|Whistle blower: Q &A with Ed T. Rush|
By Charley Rosen
Page 2 columnist
Back when I coached in the CBA, I wholeheartedly believed that the resolution of virtually every game was inordinately dependent upon the referees' calls. Every marginal call that went against my team was nothing less than a personal insult. Referees were cops with whistles instead of guns. They were mere mechanics who scanned a game looking for mistakes. They were a necessary evil. No surprise, then, that for each of my six seasons as a head coach (Savannah, 1986-87; Rockford, 1987-90, Oklahoma City, 1990-91; and Albany, 1991-92), I led the CBA in technical fouls.
That's why I was so appreciative of the opportunity to interview Ed T. Rush, a veteran of 32 years as an NBA referee (1966-98), and for the past five years the league's Director of Officiating.
Charley Rosen: How and why did you become a referee? Why does anybody become a referee?
Ed T. Rush: When I was in high school in suburban Philadelphia, I played baseball, football and basketball. Even though I preferred basketball, I was barely a mediocre player, maybe the third man off the bench for the varsity. My basketball coach was Stan Novack, who went on to become a scout and consultant for several NBA teams. But in those days, Stan used to augment his salary by officiating in local high school and college games. He suggested that since I had no future in basketball (as a player), I might be interested in officiating. And he was right. I soon discovered that I liked officiating more than playing. It was an opportunity to connect to the game in a totally different way. Being in the middle of the fray was exhilarating, and it was also a terrific challenge.
What kind of challenge?
Rush: Challenging yourself to respond in the right ways to what the players do. Challenging yourself to officiate the perfect game.
But if referees must focus on mistakes and misplays, then what's a perfect game? One where there's no mistakes? No fouls? No turnovers? One where every call, and every no-call, is totally accurate?
Rush: Mistakes can't ever be eliminated. We see ourselves as choreographing an athletic event and providing the proper setting where the world's greatest athletes can show their skills. If we can succeed, then that's a perfect game.
OK, then what about seeing the beauty of the game?
Rush: That's a problem. When a ref is working, he has no time to admire the beauty of the game. Actually, that tends to be a significant problem for ex-players who try to become officials. Ernie DeGregorio, for example, would get so caught up in the action that he'd forget to blow his whistle. The right time to enjoy a game is when an official is reviewing the video. However, just last week I went to a Philadelphia-Sacramento game to evaluate the officials' performance, but once the game started, I said to myself, "Hey, this is one that's worth watching." So I ignored the officials and just enjoyed the game. The screens and cuts. The passing and the ball movement. But that's a luxury that working officials don't have.
There are two former NBA players on your officiating staff -- Bernie Fryer and Leon Wood. Is being an ex-player helpful in refereeing?
Rush: For sure. Playing helps develop what I call an official's athletic competition IQ, and helps him understand the frustration that results from any kind of athletic competition. But it's not necessary to have been an NBA player to develop these qualities. In fact, many of our officials have excelled in a wide variety of sports. Steve Javie was an outstanding pitcher in college. Davey Jones was a starting fullback at the University of Florida. Bennet Salvatore was the best quarterback in the history of Connecticut high school football. Ronnie Nunn played basketball at George Washington. And the list goes on.
It always seemed to me that refs were loners. They travel alone and stay in hotels alone. Neither the fans, nor the players, nor the coaches think kindly of refs unless they make a call that favors their own team. And refs never have any home games. It seems to me that refs are like pariahs.
When a ref has a bad game -- maybe he blew a call that cost a game -- what kind of support system is there?
Rush: The entire staff is divided up into four groups of 15 each. And every group has its own crew chief, former officials who act kind of like an officiating coach -- Lee Jones, Hugh Evans, Mike Lauerman and Billy Oates. In addition, there's a lot of leadership from within the ranks. Ronnie Nunn, for example, takes it upon himself to call any official who's had a problem with a call, a game, a player or a coach. So nobody is out there on his own.
What about the common perception that superstars get the benefit of most marginal calls?
Rush: The same thing was said back in 1966 about Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and all of the Boston Celtics. What was going on then and is still going on nowadays is that the officials and the players are involved in a game-within-a-game. There's a long list of veteran players whose sideline game is "fool the ref." We know who they are, and we do everything to win the battle and get every call right, but sometimes they still get us. That's because the players are extremely good at things like flopping or pulling an opponent down on top of them. These are tricks they've been perfecting over many seasons, and the more they work, the more theyll keep on doing them. When a player flops and the official isn't suckered in, I've heard players say, "Oh, you're not going to let me do that? I guess I'll save it for another night." The younger officials are more susceptible to being fooled than the veterans.
What about make-up calls?
