Q&A: Monty McCutchen out to help NBA referees grow in their careers
Veteran official turned NBA's head of referee development knows demands, challenges of job
To a lot of longtime NBA observers, Monty McCutchen’s promotion in December to NBA vice president, head of referee development and training, was the equivalent of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Sure, McCutchen’s 25 years of experience as one of the league’s highest-rated game officials — including 169 playoff contests and 16 Finals games — would inform his new position with a real, recent perspective, feeding his effectiveness in working with the full staff of refs.
On the other hand, coming so soon after the retirement of veterans Joey Crawford and Danny Crawford, taking McCutchen off the court would thin the ranks of proven referees. McCutchen believes he can help enough in his new macro- job, though, to make up for any losses at the micro- level. The native of San Angelo, Texas, who is known for a fashion sense built around a wardrobe of colorful, throwback “zoot suits,” spoke with NBA.com in a wide-ranging interview. This Q&A is edited from that longer conversation:
NBA.com: How does the dress code in your new job compare to your old one?
Monty McCutchen: I put it in the contract, verbally, don’t be tellin’ me to wear gray and navy. It’s not happening.
NBA.com: How about the job itself, five months in?
MM: I’m enjoying the job. It’s a different pace to my life. One of the things that’s great about the new job is, you don’t realize the amount of support that exists for referees when you’re sort of out in the desert going from game to game. It’s easy to paint your own picture of victimization and think, ‘Aw, nobody loves me.’ I’m finding out that’s just not true. The people I’m getting to work with now [at NBA HQ] are sort of life-giving people. They’re really enjoyable people. That’s exciting at 52 years old, to take on something new and lets you grow.
The work is imperfect. What we can have an impact on is the culture of mutual respect and how we disagree … That’s what I hope to have an impact on.”
Monty McCutchen, NBA vice president, head of referee development and training
NBA.com: So you’re feeling the love now that you’re management. You weren’t feeling that when you were labor?
MM: I’m not making bad calls anymore [laughs].
NBA.com: The just-completed regular season was marked by a lot of talk about player/referee friction. Where do you feel things stand?
MM: You’re never solving all the missed calls. The work is imperfect. What we can have an impact on is the culture of mutual respect and how we disagree, and the culture of good people doing good work — which is what our referees are — can be respected even amongst the disagreements. That’s what I hope to have an impact on.
NBA.com: Danny Crawford, who retired last year, told me early this season he thinks officiating accuracy is about as good as it’s going to get — and will be at approximately the same level 10 years from now. How much improvement is humanly possible?
MM: That begs a question of what you value. For me, if you only value product, then it’s about a percentage [of correct calls], right? I know that to the people we impact — our players, our coaches, our owners — product is really important. And it’s important to me too. But process is also important. Regardless of what the potential outcome is, it’s an integrity-based decision to be involved in the process to try to get better. To put the work in to get better. If you view life through that process, then the product will take care of itself.
Our officials want to get plays right whether it’s the best players or players who are on 10-day contracts. Anyone who doesn’t — and I come to know about it — won’t be here for long.”
NBA.com: Give us an example of one area to be addressed.
MM: With the use of modern technology in its various forms, with our replay center, with our ability to get information out more quickly to our officials, I think all of that will speed up the learning curve of our lesser-experienced officials. Our staff has the opportunity to become more consistent through rapid education. It can compress the difference between Kenny Mauer in year 32 or 33, whatever year he’s in, and Ray Acosta, J.B. DeRosa and Jonathan Sterling in year 1.
Then, when you put the work in, you live with the results. … We won’t get to 100 percent. In that way, Danny is 100 percent right. But I will say, what is 100 percent? If we watch a game, we can’t even agree what 100 percent would be.
NBA.com: There often seems to be a style vs. substance component in play. For instance, early in retired referee Steve Javie’s career, players and coaches praised his ability to adjudicate a game but felt he was arrogant and tough to talk to. Skills in both areas are essential, aren’t they?
MM: For years, none of [the latter] has been taught. Referees have sort of figured that out on their own. What we’re hopeful to do is to start to implement some programs. We have a sports psychologist who helped us with our WNBA preseason meetings who gave a really great foundation for how to approach these interpersonal [relations].
If we start to educate and evaluate and say, hey, this matters — so does accuracy, but this matters — it pushes people in the direction of finding answers for themselves. I don’t want to get too touchy-feely here. We need to understand this is an important part of refereeing. It doesn’t mean acquiescing all the time. It just means being able to articulate a position.
Every one of our teams thinks that every superstar gets every call — except theirs. That’s the nature of the business. I understand that, I don’t begrudge anyone that sense of protecting their player.”
NBA.com: I’ve heard from former referees that some of the younger officials don’t arrive with as many skills or as much life experience as in the past.
MM: And what we’ve found is that, often, no choice is a choice. If I don’t know what to say in my younger years of being a referee, if I don’t know how to meet the will of the coaches and the players, I tend to default to nothing. I say nothing, I hope this goes away and I avoid the situation.
