Rebuilding efforts nothing new for NBA's VP of referee operations
As the one-time head of the U.S. Army's reconstruction effort in Iraq, new NBA senior vice president of referee operations (and retired two-star general) Ron Johnson knows a thing or two about daunting projects.
So it's no surprise that the man tabbed by commissioner David Stern to clean up the mess left behind by the Tim Donaghy scandal would take a realistic view of the challenge that lies ahead.
"When we went into Iraq to do reconstruction, I was the first guy the [Army Corps of Engineers] put on the ground to get it going," Johnson said. "It was a big job. There was a lot of criticism. But that was to be expected. ... So I think I'm ready for this."
Johnson certainly has the résumé. With 32 years of military service, including a stint as deputy commanding general of the Army Corps of Engineers, the West Point grad brings leadership and integrity to a department that has taken a PR beating over the past 12 months. As a career engineer, meanwhile, Johnson has the analytical skills to help build systems to improve training and performance.
The one thing Johnson is not, however, is the one thing many fans might expect for a person in his new position.
"I am not a referee," said Johnson, whose only officiating experience consisted of community youth games. "But that's not why [the NBA] hired me. They brought me here for my leadership and management skills."
In that regard, Johnson already has made an impact. He played a role in the recent reorganization that saw the referee department formally separated from the basketball operations division headed by VP Stu Jackson. As part of the shuffle, former veteran NBA ref Bernie Fryer moved into the position of director of officials, with Ronnie Nunn shifting over to director of development.
But while Johnson's official mandate is to oversee the recruitment, training, evaluating and scheduling of refs, his most important role might be to serve as the NBA's new face of officiating.
"One of my biggest challenges will be to communicate to the public what it means to be a ref," Johnson said. "It's not just about blowing whistles and making calls. There's a science and an art to this craft a lot of people don't understand."
In terms of public relations, Johnson should do just fine. A 30-minute phone interview with the retired general showed him to be affable and pleasant. A random sampling of questions revealed a basketball fan as well:
On the tendency of many of his new co-workers to address him as General despite his pleas otherwise: "Maybe it's easier to say, or more fun to say. I don't know. I tell them, Just call me Ron. Or R.J."
On how his past hoops experiences as a rec-league warrior (he once blocked John Salley's shot in a pickup game at Georgia Tech) don't count for much around the water cooler: "Around here, if you're not a former player or coach, it's like you never picked up a basketball."
On the importance of transparency when it comes to the league's officiating: "We want to be as transparent as possible. We've just got to figure out how best to do it."
That's not to say Johnson will be allowing his refs to yuk it up on Jay Leno any day soon. He is a military man, after all. Johnson readily admits that he doesn't want to see officials' accuracy ratings listed on the sports pages, and he plans to limit postgame news conferences to the present "pool reporter" sessions -- at least for now.
"Before I can ask one of my guys to do [interviews], I have to give him the tools to do it correctly," he said. "In the Army, we have public affairs training. We need to do that type of thing with our refs so they can be effective in communicating."
But if a big controversy erupts over, say, a blown call in a huge game, Johnson says he will not let one of his refs be embarrassed.
"In those cases, I will be the one in front of the camera," he said.
For Johnson, educating the public is the best way to fight the perception problem that has dogged the league for a long time. As a lifelong NBA fan, he says he understands how the Donaghy matter might have looked from the outside. But once fans realize the training and elaborate evaluation that goes on with all NBA refs, Johnson believes they won't be so quick to embrace conspiracy theories or charges of incompetence.
He also believes more information about rules and how refs operate, whether it be through Nunn's show on NBA TV or in postgame interviews, as well as stories about referees' various service projects in the community, can help to humanize them.
The other way Johnson plans to improve the league's officiating system is to work with the refs themselves. He says he believes his background as an engineer can help him analyze the various performance data the NBA uses to help grade and evaluate officials, so they can become better at their jobs. He doesn't believe the fact that he has never been a referee will hurt him.
Johnson already has begun the process of reaching out to his staff. He met with about a dozen refs at the Las Vegas summer league. He called a couple of others to wish birthday greetings. He will meet with all 60 next month at the league's annual preseason meeting.
"The No. 1 thing I want to do is establish myself as a leader," he said. "It won't be easy. But I read something in a book once that I have never forgotten: They don't care what you know until they know you care."
Johnson's first involvement with the NBA came two years ago when he was asked to speak at the league's annual rookie orientation. He enjoyed the session tremendously, he says, and apparently made a lasting impression on Stern. Johnson was at home last year, mulling a job offer from Lockheed, when the commissioner called him at home to discuss taking over the NBA's referee operations.
"It was just too good to pass up," he said. "It's an opportunity that will never come again. All those other companies, they will be there when I'm done."
Many fans are still skeptical about the integrity and competence of officials. They want to be assured that the league's officiating program is in good hands. It doesn't help that the league office still has not issued the Pedowitz Report -- named after former federal prosecutor Lawrence Pedowitz, who was hired by the NBA to review the officiating program -- and continues to tiptoe around the transparency issue.
If Johnson can help assuage those concerns and engineer a PR turnaround for the NBA in the days ahead, he will no doubt be saluted in the league office.