Rush: That would be making two bad calls in a row. It's like a student screwing up a history test, and then the next class deliberately screwing up a math test. This is not to say that make-up calls don't happen. Refs are human beings, and sometimes when they know they've kicked a call, they'll unconsciously try to even things up. It's certainly not done by design. The same situation holds when the officials scan the stat sheet at halftime and there's a great discrepancy in free throws taken by the two teams. Ideally, there's no history behind a call. You see it, you call it. So make-up calls do happen, but they're very rare.
When I was coaching, it was taken as gospel that every judicious technical that a coach received would buy his team a few calls in his favor. What's the official view of this?
Rush: I'm sure that what you say is written in capital letters in The Coaches' Manual. I think it's even on page one. But once again, if such a thing happens, it's not done in a conscious way. During the officials' preseason and offseason training camps, the officials are exposed to all kinds of crazy situations, so there's nothing that a coach can do or say during the season that will surprise a referee. One of the things we monitor when we watch the game videos is how does an official react after he's called for a technical. Does he go into a shell? Is he belligerent? Danny Crawford is perhaps the best at retaining his equilibrium after any kind of tussle with either a player or a coach.
When I was playing, whenever a player was dribbling and put his hand on the underside of the ball, the refs would automatically call palming. By that standard, practically everybody in the NBA illegally handles the ball without being penalized. Not only that, by allowing palming, referees have made playing one-on-one defense virtually impossible. The same thing seems to be true about traveling. Players are now permitted to pull up their dribble, take one long step, then two short bunny hops. Have the rules changed?
Rush: You're seeing a half-empty glass while we're seeing it as half-full. As far as palming is concerned -- or what used to be called "a discontinued dribble" -- the rule book states that a player's dribble is terminated when the ball comes to rest. The position of the hand does not always relate to the ball coming to rest. Also, as a result of the officials reviewing plays on a daily basis and enhancing their feel for offensive moves, the travel calls are up by a significant amount this season. The travel call particularly has been a point of emphasis.
Rush: Every official looks at a video of every game he works. In addition, we have 11 full-time video observers who look at the games and evaluate each official. What percentage of his calls were correct? Does he habitually work one quarter better than he does the others? There's also a secure website that's a daily meeting place for the staff. The game videos are there, as well as the game summaries and reports. Here's where the officials can discuss the style of play a particular team may be employing. They can also identify who are the potential disruptors and game changers. The officials routinely investigate the reports of the past several games played by the teams up next on their schedule. Diligent preparation means fewer surprises.
What about matching certain refs to certain teams? Like maybe assigning a crew who tends to allow more physical play to work a Pistons game.
Rush: No, we never do anything like that. What we will do, though, is pay close attention to crew dynamics. Let's say that one official is an outstanding game manager. He can set the tone of a game and is good at conflict resolution. But he doesn't have a great percentage in making the right calls. Overall, the videos prove that NBA officials are correct ninety-three percent of the time. So if somebody is around ninety percent, then he's not up to par.
But non-calls are just as important as calls, yes?
Rush: Sure, but we don't tally those.
Okay. So who would you match up the great game manager with? A ref with a super high-percentage of correct calls?
Rush: That's it. There are several officials who have an outstanding feel for when to blow the whistle. But they're so totally plugged in to the action that the game discipline has to be taken care of by somebody else.
What happens in the playoffs?
Rush: That's when crew dynamics are most important. Only 38 officials work the playoffs. And only 12 work the finals.
Beyond the technical considerations, are there officials who just aren't compatible?
Rush: Certainly. Guys occasionally have fights in the locker room. But the beauty of something like this is that all of them are accustomed to resolving conflicts. They'll get into whatever disagreement they might have. Maybe somebody felt that somebody else incorrectly overruled his call. Then it's like, "OK, are you done? Good, then let's get out of here and go get something to eat." I never get involved in stuff like this only because the hassles never get that big or last that long.
Rush: Granted that the games are much more intense in the playoffs and more difficult to officiate. This is especially true off the ball. Even so, we want every official to use the same guidelines that are in effect during the regular season. Not only is there no special agenda for the playoffs, but our stats show that more fouls are called in the postseason. All that stuff about the officials sucking on their whistles in the playoffs is sponsored by the media.
Compared to baseball, football and hockey, how do you rate the NBA's officials?
Rush: That's easy. Our staff is by far the best in any sport.
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Also that even-up calls occur more frequently than Rush admits ... that playoff basketball is much more physical and the refs do make adjustments. And I know from personal experience that non-abusive protests by coaches do buy a grace period. (By the way, this last declaration is not on page one of the manual, but on the title page).
Even so, I am impressed with the refs' official attitude toward the game and the players. Also impressive is the intensive and continuing evaluation process. Maybe the guys (and gal) with the whistles aren't quite as evil as I'd thought.
After all, I haven't been nailed with a technical foul in almost 11 years.
Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."