What we’re finding out from traveling around to various teams is, that non-choice is leading to the idea of arrogance, of being ignored, which of course amps up emotions. It doesn’t calm them down.
NBA.com: This is an emotional game, with players and coaches competing with a high intensity. Referees are supposed to stay cool and detached, right?
MM: The one thing I would throw out for open discourse is that poise is an important part of all of our lives. Playing a game is emotional. Having things screamed at you is emotional as well. The fact is, we’ve practiced and trained to remain poised, for the most part. We all can grow from more poise.
NBA.com: Let me ask about some specific issues related to officiating. Like the idea of “make-up calls.” In Minnesota’s Game 1 loss to Houston, Jeff Teague inadvertently got hit in the jaw but the refs seemed to not see it. Moments later, with the Timberwolves’ bench in uproar, Houston lost possession on a traveling call. And the color analyst working the game immediately labeled that a “make-up call.”
MM: I think it’s the lowest hanging fruit. It’s lazy reporting. And to be honest, it means someone doesn’t have to put any real thought into what just happened. The fact is, we’re scrutinized to such a degree that if you were to think that way, all you would be is wrong twice. And wrong twice gets you sent home earlier. What we’re graded on is a percentage basis of correct and non-correct calls. We have consequences to our decisions.
Was there actually a travel? OK, we missed the first call — I understand that. But do you know how many times I know I missed that call? Very few. It’s only later that I understand I missed the call. This also might come as some surprise to you — I’m being facetious and hopefully funny — that players will tell you things sometimes that aren’t true. And only the tape will tell you that later on. If you go around making up calls, only to find out you were correct in the original case, look how far down the rabbit hole you would have gone.
NBA.com: OK, how about “star treatment?” In the same category?
MM: Absolutely. Every one of our teams thinks that every superstar gets every call — except theirs. That’s the nature of the business. I understand that, I don’t begrudge anyone that sense of protecting their player.
But you know what, the game is moving really, really fast. And the only way our fans can believe that the championship their team won or fell just short of is legitimate is if they believe in the integrity of our officials. Our officials want to get plays right whether it’s the best players or players who are on 10-day contracts. Anyone who doesn’t — and I come to know about it — won’t be here for long.
NBA.com: Why doesn’t the NBA keep referees together in a “crew” through a playoff series the way baseball does with its umpires?
MM: I think you would build up a frustration level. With baseball, you get a different dynamic in a home-plate umpire every game in a series. That is not our work. If you were to have a [controversial] play at the end of Game 1, that crew would have to be living with the commentary and both teams would have to live with the thought that things weren’t right. I think it’s important that every game starts with a fresh slate.
NBA.com: It’s as if your refs all call balls and strikes every night.
MM: That’s right.
NBA.com: Another playoff topic is how the points for flagrant fouls and technicals accumulate through the playoffs. That turned into a big deal for Golden State and Draymond Green two years ago. Is that an area where the referees have input or is it strictly up to the Competition Committee?
MM: We have a non-voting voice in the Competition Committee — two of our current referees and myself are on that as part of the meetings, but without a vote. We can give our perspective but it’s an administrative decision that’s above my pay grade. But for me, I’ll revert back philosophically to my point that poise is an important part of a championship pursuit.
NBA.com: The officials working the playoffs continue to be evaluated and the initial group of 36 eventually narrows to 12 for The Finals. Someone always is watching?
MM: Your body of work is evaluated. Just like missing one layup, we’re not going to punish someone’s career over one mistake. But if consistent work is not being produced, that hinders your ability to move on to serve the game. The game must be served at this time of year to its highest level.
NBA.com: Second only perhaps to air traffic controllers, referees are reviewed and scrutinized more than almost any other profession, it seems. Can they ever just relax?
MM: You have to own your ability to relax. We all took this job on, we all knew it’s a highly scrutinized profession. Those of us who accept the work and the responsibility for it don’t have any trouble getting on a treadmill the next day and working off a little stress. That doesn’t mean you shake your mistakes as if they don’t matter. Mistakes, when they impact game, stick with the referee. But they can’t stick so much that they affect the next game’s work. The participants in that game deserve our best work, not some victimized referee who’s moping around because he or she feels too much pressure.
NBA.com: Before and since the All-Star break — where a small group of players and referees gathered for a summit meeting — you and others from the league have met with all 30 teams to address officiating concerns. How has that gone?
MM: We often want to put situations in opposition to one another, when in fact they’re capable of moving along the same path that leads to a beneficial place. Our two unions meeting can’t possibly be anything but a good thing. It’s people talking about how to solve a problem. People looking inward about how to participate in that. That’s great.
Michelle Johnson (senior VP and head of referee operations), Shareef Abdur-Rahim (associate VP of basketball operations) and myself visited the teams and laid down a template for what good, honest discourse and constructive criticism can be about. We were open to listening to teams’ perspective … and we were able to give a perspective and education about how hard our group [works], how much tape they watch and preparation they put in.
In a profession that’s been so good to me, to help other people have success and to see the league have success, I find that to have a great deal of meaning.
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