Q&A: McCutchen grows more confident making calls in new role

Head of referee development aims to grow storied legacy of NBA officials

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith

Like anyone else entrusted with upholding a standard, Monty McCutchen did not accept the responsibility of his job without understanding the gravity of what he was stepping into.

As the NBA’s Vice President, head of referee development and training since December, McCutchen has embraced the challenges of an often-times thankless job while adjusting to life away from the environment that was his work home for 25 years.

McCutchen earned his stripes as one of the league’s highest-rated game officials — including 169 playoff games and 16 Finals games — and brought that show-and-prove mantra to his current position.

In addition to upholding the standards set by officials like himself, he’s charged with helping to replenish the ranks with the recent retirements of veteran officials Joey Crawford and Danny Crawford, not to mention his own elevation from the game official ranks.


Last week, McCutchen announced that five new officials — Mousa Dagher, Ashley Moyer-Gleich, Matt Myers, Phenizee Ransom and Natalie Sago — were being promoted to the full-time NBA officiating staff for the 2018-19 season.


That makes six new officials added to the staff. (Brandon Adair was added to the staff at the start of this season.)

McCutchen, whose fashion sense rivaled anyone entering the arena on game nights during his officiating career, spent last season getting adjusted to his new role. Now he’s fully immersed in in a role it seemed he was destined for.

He recently spoke to NBA.com‘s Sekou Smith:

Sekou Smith: The transition, after all those years being no the court and in the middle of the action, what’s that like seeing the game from your current vantage point?

Monty McCutchen: First of all, it’s clearly been a transition. When you change your life dramatically, there are culture changes you have to go through, there’s culture shock you have to go through. The good thing about it is the work I find important. And I’m always a little hesitant to talk about how I view the work because I don’t want to seem preachy or you know, ‘it’s just refereeing dude. Don’t get carried away.’ And I think there is some truth to that, it is just refereeing. But I do think refereeing exhibits some of the greater things in life.

When it’s done well, and done with integrity and character and with a sense of fairness, I’ve found it to be very analogous to what leading a good life is about. Treating people well, standing up for yourself, standing up for principles higher than yourself. And I think when all of those things get put into play, a good referee really is a person who is capable of building good bridges. I know that might not seem like the case when you’re giving technical fouls out and things like that. But when it’s done really well it’s about building such good relationships that they trust you and you trust them, even amongst a disagreement. And that’s prideful to me to have left one area where you can do that individually, to hopefully then come over to another side of the same coin and have, at least in your hopes, that same kind of impact on those important, bigger than ourselves events, thought processes and philosophies on other people.

SS: That sounds like some serious team-building strategy that is being employed at the executive level, I’m assuming in an effort to shape the culture of the program from top to bottom.

MM: I’m really proud of the people I’m working with. Todd DeMoss, Jonathan Kolb and Bethany Donaphin in the WNBA. On the NBA side we have obviously [Senior Vice President and head of referee operations] Michelle D. Johnson. But I also get to work with Shareef Abdur-Rahim, John Zisa, Matt Futterman, Joe Liebskind, Jake Mendys, Chris Goodyear and all of these people in the office who, in my opinion, are full of all of the good things in life. And, of course, I get to continue working with people who were mentors to me. Guys like Mark Wunderlich, Joey Crawford, Bennett Salvatore, Bernie Fryer, Eddie F. Rush, and we do have a real good team in place in which we are trying to pull in the direction of those higher principles. Now we have to get plays right — that’s the reality of it — but within getting the plays right, you do that because your mind is right. And that means your mind is in the right place. It’s not about you being a NBA referee. It’s about serving the game that you love. And I think from this new vantage point, it’s somewhat easier to see if those valuable skills and ideals, if you will, have a real place in the NBA. To be on the daily frontline of implementing those ideals is incredibly rewarding and I’ve enjoyed that transition.

… My job, in this role, and it’s also the job of Marc Davis, [Mike] Callahan, Ed Molloy and Zach Zarba, that if I handed something down to them, to hand it down to those officials we just hired. The link in the chain of our history is as vital as the technological advances we’ve seen.”

Monty McCutchen

SS: That’s not an easy move to make after all that time. Surely there had to be some serious deliberation about diving into that space.

MM: Yes, it’s been difficult at times. At my age, at 52, there’s a real sense of getting set in your ways. I used to laugh at my dad when he would tell me that and then I feel it happening to me. I believe certain things and to change that and to immediately have to go and learn new skills is both invigorating and, at times, quite frightening.

