There are times when 20-year NBA referee Marc Davis is coaching his son’s AAU team, and the official working the game recognizes him. It’s the age of the smartphone, so they inevitably ask him if they can snap a picture together.
“Absolutely not,” Marc will say. “How do you think the opposing coach is gonna feel with us taking pictures right now?” His sensitivity to the idea of fairness, even the optics of it before coaching his son’s AAU team, reveals an almost pathological need for impartiality. “It’s in my soul, being an official,” he says.
Despite declining the selfie, Davis makes a point to reach out to his officiating brethren, even at the AAU level. “Anytime I walk into a gym,” he says, “I always speak to the officials because I know I’m probably the only person in that building that’s rooting for them.”
A veteran official told Marc when he first started out in the league, “They’re not screaming at you, they’re screaming at the shirt.” A couple beats later Davis concludes the obvious: “They don’t know me.”
If they did, maybe the anger and vitriol he can hear in the arena and online would subside. Maybe the players wouldn’t start frothing at the mouth any time a call went against them.
But Marc doesn’t work in a vacuum where fans are rational and empathize with a ref’s plight. He works in the NBA, where fans take it as a personal affront when a whistle doesn’t go their team’s way. Players, too. Despite all the antipathy, Davis was one of 12 officials to ref in the 2018 Finals — his seventh appearance on the NBA’s biggest stage. It’s a testament to his judgement and even-keeled demeanor during the throes of the action. It’s a calmness he likely inherited from his dad.
Ron Davis was a street cop in Chicago for 34 years. In his time on the force, he learned some things, and he tried to pass some of that along to his son. His aphorisms have become somewhat legend in the tight-knit fraternity of NBA referees because they’re so cogent to that profession.
“[My dad] didn’t know anything refereeing, but he knew about people” Marc says. “And one thing he said to me that had anything to do with refereeing was, ‘If people are doing what you’re asking them to do, then don’t worry about what they’re saying.’ If I’m asking you, ‘Hey, i need you to move off this corner and go over there,’ they can m-f you all the way there, as long as they move off the corner, it doesn’t really matter what they say.
“If you ultimately have the final say on a subject, then you should give up the final word.”
John Goble has been an NBA ref for the last decade. Originally from Miami, Florida, he still resides there with his wife and kids — a boy and a girl. On those rare days during the season when he can make it back home in time to see his daughter's dance recital, “I’m jumping up and down,” he says. When his schedule allows him time to see her dance, or his son row for the crew team, it’s never an inconvenience. “I don’t care how late or how I early I need to get up to be there.”
If you’re a parent, you understand the difficulty of being away from your kids. Refs spend more than half a year living out of a suitcase in various NBA cities, and many miss the major holidays, too. But not all parents talk –– especially those on the road as much as Goble –– about the “responsibility you have as a mother or father that you’re there to support.”
Similar to Marc Davis, John’s own dad –– who was also his high school basketball coach –– gave him some advice that’s helped him become an accomplished NBA referee: “Get to the next play! Get to the next play!” It’s a maxim that’s allowed him to walk the tightrope between memorization (to recall proper positioning, league bylaws, player idiosyncrasies, the proper body language when addressing a player, and –– most importantly –– the mistakes you don’t want to repeat) and a forgetfulness necessary to keep errors from clouding your present focus.
“If you do make a mistake, you have to move on because if you keep that mistake in your mind, you’ll never be able to perform properly,” Goble says. “And when I failed at that early on, I noticed that I made many more mistakes.” That ability to progress past a missed call is similar to NBA players.
“Shooters are told to have very, very short memories,” he says. “If you miss two shots in a row, you have to believe you’re gonna make your next shot. If not, you’re going to go 0-for-5 or 0-for-6 in a row.” It takes a tremendous amount of discipline to own your mistake while continuing to be confident in your judgement. “That’s pretty much where that mental toughness comes from,” Goble says.
