As Steve Javie, once the enfant terrible of NBA referees, begins his 15th season, he's sure of one thing: He'll never again give the thumb to a team mascot. "People still bring it up," says Javie, who on April 4, 1991, ejected Washington Bullets mascot Hoops for making gestures to incite the Capital Centre crowd against the refs. Javie flashes a smile, something he once rarely did on the court. "It had a positive side to it, though," he says. " Joey Crawford [a fellow NBA ref and close friend] told me, 'A lot of the players think you're crazy. They're scared of you.' "
Some still think he's a little crazy, and some are still scared of him, or, more precisely, scared of his propensity to use the T more often than a Boston commuter. But over the years Javie, 45, has gotten much better at swallowing his whistle, raising his flash point and negotiating his way through tense moments instead of calling quick technical fouls. Plus, he has learned a trick or two about making the correct call on block-or-charge (not as difficult as it seems) and who-knocked-it-out-of-bounds (much more difficult than it seems) situations. In short, he's Exhibit A in making the case that officials, like players, don't enter the NBA as finished products. "Before, if you got Steve mad, it was over for the night," says Miami Heat forward Anthony Mason, a griper who's no favorite of refs. "Now you can speak to him, and he'll explain things. He's come a long way. He's one of the best."
It's surprising that Javie (pronounced JAV-ee) is free to talk about his growth. After years of keeping its referees under a gag order, the NBA is allowing them to speak to the media. This recent conversation with Javie, which took place over a 1�-hour lunch in Dallas, was perhaps the longest on-the-record chat a referee has had in many years. (Some officials, such as the retired Jake O'Donnell and the late Earl Strom, were generous in providing off-the-record opinions.)
Given Javie's surly on-court demeanor, some observers thought he was too much like Darrell Garretson, the former supervisor of officials who brought him into the league—too much the hard-ass who didn't get along with the players, too much the ref who made calls with his head but not his gut. Perhaps he was. But Javie is now the 21st-century paradigm for the NBA official, a man whose every call is caught on videotape, reviewed and subject to rebuke from the league office. O'Donnell was infamous for calling few technicals but making a transgressor pay, first, by getting in the miscreant's face and, second, by making bad calls against him. These days a ref who resorts to a makeup call is, to NBA headquarters, a ref who has made two bad calls. Individuality is out; uniformity is in. Still, some refs stand out. Crawford is generally thought to be the best, with a handful of others right behind: Javie, Hue Hollins, Dick Bavetta and the often overlooked Bennett Salvatore.
Javie's father, Stan, is a noted former NFL back judge who worked four Super Bowls during a 30-year career. He returned every night to his suburban Philadelphia home from his job as a salesman and read his rule book for a half hour before dinner. "Know your rule book," he counseled his son. The younger Javie's godfather, Johnny Stevens, was a major league umpire for 25 years. Steve graduated from Temple, where he pitched and majored in business administration. When his baseball career stalled at Class A in 1978, he went to umpiring school. He umped for 2� years until he had a falling out with Florida State League executives because he felt he should be promoted. Javie had already been officiating high school basketball games in the off-season, and it wasn't long before he found himself in the CBA, partly because of his father's friendship with Strom, partly because he was a promising ref. He worked CBA games for five years.
The minor league baseball-CBA background was both good and bad preparation for the NBA: good because Javie arrived in the NBA battle-tested, bad because he arrived with a prison warden's mind-set. "He had a baseball mentality, where there's a 'my-way' approach," says Wally Rooney, a former NBA ref who is the assistant supervisor of officials for the league. "In baseball you argue and you're gone. Here, it's not zero to technical. There's room in between."
Also, keeping order in the CBA required a big stick and a quick whistle. "If there weren't two fights and two technicals in a game," Javie says, "something was wrong." There was the night at the Armory in Albany, N.Y., when Albany Patroons coach Phil Jackson, considerably less Zen-like back then, chased Javie down the stairs at halftime after having been T'd up. These days, when Jackson, the Los Angeles Lakers coach, is riding him, Javie will look at him and say, "Come on, Phil. You didn't talk to me like that in Albany."
So Javie arrived in the NBA in 1986 with one finger on the trigger, and, in his words, he "just kept firing." The NBA doesn't release stats on how many technicals individual refs hand out, but Javie was unquestionably among the league leaders in the late 1980s and early '90s. Worse, he wouldn't discuss his calls with players or coaches and was intractable. Javie says that no one told him to stop issuing so many T's—"Some guys think you have to back off or you won't be here," says retired official Jack Madden, one of Javie's mentors, "but I say you've got to go at the guys right away, and then back off a little"—but Javie learned that diplomacy must go hand in hand with reproof. Madden was an important teacher in that regard.
"I'd get so mad I'd lose control for two or three minutes, and that's when I would miss calls," says Javie. "I learned from Jack how important it was not to let players and coaches get you out of your game. One of the ways you do that? Walk away so you don't hear so much stuff. Don't stand there and listen to it, or you will get mad."
Another lesson Javie learned was not to be so quick to play Sir Galahad to his partners. That's what he was doing when he dashed halfway down the Capital Centre court to T-up Bullets center Pervis Ellison after Ellison had thrown a ball at referee Billy Spooner. Javie tossed Ellison, tossed Washington coach Wes Unseld for arguing the ejection and then tossed Hoops. "My fatal mistake," says Javie, "was getting involved with Billy and Pervis in the first place. You have to be there for your partners, but most of the time you've got to let them call their game."