On a recent Friday night, Monty McCutchen refereed a game between the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers in Southern California. After the game concluded around 10 p.m., McCutchen returned to his hotel to file his game report. Once that was done around 1:30 a.m., he finally went to sleep before there was the 4 a.m. wake-up call Saturday to catch a 6 a.m. flight back to Ashville, N.C., to enjoy two days off with his family before hitting the road once again.
But before he flies out to Orlando on Tuesday morning, he has one more stop to make. His Dodge truck is loaded with all of his gear and he’s ready to hit the road for an 80-minute drive to a place he came across months ago and had earmarked as a place he wanted to photograph when the opportunity presented itself.
That opening came on Monday, smack dab in the middle of refereeing games in Los Angeles and Orlando early in the 2017-18 NBA season — his 25th as an NBA referee.
Behind the lens
McCutchen isn’t looking to take a quick photo with his cell phone to post on Instagram. He’s not using a DSLR that many recreational photographers use to capture high quality digital images. He’s not even using the type of high-end cameras he sees along the baseline of every NBA game he officiates.
“I’ve chosen a different path in my photography,” he said in an interview with NBA.com right before heading out to his destination. “Instead of digital, I’ve chosen new cameras but they are old in their soul.”
McCutchen is using a view camera that weighs 60 pounds and shoots images up to 20-by-24 inches in size. While he’s choosing to use film today, McCutchen is also experienced in wet plate collodion photography, which he describes as “how Abraham Lincoln would have had his picture taken … for lack of a better description it would probably be a 15 to 20 minute Polaroid.”
On this day, McCutchen is shooting with film in the hope of printing out the image in platinum and palladium, which are hand-applied salts used to develop the picture from the negative rather than using standard silver. While many photographers use digital cameras to create digital negatives to print in platinum and palladium, McCutchen is choosing to go the old school route by using film instead of digital.
There is risk involved with this choice. There is a much larger margin for error when shooting digital; if the photographer isn’t pleased with the image, they can simply shoot as many shots as they want until they capture the image they are looking for. Shooting in film is akin to a theater performer speaking in front of a live audience. If they forget their line, everybody sees it.
“When you use big cameras, I have four sheets of film loaded today; I’m going to drive an hour and 20 minutes to take four shots,” McCutchen said. “You’ve got to be very purposeful and I like the lack of speed, the slowness of that.
“The decisions that go into what to include and what not to include in the frame; those are things that are peculiar to me in terms of the satisfaction that you get from that is very personal. I sell very few of my photographs, I don’t pursue sales very much. The process, I think, is just as important as the product.”
He also sees a clear connection between his skills as an NBA referee and his skills as a photographer.
“One of the reasons I think photography appeals to me so is that as a referee you are trying to capture moments and interpret them correctly based on a solid base of innate knowledge of the rules, up against the league’s and competition committee’s desire for the enforcement of those rules, and you’re trying to capture those moments in meaningful ways that represent that rule book, that environment that officiating is supposed to create so the talent [of the players] can be exposed,” he said. “And capturing those individual moments through the process of seeing plays correctly is very analogous to capturing moments as a photographer and I like that connection, I really do.”
McCutchen’s love of photography — which dates back to 2003 when he took his first lessons in both the collodion and the platinum and palladium techniques — helps provide a balance in his life compared to the fast-paced world of the NBA.
“That’s more than fair to say, that hits it exactly on the nail,” he said. “The pressure and the scrutiny that NBA referees are under are warranted. Our decisions impact other people’s lives … we understand that our jobs and our skill level at our jobs impacts other people. And there’s a real responsibility knowing that your work impacts other people’s work and there’s a sense of wanting to honor that.
“With that scrutiny and with the pressure that comes with that responsibility, there’s a need to separate from that and to understand that there are other things in a life that are important – family being of course the most important in all of our lives. And how we assign the time of our lives to those balances is very important.”
McCutchen is married and has two children — a 17-year-old daughter (who is a rock climber) and a 15-year-old son (who runs cross country and plays basketball). His children have always played a pivotal role in his off the court activities, beginning even before his daughter was born.
A stitch in time …
When his wife was pregnant with their first child, McCutchen joined his wife and mother-in-law in a quilt store where — in his estimation — they were taking far too long to come to a decision on which fabrics to choose for a joint project they were working on.
“I was mumbling and grumbling like most impatient people and my wife more or less threw down the gauntlet that I should shut up and pick out some fabrics and do a quilt for myself,” he recalled with a laugh.
“She said it more as a taunt and I said, ‘Well then maybe I will just do that.’ And that turned into a contest between her and I about who could make queen sized quilt for our daughter.”
After three years, both had finished a quilt for their daughter and the debates over who won the contest became part of the McCutchen family folklore. After hearing these stories over the years and seeing his older sister with two quilts while he had none, McCutchen’s son started asking for a quilt of his own. McCutchen agreed to do it, but took on a much more ambitious quilt than he did for his daughter.
“I knew I didn’t have much talent as a quilter but I figured tedium was a talent, so I picked the smallest little squares I could come up with so that if I put in enough time there might be some payoff at the end of the rainbow. And that’s exactly how it turned out,” he said.
