A Day in the Life of an NBA Referee

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Copyright 2017 Virginian-Pilot Companies LLC
All Rights Reserved

The Virginian - Pilot (Norfolk, VA.)
February 5, 2017
Sports; Pg. 001
2396 words
A ref's life: One long day under the looking glass with NBA official Leroy Richardson
Ed Miller The Virginian-Pilot


THE BALL WENT off Steph Curry's knee.

Everyone could see that. Who couldn't see that? Thousands of howling Charlotte Hornets fans and the entire Hornets bench certainly could. They'd just watched a replay of Curry's drive on the giant video board at the Spectrum Center.

Referee Leroy Richardson had made the call that set off the joint, ruling that Golden State retained possession with 2:26 remaining and the Warriors up by three.

Richardson felt good about his decision. A 21-year NBA veteran who lives in Suffolk, he long ago gained the confidence that comes from knowing that over the long haul, officials are right far more often than they are wrong.

"In the high 90s," Richardson said.

Secure in that knowledge, crowd noise becomes just noise, the loud protests and subtle lobbying of coaches and players just part of the give-and-take.

Everyone tries to plant seeds of doubt. Richardson rarely lets them take root, but on this occasion, the "kickback" on his call was so vehement that he began to wonder if maybe he missed it.

He filed it away in his mind as one to look at later. The Warriors went on to win 113-103. Richardson and his partners - crew chief Ken Mauer and rookie ref C.J. Washington - were escorted by police back to their dressing room, as officials always are.

Long after thousands of amateur officials had left - "Everyone thinks they can do it," Mauer would say - the three professionals huddled in front of a monitor, going over plays with their colleagues in the NBA Replay Center in Secaucus, N.J.

Relentless scrutiny and public criticism is part of their job description. But a day spent with Richardson and his partners also reveals that they demand more of themselves than any coach or fan could.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a profession that involves such constant self-examination. It's the chase for an ideal - perfection - that can never be attained.

So, 12 hours into what would be a 16-hour day, Richardson watched replays of calls. His stomach growled, his 52-year-old knees begged for ice. He had a plane reservation still to make to get home for the first time in weeks.

But not before first seeing if he might have missed one.

Richardson's work day begins at 11:30 a.m., with a knock on Mauer's hotel room door.

Washington, 37, already is on the couch. Mauer, 61, settles in front of his laptop - somewhat reluctantly - ready to start the meeting.

"We're trying to drag Kenny into the 21st century," Richardson says, laughing. "I can't wait to have him open a play on his phone."

Lean and intense, with slicked-back hair, Mauer does not seem excited at the prospect. He had called the NBA's I.T. department in the wee hours after his computer went dark.

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"The most important thing in our world!" he says, gesturing at his computer, his sarcasm unmistakable. "This is life!"

The crew meeting, Mauer genuinely considers vital. Richardson and Mauer, a 31-year vet, have partnered often over the years, but Washington is new, and the three had never worked together.

NBA crews change constantly. They use such meetings to discuss scheduling, go over notable or unusual recent plays they'd been involved in, talk about the game match-ups, stay up on points of emphasis from the league and go over mechanics.

Referees are on the road 3½ weeks a month, working 12-15 games. Schedule changes are not uncommon. Richardson had just received an email saying he wasn't headed to Philadelphia tomorrow after all. He informs the crew.

Mauer logs in to find he, too, had been rescheduled.

"It just makes your day!" he says.

They get down to business. An email from the league warns of a troubling trend: coaches coming onto the floor during games. The sideline box coaches are allowed to roam in was expanded this season. Some have not been content to stay in it, and there have been cases of officials running into them.

Use common sense, Mauer says. A coach who comes on the floor a foot or two while signaling for a timeout is OK. One who comes out 7-8 feet before asking for one is not.

Referees have enough to watch without worrying about tripping over a coach's Gucci loafers. Basketball is a fluid game, and a crew must be a symphony of synchronicity.

Positioning is everything.

"We believe if you get in a position to make the right call, 97 percent of the time you'll make the right call," Mauer says.

Referees can talk all day about positioning and the mechanics of the job. On every play, they form a triangle of coverage, with the "lead" official on the baseline and the "trail" and "slot" officials on opposite sidelines at the top of the key and free-throw line, respectively.

