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The NBA took a bold step in 1997, becoming the first major American professional sports league to employ women as full-time officials or umpires by hiring experienced college refs Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner.
In the 14 years since, the NBA established its D-League and the WNBA as training grounds for officials. Twelve women are among the 30 refs calling WNBA games this summer and nine made the 41-person D-League staff last season. (Three women worked in both leagues.) At least eight women will call D-League games this season, and more could be hired, according to NBA spokesman Peter Lagiovane.
Outwardly, the NBA appears to be doing more to recruit and train women as potential officials than any other American pro league.
There's just one problem.
None of them are ending up in the NBA.
When the league locked out its officials in the 2009 preseason, it brought in 60 or so D-League, WNBA and college officials as replacements -- all men. The NBA approached several female college refs, but all declined, citing scheduling conflicts.
A new program developed the last two years grants D-League refs who are on the cusp of being hired some NBA regular-season assignments. All 11 selected for the program were men.
Palmer remains the NBA's lone female referee, and has been since 2002, when Kantner was fired after five seasons. Kantner returned to the league in 2004 as the WNBA's supervisor of officials, a job she still holds.
Will there ever be another woman ref in the NBA? Joel Litvin, the NBA's president for league operations, said yes, though he declined to say when.
"We're not worried about it," he said. "We think it's inevitable we'll have additional women referees. I can't give you a timetable, but the odds are strongly in favor of it happening at some point, I have no doubt.
"It's going to happen at some point, probably soon. I just don't know when. We've got lots of things we're worried about. Predicting a day that might happen is not one of them."
The NBA recruited Palmer and Kantner as potential refs in 1995, the year amateur and semi-pro official Sandra Ortiz-Del Valle filed a federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against the league for failing to hire her.
A former player at City College of New York, Ortiz-Del Valle became the first woman to officiate a men's professional basketball game in 1991 in the United States Basketball League. She sued the NBA for discrimination in 1996. A federal jury in 1998 awarded Ortiz-Del Valle $7.85 million in damages, which was reduced to about $346,000 on appeal.
Palmer and Kantner were hired before the Ortiz-Del Valle case went to trial. Both worked pro summer leagues and NBA exhibitions, as well as the inaugural season of the WNBA. And they had playing experience. Palmer excelled at guard for two-time NCAA Division II champion Cal Poly-Pomona, and Kantner played one year at Pittsburgh. (Most NBA officials played high school or college ball, though it isn't required; seven of the nine D-League women officials played in college.)
These days, Litvin said the NBA searches all over for potential officials regardless of gender, scouting college, AAU and international games. Last June, at a tryout camp in Louisville, 84 officials joined 264 players pursuing the same dream -- a chance to work in the D-League. George Toliver, the D-League's supervisor of officials, and NBA reps evaluated and coached the candidates.
"Obviously it's in our interest to find the best 60 referees out there," Litvin said. "We look under every rock, if you will. We're pretty happy with the results."
The NBA hires its refs directly from the D-League now, usually after four or five years there, Litvin said. Nancy Lieberman, the former coach and now the general manager of the D-League's Texas Legends, complimented the work of the league's nine women officials. In deference to Toliver, she declined to identify any potential NBA refs in the group.
"As coaches, we have to rate the officials during postseason, and they certainly graded out pretty well and did a good job," Lieberman said. "They worked really hard. They were diligent, very professional in the way they handled themselves. And they're very prepared. That's what the NBA and the D-League is all about."
Said Litvin: "Diversity is something we take very seriously here in every NBA department. That said, we also first and foremost are looking at the right person for the job.
"When we set out to recruit officials, we look for candidates who possess the characteristics that make for a good official -- the ability to make accurate calls being first and foremost, the ability to carry oneself on the floor, manage players and coaches under sometimes difficult circumstances. The official has to be in top physical condition and project a sense of confidence. All of those things make up a good official. Through that process, we've identified numerous women in our overall program, which includes the D-League."
Palmer, who worked her first playoff series in 2006, did not respond to an email request to be interviewed for this story. Earlier this year, she told espnW's Adena Andrews that players respect her as a strong maternal figure, and she receives no guff from fellow officials.
"I have 60 or more of the most respectful, most wonderful men as co-workers in my life," she said. "They open doors for me. If I go to the bar, I don't pay for drinks. They call me Queenie. When we go out it's, 'Queenie, what do you need?' I'm in the good ol' boys club, and they appreciate that I'm still a woman and they respect that."
Fans and the media, however, haven't been as kind. Two years ago, Orlando Magic radio analyst Richie Adubato, the former NBA and WNBA coach, criticized Palmer during a game and said she should go back to the WNBA.
Then there was the 2007 rebuke from Cedric Maxwell, the former Boston Celtics player and an analyst on Celtics radio. Maxwell twice said Palmer should "get back in the kitchen" after he disagreed with a call she made -- a call, interestingly enough, that went Boston's way. Maxwell upped the insult the second time by adding, "and fix me some bacon and eggs."
The insults haven't deterred other women from trying to follow Palmer's path. Palmer is proud she paved the way.
"When I first came in there were no female commentators and now every single sport except baseball and hockey has female commentators," Palmer told Andrews. "It's phenomenal. If I can do the job, you can't deny me. That's the great thing. I'm normal now; I'm not just looked upon as, 'Oh, they just gave her a shot.' You're not doing me any favors if I can do the job."