SS: Where you’ve been a game official for 25 years and start as long ago as you did, to see the technology go from where it did to where it is now has to be that frightening part you talked about. The analytics used and applied today has to be beyond your wildest dreams as a young official just starting out all those years ago?

MM: You know, like any industry that is in the midst of a sea change, you have to have a real strong balance of taking from the past what continues to work while shedding dead weight, if you will, and adding the innovation that helps make things easier and better. I’ll go back to the central theme of what an official is: he serves the game. And technology serves the game, so you have to be able to adapt. What’s the old evolutionary saying we all learned as kids? Adapt or die. Refereeing is no different.

I go back to it though, the key anything you come across new things you have to marry the new with the old to get the best result, because there are great principles that Mendy Rudolph handed down to Joe Gushue who handed down to Joey Crawford who handed down to Scott Foster. That lineage, that knowledge, one of the things we’re trying to instill in our culture since we’ve taken over, is that all of those people I just mentioned are you. You’re going to be a link to someone younger, even if you’re young now, there’s a link. We just hired five new people and my job, in this role, and it’s also the job of Marc Davis, [Mike] Callahan, Ed Molloy and Zach Zarba, that if I handed something down to them, to hand it down to those officials we just hired. The link in the chain of our history is as vital as the technological advances we’ve seen.

I don’t think any of us are under the illusion that we won’t have some conflict. In fact, I’d be disappointed if we didn’t. And not because I like conflict. But I do love passion. And the passion our players and coaches display on a nightly basis is what our fans tap into to say, ‘this matters.’ “

Monty McCutchen, on the player-coach-official dynamic

SS: That’s the marriage of the old and new you’re talking about?

MM: Absolutely. The analytics, as everyone has seen, has played a big role in shaping the way we do things now. Tape has evolved from where we were carrying around portable VHS machines on the road, from the JVC that I bought when I first came into the league, to now guys can carry around a hard drive no bigger than an iPhone and you can store a season’s worth of games on that device. Embracing that allows for more instant feedback. We’re looking at virtual technology and where that can be helpful. Right now I think it’s more helpful outward facing, so you can see what referees are seeing and dealing with, what they are faced with in those bang-bang situations and how you have to respond. But we’re hopeful that it continues to grow to the point that it becomes a viable training method. There is talk of how the Replay Center will be innovated. And I don’t know how often any of this will come to pass.

Could there be chips put in balls to help with goaltending and out of bounds situations? These are all things that are not a part of our reality right now but could one day become a reality to help serve the game. Ultimately, technology is only as good as the people that use it and what they use it for. So from that standpoint we want to make sure the technology has as its base, the same thing Joe Gushue had, which is does it serve the game? What puts the players and the coaches in the best environment so that their talents, hard work and schemes can be held up against competition so that they can find out if more work is needed or if it has all paid off.

SS: There was a point last season where it was clear that the working dynamic between the players and coaches and game officials was off track. And then there was the announcement that there would be a closed-door summit during All-Star weekend where you all could air everything out. It seemed like the temperature went down tremendously after that. Was it as significant a turning point as it seems, given the way things have transpired since then?

MM: We’re hopeful that the good vibes continue. And listen, we’re are aware we have the best, most passionate players and coaches in our league. We have passionate referees that want to do the work of upholding the standards that the league provides. And I think that when you have those two, sort of diametrically opposed goals sometimes, one about winning and one about holding up standards, there’s going to be some conflict. I don’t think any of us are under the illusion that we won’t have some conflict. In fact, I’d be disappointed if we didn’t. And not because I like conflict. But I do love passion. And the passion our players and coaches display on a nightly basis is what our fans tap into to say, ‘this matters.’ And if I’m going to invest my time and energy into a franchise and its well-being, it’s wonderful to see the players and coaches invest their energy and passion in an outward facing way to want to win for a city and a franchise. So I don’t ever want to that passion to leave.

SS: But it’s clearly something you all have studied and addressed as a staff, that delicate relationship between the principles involved on the court every night?

It’s time to challenge what packages the best come in. … What is common, though, is the ideals that we’re talking about. If you possess those, I don’t care if you are 5-foot-4 or 6-foot-4. I care about the fact that you’re going to apply fairness and integrity and character to NBA basketball.”

