By Dylan Murphy
NEW YORK -- Two hundred men of assorted heights and body fat percentages are sitting like a middle school gym class, jammed into half of a basketball court. They all paid $300 to be here at the NBA D-League National Tryout, and possibly impress their way into the November D-League Draft. Their odds are long; only a handful of players even become draft-eligible, and in 2012 only six were drafted -- but there is the occasional Cinderella story. Dennis Horner crawled his way from a 2011 D-League National Tryout in Louisville all the way to the New Jersey Nets. A player like that could be here.
Joe Borgia, however, isn't concerned with any of these players. Today is also, quietly, the NBA D-League National Referee Tryout, and Borgia is the NBA's Vice President of Referee Operations. He's not here looking for the next Dennis Horner; he's looking for the next Steve Javie.
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Tucked away in a second-floor conference room are 27 males and two females, all of whom forked over $150 to be here at Basketball City on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Except they're not players, and this isn't quite an open tryout. These men and women are referees, and were selected after an online application process at nbaofficials.com to vet their officiating experience. Still, they are unknowns.
"There are some people I'll probably rule out one time up the court," Borgia says. "One tryout we had a guy show up, he was probably like 275, 300 pounds. I don't know why he wasted his money. It didn't help that he was 5'2". You know what I mean?"
Most of the officials are armed with professional clout. They're from Divisions I, II and III -- both men's and women's -- and most notably from the Pac 12, Mountain West, West Coast Conference and the Big South. Some deal exclusively in pro-ams and summer leagues. Others call high school games. One official from California claims he reffed a women's NCAA Tournament game, but loses his credibility when he can't remember which one. Most of them dropped an additional chunk of change to get here from Arkansas, Ohio, Texas and everywhere else. "How did you get here?" I ask that same official from California. I want to know the journey, the type of personality, the person who idolizes Dick Bavetta more than Michael Jordan. "I flew," he responds matter-of-factly. "Five-hour flight."
None of them officiate full-time. It doesn't pay well enough (below the NBA level), and they have rent and families to think about. Anthony Jones of Irving, Texas, runs a cleaning service and is a bass fisherman. DeShawn Savedge from Hampton, Va., is an Assistant Director of Student Activities at Hampton University. Frank Iguodala is a financial advisor at Citizens Bank in Philadelphia. James Duke, just 24 years old, is a football coach in Ohio; he played wide receiver for one season at the University of Akron.
For all of them, reffing at a higher level is the dream. Some just wanted to stay in the game, after playing careers ended and coaching careers didn't pan out. Others were looking for some extra cash, only to discover a new passion. All of them pay close attention to George Toliver, the NBA Director of D-League Officials, who lays out the rubric by which they'll be judged. Toliver and Borgia -- both former NBA referees themselves -- are each responsible for two of the four game courts, and they'll each watch every official once. They'll then index their thoughts numerically, using 1-10 scales to grade officials in three categories, further broken down into 10 subcategories. They are:
1) Call Accuracy
3) Active Whistle in Primary and Secondary Coverage
4) Timely Rotation/Position Adjustment
2) Responding Skills to Partners/Coaches
3) Game Management (Clock, etc.)
4) Projecting Strength and Confidence
1) Athletic Appearance/Toning
2) Ability to Cover the Court
Though the scoring system seems to give precise answers, Toliver and Borgia insist that they just use the numbers to make groupings; who actually advances to the next round is more holistic. After the tryout, they'll meet to discuss each candidate and decide who moves on. Before the tryout, Borgia suspects the number will hover around 8-10.
The officials will be classified one of three ways: moving on to Las Vegas for summer training, the "we'll keep an eye on you" guys and those who don't have the goods. But Vegas is only a first step. Those who survive today's tryout will be grouped with leftovers from last year's tryouts for whom there was not enough room, mid-level college officials the league has been monitoring and candidates from other National Tryouts. From there, the pool is trimmed down even further, with only the cream of that crop advancing to a camp in Anaheim.
It's only then, after multiple camps and multiple narrowing down sessions, that referees will be selected for the D-League. It's a well-oiled minor league system, basically. All officials start out as candidates for the NBA, and typically spend four to six years training before they're called up to the big time: at the top tier, the NBA, and a notch below, the WNBA. But progress within that time is closely monitored; officials who don't improve are let go within one or two years. Only those who make significant strides forward hang around to maybe, one day, possibly, referee at basketball's highest level.