Refs normally don’t see the mistake in real time, unless it’s a reviewable play and they’re not sure of the initial call on the floor; Otherwise, they’d correct it then and there. The learning comes after the game, when the real work begins.
“Once you learn why you made the mistake,” Goble says, “I think that is a big key, and a big tool in terms of compartmentalizing it, so to speak, and moving on to the next play.” Continual self-assessment is the only way to consistently improve. “Whether it’s because you were out of position, or you didn’t process the play correctly, or your eyes weren’t in the right spot –– that helps you next time you have a similar play.”
Clearly, even the best refs aren’t impervious to mistakes, or emotions. John Goble officiated his first NBA Finals game in 2017 (and made his second appearance in the Finals this past June). He didn’t expect to be one of the 12 selected for the honor, and the enormity of the stage wasn’t lost on him. “You do have those nervous jitters, but once the ball goes up, all those jitters just go away.”
We often forget a ref’s humanity when raw emotion springs forth under the hot glare of a game. NBA refs get a fan’s urge to spew venom, too; It’s part of what they signed up for.
“You detach yourself emotionally from the game,” Goble says. “Coaches, players, fans, team management — there’s a vested interest in trying to win. We as officials are detached emotionally because we are the arbiters of the game.”
Few have mediated the NBA game with the sagacity of Monty McCutchen. Unlike Goble and Davis, you may have heard that name before. Up until this past season, McCutchen has been an NBA referee for the last quarter century, including 169 playoff contests and 16 Finals appearances. But the NBA asked him to take a role — Vice President of Referee Training and Development –– that allows him to pass his knowledge on to every NBA referee in a more formal capacity.
When asked how people originally got into refereeing, McCutchen gave a canned answer about love for the game. However, if you spend any time talking to him, his earnest love for basketball and the NBA isn’t a put-on. It’s what motivated him to the top level of his profession. But, he started refereeing during college for the same reason a lot of people do things in college.
“For me, hunger was the initial direction that led me to refereeing,” McCutchen says. “I was really hungry in college.” A ref who officiated McCutchen in high school pointed him in the right direction. “I went to the meeting and started doing it and just fell in love with it.”
Similar to Goble and Davis, Monty’s father plays a crucial role in his journey to the NBA. “I was coming home and talking every excitedly about refereeing,” he says. “My father just suggested to me, ‘Have you given any thought into doing this?’ I said, ‘What do you mean, I am doing this.’ And he says, ‘No, for a living.’ And I say, ‘Well I wouldn’t even know how you would do that.’ And he says, ‘Well, you’d sit down and write a letter.’” That’s exactly what McCutchen did (this was in the 80s, so people actually wrote letters), and they responded.
Monty answers in David Foster Wallace-length paragraphs, and after soliloquizing about how his love for the game ultimately led him to the NBA, he segued into the type of person who becomes an NBA ref. Like the players, the NBA is the pinnacle of basketball officiating. However, as stewards of the game, refs need something beyond drive and talent; they need that mental fortitude Goble and Davis alluded to.
“We have found common characteristics of people who have made it to us,” Monty says. “A high meter for fairness; a high meter for being courageous under difficult circumstances; a high meter for being communicative in ways that explain things to participants in meaningful ways.”
All of those personality attributes matter. But, there’s a depth of character, and an ingrained conscientiousness to an NBA referee that we miss as fans, reporters, coaches and players. As a society, we miss it with an ironic detachment. It’s Marc Davis’ unwillingness to pose for a photo before his children’s AAU game, and John Goble’s mention of the responsibility parents have to be present in their children’s lives, even when their given profession makes it so difficult. It’s virtue in the plainest sense, and it’s almost unrecognizable in today’s sports media culture.
Monty McCutchen understands this better than almost anyone.
“I think that most referees find out that there’s an inner challenge for themselves at stake,” he says. “It’s not just how players are testing themselves, or coaches are testing themselves, but referees are having to deal with some of the things that we all have to deal with: How do we overcome our own self-doubt to become confident people? How do we show grit when we fail ourselves on missed calls?”