Monty McCutchen

MM: One of the things I’ve been harping on since Michelle and I came in, and that’s not to say it wasn’t harped on before. Because I think we’re always building on things the other people were in these position before is worked on. Bob Delaney and Mike Bantom and the people who have held these positions before worked hard at it and in a lot of instances we’re following up on some of those same things. Quite frankly, I’m not going to be in this position forever, I know that. There will be someone after me. And understanding that means that you try to implement things that can outlast you.

And one of the things that I want to outlast me as a cultural imprint on refereeing is that refereeing is sort of equal parts what happens when you blow your whistle, that’s the action part of the game. But it’s also equal parts what do you do after you blow the whistle. Can you communicate your perspective clearly without arrogance? Can you show courage and strength without arrogance? Can you show humility without just getting run over by weakness? And I think that those balance points bring us to better communication. And we’ve been harping on communication. And better communication, Sekou, isn’t just sitting there taking it while someone sits there yelling at you and somehow you’re a great communicator because you didn’t give him a technical foul. That’s not what we’re talking about. That’s certainly not what I’m talking about.

Good communicators can divert, listen, give perspectives that give pause for a player’s perspective to where they now understand a separate perspective because it was shared not only from a good place of energy but a good place of knowledge. And we’ve really harped on sharing perspectives. You don’t call a foul because it’s a foul and I said it’s a foul. No. When you’re asked about it, it’s a foul because we’re upholding the standard and here is the standard, you’re not allowed to put two hands on a person in the post when they have the ball. So, there’s no judgement in my hands on that call.

SS: Is getting to that point of a discussion the critical part, where it’s a conversation as opposed to guys in an extremely competitive and emotional, pressure-packed environment going off — often times on each other?

MM: Sure. There are times when our job is to help everyone get through certain moments in the midst of that action, team-related or whatever it is. But by the same token, sometimes players help us get through our own emotions. I’ve had player say, ‘hey Monty, I’m just asking a question.’ And I have to check myself because of my own competitive nature to be good at my work. And so I think when you build good relationships everyone is in that moment with the understanding that this isn’t personal, we’re all trying to get our work done. So I think there are always these little points. But we are harping on the fact that good communication is this balance between courage without arrogance, strength without arrogance and humility without weakness.

SS: One last thing, on the hiring of these five new officials. How important is it to have the highest bar for your officials that you bring into the league, knowing that they’re going to be names and faces associated with the game for eternity? Don’t you have to get that part right in order to live up to the ideals you’re speaking of?

MM: There’s the real weight of that that I feel. One of the things that you start to recognize is that if you’re talking about building a culture on those higher ideals, then you have to find the people who possess those kind of commitments to higher principles, as well as people who are capable of doing the work at hand, in real time at fast speeds. And that combination is rare. So getting those five people right is vital.

As we meld and align all three of our leagues [NBA, WNBA, NBA G League] into one vision of a culture for refereeing, you have to be mindful of all those things. We have a good vetting process. We have a scouting team that looks at over 3,000 officials a year. And then, out of that, the top 90 are invited to a grassroots camp. From the grassroots we go to a mid-level camp where there is another vetting process from 90 to 45 and then from 45 to 28 or so to an elite camp. And from out of there we hire the best candidates every year. This year it was 12, there’s no set number because that’s usually dependent on what we need for the G League and whatnot. So, we have a really strong vetting process. And not only do we get to see them work through all those various depots and stopping points, we also get to interact with them at all of those stopping points. We find out about who they are as people in all of those starting and stopping points. And then from the G League, probably only one out of five make it to the NBA from there. We have a really stringent program.

Now, the NBA is a different beast. When you get here and you’re under the lights and under the scrutiny we’ve been talking about, not every person rises to that challenge over the years. Most do. We have a very strong success rate with who we bring to the NBA and we’re proud of that. And for me and Michelle and our part in that, you definitely feel the weight of it all. I’m proud of this class. They’ve put in good work. They’ve bought into the cultural markers we’re trying to establish. I’m excited for their futures and how those futures impact the NBA. And I’d be remiss if if I didn’t say, we’re committed to finding the best.

It’s time to challenge what packages the best come in. And our sense of diversity mirrors our cultural beliefs that good refereeing about your heart, your grit, it’s about your character and the integrity you possess. And that can come from different genders, that can come from different countries and that can come from different races. What is common, though, is the ideals that we’re talking about. If you possess those, I don’t care if you are 5-foot-4 or 6-foot-4. I care about the fact that you’re going to apply fairness and integrity and character to NBA basketball.

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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