NBA referee Tre Maddox has completed this journey. After showing up to a Dallas tryout in July 2007, he worked his way through the D-League and college hoops to find a spot in the NBA. In 2008-2009, Maddox officiated 45 regular season D-League games and one playoff game. In 2009-2010, those totals rose to 48 regular season and three playoff games. He was upped to seven playoff game assignments -- including the NBDL Finals -- in 2010-2011, but only worked 29 regular season games. It was a tradeoff he gladly took, though, because on November 6, 2010, Maddox made his NBA debut, a double-overtime thriller between the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers. He officiated seven more NBA games that season, and the next year, the league hired him as a full-time official.
The 29 referees here today want to be Tre Maddox.
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Shattering the backboard or breaking the rim is a technical foul on the offending player. If five or more players leave the bench during an on-court altercation, the players will serve one-game suspensions consecutively, alphabetically by last name. The visiting team can choose which basket to defend prior to the game. If a team only has five players remaining and a player is ejected or injured, the last player to foul out may re-enter the game. All coaches must wear a sport coat or suit jacket. If a player or coach enters the stands, the incident must be reported, by e-mail, to the commissioner.
The NBA has lots of rules: 65 pages worth in its official rulebook and 444 casebook examples in supplement. They cover everything from court dimensions to the most nitty-gritty, situational minutiae. (Case 103: Does an official stop play if a player loses his shoe? No.) They bring order to chaos, or at least restricted purpose to a bunch of chiseled super-jocks running and jumping and sweating within a 94-by-50 rectangle. But there's a next step: interpretation and implementation, a part of which is just sifting through flops and other diversions. But also, more simply, what constitutes legal contact? Or, more controversially, a block or charge? Rules can't just be broad-slapped at every turn. Every travel isn't the same; some goaltendings are closer than others. NBA players -- and even D-Leaguers, for that matter -- are huge and fast and don't operate frame by frame. Catching those split-second twitches in real time, without the assistance of wide-angle television views, is the trick. And so the official, with his regular build and regular vision, is the gatekeeper of basketball.
Here at Basketball City, it's not even about getting the calls right; Borgia admits that he's barely taking note of the calls referees are making, and most of his judgments are intangible. Authority, body language and posture are more crucial, for now. "If somebody makes a call, and you believe through their signals and through their presentation that they're right, does it matter if they got it wrong? Videotapes prove if they got it wrong. They're actors."
Throughout the day Borgia sits in his folding chair, peppering me with similarly insightful and blunt commentary about refereeing mechanics. "I have the greatest view in the world, but if freakin' Shaq walks in front of you, you ain't seein' shit." Every so often, he picks up his chair and relocates 10 feet in the other direction, plops down and stares at the other court. Sometimes he flips through some papers and writes. He's always watching.
At times Borgia hones in on specifics -- Does the official run up the court with his head turned toward the action, or does he put his head down and lose sight of play? -- but his examination is more geared toward potential. Borgia points to two officials, whom we agree are similar in skill. "Now, if you found out one was a 10-year veteran in college," Borgia supposes, "and the other was in his second year, who would you be more inclined to look at?" I say the veteran, because he has more experience. "He's more polished, but he should be," Borgia counters. He wants the less experienced guy, who still can grow. The vet is a finished product.
Keeping the peace is its own kind of gamesmanship. In 2004, the Malice at the Palace rocked the NBA landscape and ushered in an era of heavy-handed discipline and quick-trigger technicals. In 2007, Joey Crawford challenged Tim Duncan to a fight and tossed him from a game for laughing from the bench, earning Crawford an indefinite suspension. Though the NBA can't quite replicate the intensity of a profanity-laced tirade during summer training sessions, situational practice aims to combat, and hopefully prevent, on-court dustups.
"Once they get into the development phase," Toliver explains, "we deal with what I call role play … which means that when they have their day meeting, one referee will take on the role of being the coach or the irate player, and the other two referees have to respond to it. It's like live. You get up, and you just go at it." We're sitting two feet away from each other and he starts yelling. "That was a terrible call! What do you think you're doing? Just get people to respond back." He immediately calms and explains that this is more art than science. "What body language are you going to use in that situation? Are you going to use eye contact? Are you going to step away and not use eye contact while you manage through it?"
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At first, I have trouble tracking the officiating logistics, never actually having learned the ins and outs of the profession. Between games, I begin to diagram what's going on, asking Borgia to correct my arrows and lines and jumbled scribbles. But he waves me away, jumps up from his chair and starts patrolling the court. He's in his element, and I've unwittingly walked into Officiating 101. Here's what I learn:
The three officials, always maintaining a triangle, are called the lead, slot and trail. The lead is on the baseline. The slot is on the weak side, typically foul line extended. The trail is behind the play, covering the backcourt. In terms of ball responsibility, it's relatively straightforward: above the free throw line extended, the trail has ball; below, it's handed off to the lead. Two officials should always be on the ball side. When the ball swings from side to side, it becomes the slot's primary responsibility. The lead then rotates to the other side of the baseline, and the slot shifts to trail. The old trail then moves over, becoming the slot on the weak side. Always a triangle, always handing off the ball when appropriate, never ball-watching.