When the ball shifts sides, the officials adjust, to maintain the best viewing angles.

It's a subtle dance. And there are potential blind spots where an official can get "caught in a stack," or blocked from the play. In general, referees watch the defender, to see if he's in legal guarding position. Getting caught on the "top" side of a play, behind the offensive player, can lead to mistakes.

"You're guessing," Richardson says.

The NBA has analytics that identify problem spots on the floor. The crew discusses a couple, including the troublesome slot-side "elbow" jumper, in which a player comes off a screen and shoots at the corner of the free-throw line. It can be a tough play for either sideline official to see well.

The key is to help each other.

"We don't really care who gets what call," Richardson says. "We just care about getting plays right."

Much is out of their control. But there are many things they can, such as making sure teams don't dawdle coming out of timeouts, Mauer says.

"Give them a delay of game, and guess what? They won't do it again."

They go over a few more dead-ball situations. Then they review a five-question true/false test the league sent out, asking whether the correct call was made in some recent late-game situations. They ace it.

They also discuss the night's match-up.

"I know the kid's coming back," Mauer says of Curry, who grew up in Charlotte and played at nearby Davidson. "I'm sure it'll be sold out or whatever."

He asks if there's any bad blood between the teams.

No one knows of any. The coaches are pros who "just plain coach their teams," Mauer says. The Warriors have the best record in the league. A young Charlotte team will come after them hard.

"It'll be a great game," Mauer says.

Next up: lunch. Richardson gets a vote on where to go, even though on work days, he doesn't eat until after the game. It makes him feel leaner and faster.

If the lack of food makes him grouchy, it doesn't show. A native of Brooklyn, Richardson has an easy smile and a sunny disposition.

"If you don't like Leroy, something's wrong with you," Mauer says.

Richardson, who is married with five children and nine grandchildren, was 12 years into a thriving Navy career when he left to work for the NBA. He'd been officiating high school and college games for about five years, and the NBA took notice.

Richardson was stationed at Dam Neck in Virginia Beach, where he was sailor of the year for his command in 1991 and 1992. His command didn't have a basketball team, so he played point guard for another. When sailors in that command complained that he was taking their playing time, he turned to officiating.

Richardson rose quickly, going from working high school games to getting college assignments within a couple of years. An accommodating commanding officer who also happened to be an Auburn University alumnus gave him the freedom to work games in the Southeastern and other conferences.

With no guarantee that the NBA would hire him, leaving the Navy was a leap of faith.

He was hired in 1995, a year out of the service, and has worked more than 1,200 regular-season games, eight playoff games and the 2012 All-Star game.

It's a lifestyle, and a handsome living. Referees make six figures. The NBA won't discuss specifics, but reports put the range between $150,000 and $550,000 per year, depending on experience.

On the road, Richardson indulges two of his passions: shopping and shooting. He knows the best mall in every city, and also the best gun shops and ranges.

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He books his own travel, so he knows every airline trick. His world is one of late nights and early flights.

It comes with the turf. The community of referees is close. To keep in the loop, officials working East Coast games must stay up late to talk shop with their West Coast colleagues, whose games finish hours after their own games end.

"It just sort of makes you nocturnal by nature," Richardson says.

Naps keep the league running. The standing joke is that no player, coach or referee can be reached between 1 and 4 p.m. on game days. Everyone's down.

Tonight's crew is no exception. Escorted by security, they arrive at the arena at 6:30, rested and ready for an 8 p.m. tip.

In a small dressing room, Richardson, 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, sits at his stall, an ice pack on his right knee and the game lineups in his hand.

Referees are physical marvels in their own right, required to keep pace with world-class athletes often half their age. With more teams employing "early" offense, and launching 3-pointers at the first opportunity, getting up the court quickly is as important as ever.

It takes conditioning and preparation. The room smells of liniment. An exercise bike is wheeled in. There's the sound of athletic tape being torn.

Mauer, who is as lean as a jockey and as limber as a gymnast, goes through an elaborate stretching and exercise routine - push-ups, abdominal crunches and more.

