Earl Strom is unquestionably the NBA's most recognized and most colorful referee. He's also the best, according to a USA Today poll of players and coaches conducted last year. But you rarely read about him or, for that matter, any of the NBA's other referees. Why?
Because that is the way the league wants it, that's why.
"It's our policy that the players and coaches should get the attention," says NBA commissioner David Stern. "We don't want our referees to become personalities, or 'the story.' We think they can do a better job if they're not in the spotlight."
That's understandable up to a point. But, like it or not, Strom is in the spotlight. He's part of the fabric of the game and, yes, part of the NBA's appeal. Watching Strom work a game is like watching Michael Jordan work a defense.
Stern and Rod Thorn, the league's vice-president of operations, who's responsible for the referees, have made it clear, both to Strom and to prospective interviewers, that zebra publicity isn't welcome. For example, Strom cooperated with freelance writer Jeff Coplon on an article about Strom that has been accepted by The New Yorker. The article, if it appears, will not do so until after Strom's retirement; Coplon and the magazine agreed to honor Strom's wishes about holding the story.
Strom also has completed a book about his career (written with Blaine Johnson, assistant managing editor at the Morning News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash.) but again has insisted that publication be deferred until after his retirement.
The 60-year-old Strom has been in the NBA for 27 years and has sizable retirement benefits coming. Sources close to Strom say that he is fearful of losing some of the benefits if he defies the league and accedes to publication of the magazine article or the book before he retires. Strom says he will decide at mid-season whether to retire after the 1990 playoffs. If he works until then, Strom will have officiated in five decades (his first season was 1958-59).
Forever a maverick, Strom has had his troubles with the league office in the past, particularly in 1969 when he jumped to the ABA for three years. But let us assume (and hope) that the NBA's policy is not a vendetta directed specifically at Strom. In any event, the policy is helping to make the league's referee corps faceless and uniform. The zebra with a personality is an increasingly rare species around the NBA.
General manager Jerry Krause and coach Doug Collins insisted that the Chicago Bulls were not as much of a one-man team last season as they were in Michael Jordan's first three years. And, lo and behold, our annual survey of those NBA players most likely to contract bursitis of the shooting elbow bears them out. Jordan attempted a field goal only once every 1.66 minutes in 1987-88, as compared with once every 1.44 minutes in '86-87. Jordan wasn't even the league leader—the Atlanta Hawks' Dominique Wilkins popped one up every 1.5 minutes.