The quilt features 10,816 one-inch squares and took eight years to complete. He took the quilt with him on NBA road trips and worked on it on airplanes and in hotel rooms. He also got teased by his fellow referees asking when he was going to retire because he was already making quilts.
“To do that for your son, there’s something oddly satisfying in terms of doing something that surprises even yourself at my age,” he said. “I’m 51 and to take on something that takes eight years to do and to stick with it enough, the wax and the wane of it all. I’d get tired of it and put it down for a month and it would lurk over there in the corner calling me out because I hadn’t finished it.”
Taking on new tasks is something McCutchen has done throughout his adult life to continue to challenge himself, to continue to learn and continue to achieve the balance that comes between home life and work life.
“I see it as taking on challenges that excite the soul for lack of a better term,” he said. “I’ve taken on three things in my life outside of the refereeing. One of them is the quilt. One of them has been photography and I’m trying to learn trumpet.
Music makes its mark
“Music is something that I don’t have a talent for; I’m not very rhythmic, I most certainly can’t sing, but I wanted music in the last chapter of my life. I wanted to be able to, at family gatherings, play an instrument. And to be able to enjoy the pursuit of that is singular in the sense that even though I’m not very good at it, every day when I practice that trumpet, I really enjoy that hour.”
The desire to constantly learn new things is something McCutchen has done throughout his life. He earned a degree in English Literature and Speech Communication from the University of Texas at Arlington, but shortly after graduating headed to Los Angeles to pursue refereeing. He then took on quilting as a dare, then photography as a hobby and has now introduced the trumpet to his arsenal of talents.
It is a lesson that he imparts on his children as well as they get ready to reach adulthood and begin to pursue their own life adventures.
“One of the things I try to articulate to my children is that it doesn’t matter where you go to high school, where you go to college, the point is are you going to quit learning when you get done with your school or are you going to continue to grow?” he said. “Maybe there’s some formal ways, through extension classes and what not that we grow, but most of that is self driven if we’re doing it right. And I personally hope I don’t stop doing those things that allow me grow. That’s the best part of life.”
Life after basketball
With so many varied interests outside of the game, McCutchen has a vision for his future when it is time for life after basketball. He says that most referees retire around 60 and he plans to do the same so he can move on to the next chapter in his life.
“In terms of envisioning a future, I clearly have a vision for that,” he said. “But I have no desire to sit around as a 60-year-old man and talk about the glory days. That just has zero appeal to me.
“I really enjoy working with the people in the NBA. I think we have phenomenal men — and women — leading our team as coaches and assistant coaches. I really believe that. We have phenomenal people in those positions and we have phenomenal people, human beings as our players. I truly believe that. I enjoy working with them, but that doesn’t mean I want to sit around having my identity based on having worked with them later in life. And it’s something I’ll continually remain proud of, that I worked with good people all this time.”
The life-after-basketball chapter of the McCutchen story goes back to the destination he was heading to on Monday to take those four photographs. He came across the place accidentally while he was driving to pick up some items for an 18-acre property his family now owns in Ashville. After using the past few years to clean up the property after it had been vacant for decades, the McCutchen family plans to open a small farm this coming spring following the NBA season.
“My son and I have been jonesing for a little herd of milk goats — 8 or 10 milk goats,” he said.
“In retirement I’ll definitely run this little farm and have a lot of joy taking on a new challenge of making goat cheese and interesting stuff like that; run me a little herd of chickens that will wreak havoc over all of our lives.”
McCutchen cites an article he recently read by Atul Gawande, a doctor and author out of Boston, when discussing his idea of retirement.
“He wrote an article where he’s asking his patients and his friends what does a good day look like. And for me in retirement, a good day looks like messing with my animals in the morning while my wife is blowing glass [in her studio], we come in for lunch and share lunch together; I do some photography in the afternoon; I break the trumpet out and play a little music at night. That’s a good envisioned future for my retirement, simple though it may be for me.”
Balance on and off the court
But retirement is still a decade away for McCutchen. The veteran official entered his 25th NBA season having officiated 1,408 regular-season games, 169 playoff games and 16 NBA Finals games. And there are plenty more games to add to that resume.
As he continues to work the sidelines in NBA arenas across the country, McCutchen will continue to strive to find the balance between his fast-paced on-court life and a slower-pace, more methodical life off the court with his various hobbies and endeavors.
“For me that time has been spent in ways to provide a balance to the work, so that when you come back to the work at hand that is important to your life – refereeing basketball – that you have a renewed spirit about it, that you have a renewed energy that says ‘Yes this is important to get good at.’
“And for me the photography and the music and the quilting has been a good way for me to separate, recharge, have a different perspective on things, to understand that other people too have outside interests, that the game doesn’t define them wholly. And when you start to understand that other people are well dimensioned, then their perspective to your work – i.e. the give-and-take of an NBA game – isn’t just about what they are seeing right there. It opens up your viewpoint that they are multidimensional varied human beings just as you are.
“And that they have a perspective that you should not be shutting down just because you’re in a position of authority for this moment, that you should be listening, that this is a collaborative effort that we’re all trying to get to so that a game is what it should be at its best.”