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Whatever quality it is that allows a man to remain cocky when he faces 48 minutes of vilification from a crowd of thousands, Powers, 42, a cherubic-looking, Irish-gregarious man off the court, positively oozes it from the moment he steps onto the court. "Richie's got everything under control when he comes out of the dressing room," says one coach. "You see him look at you when he walks out on the floor and suddenly you're grabbing at your collar and saying to yourself, "Damn, is my tie straight?' Players who haven't saluted the flag in 20 years stand at attention during the national anthem when he's around. Richie's got the timekeeper, the scorekeeper and the gatekeeper in hand, and I wouldn't be surprised one night if he blew the whistle on the peanut man shortchanging the lady in the 35th row."
For Powers, who last week began his 15th year of officiating in the NBA, the game begins long before he strides, ramrod-straight, onto the floor. "Back at the hotel about three in the afternoon I become completely different," he says. "It's a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde job. That's when I begin thinking about the game, begin psyching myself up. Part of it is that old business about being forewarned is to be forearmed. I think about what other officials may have told me about the last times these two teams met. Was there a fight? Did one player really eat up another one? Has one team or the other, or one player or another, been trying anything new lately? You can't go into a game anticipating certain calls; that's absolutely wrong. But you've got to go into it with a notion of what is most likely to happen and adjust from there.
"I like to get to the place where the game is being played an hour and a half before the tip. When I walk into the building I try to become immersed in the smell, the feel of the arena. Then I head for the dressing room and relax, reading the rule book or having a dialogue with the other ref. The conversation is strictly business and how long it lasts depends on how much the young man I'm working with wants to hear from Powers that night. It's surprising, but if you talk about 10 different plays that might come up, five of them invariably will. If you talk about just one, it invariably will. Before I get dressed, I do 20 minutes of loos-ening-up exercises to get this stubby body limber."
Early in last spring's playoffs, Powers ripped the muscles in the front of his right thigh and was out for the remainder of the season. The thigh bothered him slightly in camp last month, but it is hardly his major health concern. As a boy, his right foot was crushed by a truck. Today it is badly disfigured and nearly inflexible. Fortunately for Powers—and the NBA—almost all of the turns a referee makes in a game are to the left. If they were not, Powers probably would not be able to maneuver quickly enough to officiate.
The first thing Powers does when he arrives on court is stomp his feet on the boards to get a feel for the surface. From then on, he considers every game a set piece. A thousand different things may happen each night, but almost all of them will occur within the framework of the rules he establishes.
"It's important to get off to a good start," he says. "That's why I've worked so hard at perfecting the opening toss. The only thing you really have to remember is that you're holding your whistle under the ring finger and pinky of your right hand and that only three right fingers are touching the ball. When you make your toss, you've got to throw-harder with your right hand to make sure the ball goes up straight.
"Little details are important, too. Like when you flash the number of a player, you should always make sure you do it right. Then the people at the table are not calling you over, slowing the game and adding confusion. Once the game is started, I'm really not that concerned over making the calls. I seem to have the facility—a God-given gift, if you will—to make instantaneous decisions."
Blowing the whistle is only part of controlling a game; how firmly the referee handles the players and what demeanor he shows toward them are probably more important. Many NBA coaches consider six-year man Darell Garretson the most improved young official in the league, but some think he will not get to the top until he changes his style of making calls. " Garretson will see you committing some old hacking foul," says one player, "but the way he calls it, the look on his face and his gestures, make both you and the crowd think he's caught you attacking his sister. It's humiliating." As a result, no official is more apt than Garretson to enrage coaches and players, even when he is calling a good game.
Powers, who used to do some wild gesticulating of his own, has toned down. He always tries to signal fouls in the direction of the P.A. announcer rather than in the player's face. "Making a call is no big deal anyhow," he says. "Probably 95% of them could be made by a relatively well-educated person sitting in the stands. If you want to do some fancy stuff save it for the tough 5%.
"I guess what I try hardest to do is keep my good nature. I'm not interested in browbeating the players. Heck, if they catch me making a mistake, I'll admit it. I'll tell them it won't happen again, and it won't. When things get a little out of hand, I like to warn players about it. But if you're going to do that you have to back up your warning with actions. That goes for both excessive physical contact and technical fouls. When the griping and moaning on the floor get out of hand, I like to say something like, 'O.K., gentlemen, the forensic society is closed.' I try to keep it a little jocular, but at the same time they know the first guy who opens his mouth is going to get a T.