What has bothered coaches almost as much as bad officiating was their impression that the league did not know—or care—that the problem existed. This season the NBA is acknowledging the difficulty and taking steps to solve it.
"All I think I can say is that at least we're not moving backward," says John Nucatola, the NBA's supervisor of officials. "Certainly it's still less good than I'd like to see. Last year was only somewhat better than four seasons ago when we lost four experienced men and added two new teams of our own. It takes about four seasons for a promising referee to develop into a good one, but even on that schedule I've had to keep some fellows who haven't moved ahead as rapidly as I feel they should."
To try to speed things up, Nucatola is scouting young referees more intensively than ever and officials already in the NBA will undergo more rigorous scrutiny than in the past. For the first time they had to attend a preseason camp with one of the league's teams and, also for the first time, they will be required to watch movies of themselves in action.
At the NBA meetings last spring, Commissioner Walter Kennedy met with a committee of coaches and general managers to hear complaints about officiating, which he previously refused to do. For the second straight summer Cleveland Coach Bill Fitch put together a film of some of the preceding season's most dubious calls. His first was welcomed by Nucatola, who made it required viewing for his staff. This year's version was even more warmly greeted.
The complaint most often voiced by coaches and players regarding weaker refs is that their calls are inconsistent because they allow themselves to be intimidated by certain teams, certain players, certain coaches—even certain crowds. And no sooner do they say that, than most of the same players and coaches try some intimidating of their own.
According to referees, coaches fall into two categories: exploders, such as Chicago's Dick Motta, Boston's Tom Heinsohn, Indiana's Slick Leonard and Carolina's Larry Brown; and chirpers, the most expert of whom was Los Angeles' Bill Sharman until he lost his voice in the 1972 playoffs. Refs consider the chirper more annoying because he sits on the bench posing as the model of decorum while sniping at the officials every time they pass by. "You don't think Sharman's voice gave out because he'd been singing in the church choir?" says one official. "He's worse than a nagging wife."
Some players are indiscriminate complainers, such as Carolina's Billy Cunningham, who comments on virtually every call. Others, most notably Oscar Robertson, are leerers who mumble under their breath. Some are whiners, among them the Knicks' Jerry Lucas and Golden State's Rick Barry, who assume hurt looks and seem about to throw a tantrum. Then there are those the refs call "polite bitchers." One is Atlanta's Walter Bellamy, who usually speaks of himself in the third person when bringing his plight to the officials' attention. This technique once led a referee to reply to a Bellamy suggestion by saying, "Would you please inform Mr. Bellamy that I am awarding him a technical foul?"
Nor are players above a little trickery when they think they can pull it off. Chicago's Jerry Sloan, who goes about the hairy business of taking the offensive charge with more �lan than any other pro, will sometimes help a prospective charger along by grabbing his shirt—invariably on the side away from where the official is standing—falling over backward and, in the process, pulling his opponent down on top of him. Utah's Zelmo Beaty, known as The Commissioner because of his haughty demeanor toward refs, and Boston's Don Nelson are expert at discreetly grabbing a waistband or a handful of jersey whenever their men seem likely to slip away.
Keeping the talkers and the tricksters in line while dealing correctly with the complexities of making calls is known as "taking control of the game." No official takes control more thoroughly than Richie Powers, who was named by most NBA coaches as the best referee in the league.
Powers is the prototype pro official. He is small (5'9�", 170 pounds), a former athlete of middling ability (college baseball), extroverted and he comes from the right part of the country ( The Bronx). The majority of referees are from north of the Mason-Dixon line and east of Ohio. "We like to have guys with moxie, a little cockiness," says Nucatola. "Some officials work great in an empty gym but are bad in front of a crowd. You've got to be tough to take the abuse from the stands. Northeastern people seem to take it better than others, maybe because it seems to be a rougher part of the country and people are exposed to that kind of pressure in their daily lives."