their home outside Philadelphia — his wife Mary-ellen visits and cares for her 85-year-old father. “I made a living in sports. I’ve got money in retirement because of sports. When I was a kid, I followed my dad around and my godfather in sports.”

Stan Javie worked for 30 years as an NFL back judge, officiating in four Super Bowls. Johnny Stevens, Javie’s godfather, was an American League umpire for nearly as long, working four World Series.

“I’d been blessed — I blow a whistle, I call fouls on millionaires, I travel around and I get paid — that’s pretty cool. I’ve never had a ‘Monday morning’ in my life.

“But I’ve also been blessed with a wife who reminds me to have gratitude and be thankful for what you’ve had. I thought, ‘I have to leave this Earth doing something better than just this.’ ”

Javie was in Los Angeles, awaiting surgery to repair a torn cartilage in his right knee in 2000, the first time he had that thought. He had surgery again the next year. He wound up refereeing over 1,500 games, along with 243 playoff games while appearing in 23 NBA Finals games. But by the 2009-10 season, Javie barely was working, his knee so painful that, after games, he’d have to stop for relief halfway between the hotel lobby and his room.

To that point, he was living the dream that took shape from his family influences, then got channeled into baseball as a pitching prospect signed into the Baltimore Orioles’ farm system. An arm injury sent him into umpiring instead, from which he veered into basketball officiating following a hiccup with Florida State League baseball administrators.

Javie soon landed in the raggedy Continental Basketball Association in 1981 and stuck there for five seasons. His frustration over limited chances to advance grew, but the CBA was a great, ramshackle place to gain experience and dial up his assertiveness. (An Albany coach named Phil Jackson once chased him down a flight of stairs after Javie had T’d up the future Bulls’ and Lakers’ Zen Master).

Use the time now not just to watch things on Netflix or spend idle time on your computer, but to get closer to the Lord. Take time with the family, set time aside to read scripture and talk about it. ‘What does it mean?’”

Steve Javie, on his tips during isolation

In 1986, the NBA called. Javie found himself working alongside officiating legends and seeking wisdom from Joey Crawford, Jack Madden and Jake O’Donnell. After games, though single in his first few years, he would huddle on the road with the married vets over beers to pick their brains about the game they’d just worked and so many before that.

Once Javie’s temperament caught up to his craft, even the players and coaches he had tossed couldn’t deny him respect.

“I worked with the greatest referees ever — [Earl] Strom, [Darell] Garretson, [Hugh] Evans, Jake, all those guys — and Steve was the best referee I ever worked with,” said Joey Crawford, another native of Philadelphia, long a hotbed of NBA officials.

“Because he knew the rules inside and out, he managed the game, and he got plays right. All three of those things, he was fabulous at. And managing the game was probably his best [skill]. He did his job. He went to the next play. If you look at his ejections, he wasn’t like me, going off, screaming at somebody.”

Faith put to the test

Javie’s new gig involves a whole ‘nother level of peace. A deacon’s role is to assist the priests at Mass. They can officiate at weddings and baptisms, give Communion and lead prayer at grave sites and funeral homes. Typically deacons lead ministries within the church, such as young adult groups or marriage encounters. At St. Andrew, monsignor Michael Picard schedules the deacons to preach twice a month. In non-virus times, Javie tries to preach once a week, too, at the daily Masses he long has attended.

“The homilies don’t come easy for me,” Javie said. “I do a lot of praying and reading of scriptures, and also commentaries you can look up to give you some ideas. So I would say a Sunday homily that they say should last from five to seven minutes, for me it’s probably two hours [prep and writing] for every minute. Ten to 15 hours.”

Standing at the pulpit, ministering to worshipers, would seem quite different from reading-and-reacting through the hundreds of in-the-moment calls of an NBA game.

Javie was ordained on June 8, 2019, after seven years of study, a more exhaustive process in the Philadelphia archdiocese than many others. Joey Crawford, who considers Javie his best friend, was there. The fellow NBA officiating legend also recalled the deacon’s first crack at a homily.

“Everybody was looking around going, ‘Is this for real?’ I kept telling them, ‘This is him.’ ” said Joey Crawford, a fellow Catholic. “Steve’s one of those guys that commands the room. And he’s always been like that. He walks in, he starts talking, he’s awesome.”

Said Delaney: “I always knew him to be a religious guy. He would go to Mass on Sundays and sometimes during the week, especially later in his career. On the road, where you have life conversations, I remember him saying to me, very vividly, ‘When our time here on Earth is done, we’re not going to be judged by whether we got the block/charge right.’”

It’s one thing, though, to base one’s earthly authority on the dictates of a rulebook. It’s quite another to rely on, yes, a greater book but one that seems to many to offer constant, confounding wiggle room.

“This is not black and white. It is something that does take faith,” Javie said. “There’s faith and reason both. Plenty of friends I play golf with say, ‘Well, that’s what you believe.’ I say, ‘That’s what I believe the Bible is telling us.’

“See, I can relate to where they’re coming from a lot of times. When I speak to them, I try not to just quote the Rule or quote the scripture reading. As the Lord did when He was walking this Earth, He accepted people where they were. Then you work through it.”

