Ref University: NBA spending summer seeking new officials
LAS VEGAS — It’s a half-hour after their game ended and the night is just beginning for referees Ashley Gilpin, Natalie Sago and SirAllen Conner. They’ve showered, they’ve changed clothes, but dinner and the bright lights of Las Vegas will have to wait.
A long classroom session is up first.
They walk into a tiny locker room, grab seats on folding chairs and open their notebooks. Everything they did on the court that night — where they stood, where they looked, what call they made, what call they didn’t make— will be scrutinized on video for the next two hours by NBA referees, tasked with teaching the summer refs what they need to know to make it to the league.
Think of it as Referee University.
Summer league is where players can get noticed by the NBA, and the same is true for referees.
“We want them to watch us because we want to grow each and every game,” Sago told The Associated Press, which observed the feedback session with Sago, Gilpin and Conner. “We’re all trying to be NBA referees. So it’s a job interview for us just like it is for the players and the coaches.”
There were 81 referees — mostly from the G League — working games at the NBA summer league in Las Vegas, which ends Tuesday. All 81 have been exposed to multiple classroom sessions with current and retired NBA officials, who are there to essentially groom the people who could one day replace them. Programs like this have been in play for years, although it’s no secret that the NBA wants to increase its pool of referees by 25 percent before 2020.
That’s why this summer might provide more big breaks than usual for those blowing the whistles at games. The overwhelming majority of refs working this summer won’t see the NBA anytime soon, and many never will, but for some the call is closer than ever before.
“What we want to do in our training is give people the opportunity to have the tools to be successful,” said Monty McCutchen, the NBA’s vice president overseeing referee development and training. “It’s about teaching. I think one of the great disappointments of American culture, as I see it, is we don’t appreciate apprenticeship enough. We think that just by going to school you’re suddenly ready instead of having hands-on training that allows you to grow.
“Here, we give that hands-on training.”
Of the 81 summer refs, 19 were women — up from just five at summer league last year and nearly doubling the total of 10 who worked the event over the most recent five years. It is clear that it won’t be long before more women make it to the NBA level.
For now, there’s only one in the NBA: Lauren Holtkamp.
“To me, it’s a bit embarrassing that we only have one working woman in our officiating ranks right now,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “There is no physical reason why that’s the case.”
Up-and-comers like Gilpin and Sago could change that.
Gilpin might have an ideal academic makeup for refereeing, with three degrees from Arizona, where she also played basketball — an undergraduate in psychology, master’s in administration and then a law degree. Sago played college softball, but has long had an affinity for basketball. Conner has worked 11 games in the NBA, most of those coming as a replacement ref during the lockout in 2009.
At the game Gilpin, Sago and Conner worked together, at least a half-dozen referees were seated on the baseline and in the stands watching. McCutchen, at one point, saw a technique that Gilpin used and jumped from his chair in delight before going over and asking other refs if they had noticed the same thing.
“If you can’t referee in front of them, you can’t work for them,” Gilpin said. “Sure, sometimes we get nervous because it is an audition. But if we think about every call, every ‘oh my gosh this is a bad call,’ paralysis by analysis, we’ll run ourselves out of this profession.”
During their classroom session with longtime NBA ref Eric Lewis, the three spoke in sync, even finishing each other’s thoughts on a couple occasions. Retired refs Bernie Fryer and Mark Wunderlich were in and out of the room as well, offering their thoughts on whatever play happened to be on the screen at a given time.
For the mentors, it’s serious business.
“It’s my job to get them hired,” Lewis said. “I’m focused on the things I can do to help them improve and get a job.”
They all monitor in different ways — at some games, James Williams took meticulous notes, pulling out a tablet and typing observations during stoppages in play. At other games, Joey Crawford would handwrite his notes, with penmanship that not even fellow ref John Goble could understand.
By any method, legible or not, their input is vital.
“When you tell someone something, and they go out and do it, that gets you excited as someone who is seeking to bring in the next wave, next generation of officials,” McCutchen said.
Lewis’ group needed to spend only a few seconds on some plays, spent several minutes on others. Late in the first half of their game, Gilpin gave Golden State coach Willie Green a technical foul — the first one she handed out in a pro game. Green argued that he wasn’t waving dismissively at her, but rather he was waving to someone behind her.
A few moments later, Gilpin missed a call.
“I was in my head,” Gilpin acknowledged afterward.
Lewis shrugged and told her to believe in her call, believe the tech was warranted, and move on to the next play. And besides, the call that she missed, one of her fellow refs made anyway.
“If we can get them where you need to be, where you need to look and give you an understanding of the guidelines of what’s illegal and legal, then it becomes easy,” Lewis said. “They digest the play, they know the process and that leads to the right decision at the end of the play.”
Fans probably wouldn’t believe that those decisions get honed inside a cramped concrete-block room, one with mustard-colored walls and dingy carpet, and a pile of towels strewn off to the side.
But the tiny room is what gets the refs ready for the big stage.
“The best part after a game is coming in here and re-watching it,” Sago said. “It’s all about getting ready.”