Everyone gears up. They are sleeved, braced, balmed and compressed. Richardson, who battles tendonitis in his knees and tightness in his calves, dons calve sleeves, knee sleeves, compression shorts, compression pants and a compression top.

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Mauer's got his own orthotics, sleeves and lotions. Washington uses a hand-held massager on his quads.

Richardson climbs on the bike to warm up first. The talk is much the same as at the morning meeting - of match-ups and officiating mechanics.

"A lot of pressure guys; every night there's pressure," Mauer says.

Isn't that why they do it? Yes, Mauer says. But not many understand what's involved.

"It's so subjective," he adds. "For people to think that this is a profession that is supposed to be without flaws, that to me, is a point of ignorance."

Tell that to the fans, players and coaches. At halftime, Golden State leads 53-47.

The crew returns to the dressing room and huddles in front of the Replay Center monitor.

"Chad! You with me?" Mauer yells at the replay operator on duty. "Chad! Can you hear me?"


Richardson grins. He speaks softly and gets a response from Secaucus.

"Ken's using his outside voice," he says, laughing.

They go over a pair of plays. The first was a no-call in which Charlotte's Frank Kaminsky got hit in the nose. They watch the replay. It should have been a foul.

Mauer writes it up.

"I'm going to say it's my fault," he says. "But in the game report I'm going to put C.J., because he's the rookie."

Everyone laughs.

The second half is eventful. Charlotte leads by five at the end of the third quarter.

Early in the fourth, the Hornets' Spencer Hawes drives on Draymond Green and pleads for a foul. No whistle comes. Hawes runs back up the floor and curses at Richardson.

He's hit with a technical.

Just 14 seconds later, Charlotte's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist loudly protests being called for a foul on a Klay Thompson jumper.

Three minutes later, with the score tied at 85, it is Thompson's turn to complain. After being whistled for fouling Marco Belinelli on a 3-point attempt, Thompson leaps high and brings his knees to his chest in protest.

Richardson slaps him with a technical.

When Curry drives and the ball goes out of bounds, the Warriors are ahead by three. But a Kevin Durant jumper makes it five, and Golden State pulls away.

After the game, the crew again congregates around the monitor. They look at 10 plays.

It's not a bad night. Hawes' drive was a good no-call. He forced his way to the basket and Green played textbook defense.

Richardson's call on Kidd-Gilchrist also was on the money, with the replay showing Thompson being hit on the elbow.

"How does he bitch on that play?" Mauer says, his voice rising. "It's right on the elbow! How does he bitch?"

"Surgical," Washington says, admiring the call.

Thompson's foul on Belinelli is more problematic.

"I don't like it at all," Mauer says, watching a replay that shows Thompson makes just marginal contact, and that Belinelli kicks his leg out slightly, although not enough to warrant an offensive foul call.

It was Mauer's call, and he missed it. He dictates as he writes.

"Marginal contact by Thompson does not warrant a whistle on this play. Should leave alone."

As for the technical, Richardson says players are allowed to react. It's an emotional game, after all. But Thompson's leap crossed the line.

By 11:15, roughly 45 minutes after the game, they've looked at several more plays and are ready to ice down and shower. Later, a famished Richardson will find an all-night diner that serves a "respectable" shrimp and grits, and will stay up until 4 a.m. making flight changes that will get him out at 5:30.

Before that, though, he wants to see one more play. It's the possession call on Curry that caused so much "kickback," as Richardson called it.

Tellingly, neither Curry nor defender Kemba Walker had said a word. The crew watches the replay several times and it's clear that Charlotte's Walker knocked the ball out. It didn't go off Curry's knee.

Mauer beams. The Charlotte trainer had told him he saw the replay and that the ball went off Curry. His response:

"I said it's the first one Leroy missed all year!"

For Richardson, it's a familiar vindication. Not just of the call, but of the process, of the relentless self-examination and dedication to getting it right.

Even if he'd missed it, he'd feel the same way. It's why he wanted to be a pro, in a profession where you can never get them all right, but you can sleep at night knowing you've made every effort.

"You learn it over time," he says. "If I'm wrong, it doesn't make me incompetent, it doesn't make me inefficient. It means that I'm human."

It's time to go ice those knees.

February 5, 2017

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