Imagine your most embarrassing professional moment — the one that nearly crippled your sense of self-worth. Now, pretend like millions of strangers watched that moment on TV, and thousands of them are screaming at you from a few feet away as you attempt to avoid repeating that mistake in the next instant. That’s being an NBA ref in the NBA Finals.
“We have found that people who have made it to us view [mistakes] as important to their own growth,” Monty says. “That it’s not just about, ‘Oh, I get to be on the floor with the best players in the world.’ There are higher principles at stake that give meaning to their own lives. And in such, they become very self-critical, and they become very self-aware through this process of serving the game. Our referees enjoy serving the game. They have a clear understanding they aren’t the game.”
Inborne veneration for truth and fairness is all well and good, but Goble, Davis, McCuthchen, and the rest of the NBA’s officiating ranks are made up of actual human beings. Cyborg’s don’t call games, even if –– as spectators –– we feel like we come close to that level of robotic precision while comfortably watching five different replays showing multiple angles on a millisecond of game action.
It’s humanity’s intrinsic flaws in referees that outsiders –- mainly fans and armchair analysts, but also the media, players and coaches — perceive as a defect. There’s a belief that refs should be error-free automatons who impeccably adjudicate every decision during a game. When trying to ask Monty McCutchen about the perfect referee, he forcefully interjects: “There isn’t one.”
Perfection, it turns out, isn’t a part of the referee’s argot.
“We talk a lot about excellence,” says Davis. “We don’t talk a lot about perfection.”
“[Referees] are not competing against another team,” says Goble. “You’re really competing against yourself. And what I mean by that is, when you’re going out there, you’re trying to be as close to perfect as possible.”
They’re striving for perfection, and in that stridency, achieving something awful close to it, because perfection doesn’t exist in a corporeal plane. “It’s up to us to create the culture of excellence instead of perfection, so that our referee’s feel comfortable pursuing excellence,” McCutchen says.
This might be the sticking point for so many fans who feel personally aggrieved when a ref’s mistake appears to cost their team a win. That’s on us as the audience, though, not the refs. And appearances can be deceiving.
“Even when we get the call right,” says McCutchen, “that doesn’t ensure the fact that it will be received that way. And it’s up to us as professional, nuanced experts to do our work without fear of how it might be perceived publicly.”
“There’s been a false expectation of perfection,” says Davis. “We never meet that, and I think that is some of the issue with the officiating right now; an overwhelming arch of desire for perfection that’s unattainable. Excellence is attainable, and I think we are getting closer and closer to reaching that.”
An independent website looked at all of the public calls available since the Last Two Minute Report (L2MR) — covering any game that’s 3 points or less at any point in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime — and found they got calls and non-calls right over 92 percent of the time.
However, the purpose behind the L2MR’s transparency was to help build trust. In some cases, it’s ameliorated the problem.
The often opaque interpretation of the rulebook to fans, and the context of each call in question, combined with our own fallible memories, usually prevents anger at a call from extending days or weeks or months or years past a game (unless your happiness really is that tethered to your favorite team, in which case, maybe try to get out a little more). But now that there’s seemingly conclusive proof a mistaken call cost a team a win, gripes at the refs have a longer half-life, and their grounded in something akin to empiricism. Except, not quite.
The referee’s union (NBRA), got into an online tiff with the league about the legitimacy of the L2MR.
This is not accurate; all calls in L2Ms are evaluated by reviewers trained to rate plays the way officials are instructed to call them; their decisions are approved by ref ops senior staff (former officials) and senior b-ball ops personnel, all with many years of NBA experience https://t.co/KVDXrfDBrm— NBA Official (@NBAOfficial) March 16, 2018
“Our union had some issues with the L2MR because we wanted it to be consistent with how we were taught,” Marc says. “It’s getting there. I think it has become a non-issue because everyone thought there was something behind the curtain, and there’s isn’t anything there.”