Javie specifically was a lapsed Catholic when he met his future wife in his frequent NBA comings and goings at the Philadelphia airport where she worked. Mary-ellen was a devout church-goer, more than the young referee realized when — for their second date — he suggested they attend Mass together, followed by brunch.

When he muttered something about not getting much out of that morning’s service, she asked him: “What did you put into it?”

Said Javie: “She opened my eyes to look at it in a way that I never had before.”

He dialed up his church attendance and devotion. He and Mary-ellen, while not blessed with children, started a foundation to put their faith to work for local charities. But he craved more of, well, he wasn’t quite sure. It tugged at him for the next decade, right into the season where he was essentially sidelined by his knee pain.

Pursuing a new calling

Admittedly, Javie’s prayer game needed work. He had been doing more talking than listening, and mostly in vague terms. After going to confession one day, though, he was kneeling to say penance when his wife handed him a flyer encouraging folks to “be specific” in their prayers.

So Javie got real specific: He wanted to work one more season, rounding off his NBA career at 25 seasons.

“Most of the doctors thought I was done at that time,” he said. “So it just came about through prayer. Talking to the Lord, saying, ‘Help me out here, if that’s possible, and after that, I’m yours.’”

Javie’s primary orthopedist suggested he rehab his bone-on-bone knee, er, religiously, and suggested that if the NBA would work with him on scheduling – two days off between games – he might make it through the 2010-11 season. The league’s priority is to have the top officials available for the playoffs, anyway, so it complied. Javie made it to The Finals, worked Game 1 and again in Game 6, which proved to be the clincher in Dallas’ victory over Miami.

“I remember thinking,” Javie recalled, “near the end of the game with family members there, knowing it would be my last, ‘I wonder what the Lord has planned for me now.’”

It was six months later, in January 2012, as he and Mary-ellen listened in church to Catholic speaker Jeff Cavins, that the word “deacon” flashed through Javie’s mind. It happened a few more times in the coming days.

Javie never had thought about that level of commitment, especially after hearing about the diocese’s seven-year course study. “I thought, ‘Good luck, brother.’ The whole studying thing and me never got along too well,” said the alumnus of Temple.

But he sought out his pastor’s advice anyway, to help him grapple with the powerful impulse. His wariness apparently made his quest seem more genuine.

“My pastor laughed,” Javie said. “He said, ‘If you came in here with a Bible under your arm saying you definitely were going to be a deacon, I would have thrown you out of this office. But God works in mysterious ways.’

“The best advice he gave me was, ‘Obviously God is calling you to do something. Right now it’s to become a deacon. Let’s just put one foot in front of the other and see where this takes you.’”

Seven years later, Javie once more was putting one foot in front of the other, walking down the aisle at Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul. “I’m looking up at the crucifix, and I could see St. Peter and St. Paul on the walls as I’m going to my ordination,” he said. “And I’m saying to myself, ‘Lord, I guess you really mean this.’

“I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t think, ‘Holy Cow, look where I’m at.’”

From 2012 to 2019, Javie — the oldest of the seven men in his program — took weekly classes on Wednesday nights, 6:30-9:30 p.m. These were master’s level classes in the history of the Church, philosophy, theology and more. Every other Monday, they would write homilies and preach to the class, with criticism to follow. Once a month, they would work-shop different topics of interest to their community.

“Steve and I spoke once every couple weeks about his studies,” Joey Crawford said. “It interested me. Because he’s one of those guys that, if he’s interested in something, he becomes the best. At golf? Tremendous. Referee? Tremendous. God? Tremendous.”

Javie’s humility, certainly in its current form, doesn’t engage that “tremendous” talk. What qualifies for that adjective now is the place he’s at spiritually, a place he’s so actively trying to share.

“I know one thing: I want everybody to feel the way I do about my faith,” he said. “And it wasn’t where someone was forcing it down my throat. I’m not going to force it down anybody else’s throat. I’ll just say, my life — and I always thought I was happy — I knew there was something missing. I knew I wasn’t being fulfilled. You’re enjoying what you’re doing, but you’re looking forward to something else.

“My friends at my golf course, we’ve talked more about faith than we ever did. Now that I’m ordained, I’ve almost given them the OK to talk about their faith. It might be good or bad, and a lot of times it is bad, but at least it opens their hearts up to talk about something that’s gnawing at them.”

One question possibly is gnawing at NBA fans: Would Javie have been a different referee, had he been ordained as a deacon 20 or 30 years ago?

His answer, after a moment’s reflection: Nah.

“I have thought about that,” he said, laughing. “Here’s the reason why: I’m obviously competitive. Even when I’m in the Replay Center and referees aren’t doing their jobs in handling players and coaches, or when Jeff Van Gundy is wrong about ‘This shouldn’t be a technical foul!’ I get so incensed I’m yelling ‘Put me on! Put me on! I’m gonna talk about this!’ That leads me to believe I wouldn’t be any different. I think I’d call a game exactly as I did before.”

Preach, deacon.

* * *

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

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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