Here's a demonstration of how it works:
What matters most, beyond the specific mechanics, is that the rotations must be fluid and anticipatory. If the ball is pinging back and forth, it's not worth sprinting from one side of the court to the other, but if it's clear a player is going into isolation after a ball swing, the officials can adjust. As for officials who are off-ball, keep track of your primary. For the slot, that's weak side cutting and screens; for the trail or lead, that's the nearest non-ball, high-foul-potential area, or where the ball might swing next. Most importantly, both Toliver and Borgia emphasize having a "patient whistle," seeing the play through from beginning to middle to end. And more to that point: "Don't guess." Call what you see, nothing more.
That's a part of what makes out-of-bounds one of the toughest calls on the court, Tre Maddox explains via email. "It seems simple, but there are multiple things going on: watching for someone stepping on a boundary line, watching for someone getting fouled, watching for violations (travelling, palming, illegal dribble) and the next thing you know the ball gets tipped out by someone. You have might have several players in that specific area and they are all reaching for the ball."
Toliver and a handful of referee candidates agree, but on one particular screw-up, Borgia isn't quite so understanding: "You see how the ball came all the way over here?" Borgia asks, pointing from one side of the court to the other, retracing the previous play. "As the trail, he stayed all the way on that side of the court. You want to be like a pendulum coming up the court. The trail is totally responsible for the backcourt. If that ball is all the way on this side, and you're on that side, we're screwed."
There are other tiny details that are calculated but mostly glossed over by the casual observer. On dead balls, two officials line up on one side of the court and face the third official, who's on the other side, so they can see the entire court. The ball is supposed to be placed at the spot of inbounds in order to preempt coaches and players from asking where it will be. As for their posture, well, that's a matter of personal preference. Do you stand with your hands in your pockets? That's a bit too casual. What about with your hands behind your back? That's a bit too strict. During his officiating days, Borgia settled on folding one arm across his chest and keeping his index finger balanced under his nose.
Preparation, even if it's just a brief conversation amongst a crew before tipoff, is another key: knowing the teams, knowing who's a physical player, knowing if there's history between players, knowing who's a flopper. "Reggie Miller was a leg kicker," Borgia recalls. "You talk about it before the game so you don't get surprised when he kicks his leg out. You could talk about people who are floppers so you don't get surprised when he goes down -- Oh, I gotta have an offensive foul."
Maybe the most interesting detail is stylistic. At the back of the NBA rulebook are picture examples of proper signals, but execution of these motions vary from official to official because there's no unilateral directive. Borgia says he's looking for signals with "pop," praising one holding call in particular. And it does make a difference, aesthetically -- the force of signal delivery makes me believe the call. But it can't be mechanical, either. Borgia craves some hint of unique flair, some personality. They can't be robots out there, as much as the game seems to be shifting that way.
We compare mental notes throughout the day. Borgia often jokes that anyone can do his job, and by day's end, it's a little closer to truth. I'm more well-versed in the terminology, a refined referee-speak. How I'm watching the game changes, too. At the end of each half of play, I can barely say who played well, or even who's winning. Narrowing in on the officials creates its own kind of tunnel vision, a game within the game. Actual officials, however, don't have that luxury, since they're required to be locked in on everything -- the score, the players, the shot clock, the game clock, coaches yapping, players yapping, rotations, all of it.
It's a quiet genius, and invisibility is king. Even at the highest level, it's an unglamorous life that these referee hopefuls are chasing. Monty McCutchen's strengths and weaknesses will never be as accessible as Tim Duncan's. Officials stand out because they don't. It's a life only they fully understand, a closed-off sanctuary, because that's the nature of the profession. By and large, they seem okay with being in their own world. The circulating player roster is full of heights and weights, colleges and dates of birth. The referee roster is a list of names. And that's it, exactly: just some people in a gym, jogging in strange intervals and enforcing parameters. The game needs these dedicated obsessives, even if only they know the reward.
"It's kind of hard to understand that journey, because it's a process," says Duke, one of the most impressive officials at the tryout. "We talked about that process today. You start out refereeing high school, local high school games, you jump into college. This is just one stepping stone, being at the D-League Tryout, and I'm hoping it works out for me."
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Dylan Murphy lives in New York, and is a contributor to TrueHoop's Hardwood Paroxysm, SB Nation's Posting and Toasting, and HoopChalk. He doesn't tweet enough @dylantmurphy.