Monty McCutchen thinks the clarity of the L2MR helps instead of hinders a referee’s credibility. “I definitely think the L2MR has a role in sharing through a sense of transparency that although we’re not perfect, we’ve reached levels of excellence,” he says. “I get that the headlines of the L2MR are about the missed calls, but when you look at the overall body of work at of our L2-ends, we’re pretty good at the ends of games. And I think that owning the few times we’re not, allows people to believe in the body of work.”
That’s the key, admitting to those mistakes and then rectifying them. If anyone claimed perfection, despite ample evidence to the contrary, how could onlookers depend on their other judgements? By admitting their mistakes in the L2MR, it should cool the fire that burns so hot in fans emotionally affected by an outcome they feel the refs decided unfairly. .
The operative word in that last sentence is feel. Fans feel a ref got it wrong, and sometimes the L2MR proves them right. But as we’ve seen, refs consciously try to avoid feelings, and spend hours reviewing film to master their profession. Hours doesn’t accurately reflect their work ethic, though.
You might claim to be an NBA fiend — you catch every game your team plays, every national TV game, and all of the fun league pass contests, too — but in comparison to an NBA ref, it’s like how much game film the casual teenage fan watches compared with the perpetually pale, raccoon-eyed Tom Thibodeau.
“I have to have watched probably well over a 1000 NBA games a season — easily,” says Marc Davis. “And I love watching them, and stay up all night watching them.”
He’d have to because that many NBA games, not counting games that run long –– so around 2150 hours (1000 x 2.15 hours — the average length of an NBA game) –– equals almost 90, 24-hour days solely spent watching hoops. That’s almost a quarter of your entire year, sans sleep, watching NBA basketball.
Now, maybe Marc is hyperbolic in his estimation, but when you hear about the standard schedule for an NBA ref, it might be low.
“The fact of the matter is those split-second [decisions] are supported by a foundation of hours and hours and hours of tape work that’s year after year after year, which becomes thousands, which becomes tens of thousands, which becomes total commitment,” says McCutchen.
A ref’s preparation starts for a season starts at the fall preseason meetings, where every ref gathers in a big ballroom to watch tape and discuss new points of emphasis, or slippage the league spots in any particular areas. “We watch play after play after play from the previous season about how to get better in various categories,” McCutchen notes with pride.
The season itself might be even busier than it is for a player. There’s a morning meeting every single game day for the entire three-man crew, where they watch tape based on the league’s needs and their own, “The things they may want to seek from an elder statesman on our staff,” says McCutchen. “Feedback about a previous game, so there’s tape work there. And then there’s tape work at halftime and post-game in which the game itself is scrutinized by the crew seeking improvement and/or documentation for the league office the next morning in the form of a game report.”
Add all that up and it’s hard to question an NBA ref’s expertise when it comes to the game of basketball. You might believe that NBA players don’t get called enough for traveling, or the block/charge call is routinely misread, or there’s innate homerism because of the crowd, but you don’t study film like refs do, and you aren’t trained on differentiating between a block and a charge, or studying where and how a player picks up their dribble or uses a pivot foot. They do; It’s their job.
As mentioned, Marc Davis routinely shares his father’s advice, and the nuggets of wisdom in his pithy turns of phrase –– honed from decades spent patrolling Chicago streets –– ring true for refs everywhere:
“Very early in my career, and at that time there were very few national TV games, so it was a big deal when you got them. A friend of mine had a big game someplace on TV and I was a little bit in myself about, ‘man I wish I had that game.’ And [my dad] said, “Let me tell you something: They’re all big. Mess it up and see how small it is.’”
Refs understand this axiom more than anyone. There is no respite for a weary ref. A game between two basement-dwelling teams in early March is a throwaway for everyone, most of all the teams trying to position themselves for June’s draft. But not for the refs working the game.
“We’re just cut from a different cloth,” says Davis. “What we measure our self worth and our success up against is based on fairness and equitability and promoting the standards of our game. That’s what we’re called to do, and that’s what we’re gonna do. If that disappoints you, then you will just be disappointed.”