"I remember one game last year in New York that got off to a bad start. I had to hand out warnings early and call a couple of technicals. Then about 30 minutes later Henry Bibby, the Knicks' rookie, comes at me. I've got to give him a T and I do. Bill Bradley went running over to the kid and yelled, 'What are you doing? Didn't I tell you he means it when he says shut up?'
"That doesn't mean you should listen to all the talking on the floor. You've got to hear out honest appeals and block out most of the rest. But you have to keep an ear cocked for the spicy parts. Bleep may be an acceptable word in our society today, but it's not good form on the basketball court," says Powers, embarking on his Groucho Marx routine. "I warn the players, 'Say the secret word and the duck will fly down and you'll lose $50.' The secret word in our league is usually a hyphenated job."
Powers claims the only times he becomes truly angry are when he sees a player intentionally try to injure an opponent or when a young referee loafs. The former, he says, rarely happens in the NBA anymore. The latter has on occasion provoked him into throwing chairs at his partner in the dressing room after a game.
"No matter what happens out on the floor, you've got to get rid of it before you leave the arena," he says. "Any grudges you might want to harbor have to go down the drain in the shower with the soap and the sweat.
"I guess it takes an immense personality—good or bad—to take the kind of abuse we take and still not carry away any bad feelings about it. The league has given us psychological tests and Mendy Rudolph [the NBA's chief official who is still rated among the league's three best after 20 years on the job] and I finished up with almost identical profiles. In dominance, or what the psychologists call the masculine characteristic, we finished higher than the average general or police chief. In empathy—they call it the feminine characteristic—we also scored very high.
"I guess that describes refereeing fairly well—a mixture of firmness and compassion. But when I'm out on the floor I'm not trying to ingratiate myself with any players or coaches. I'm out there to satisfy myself. Despite my cockiness, I set some pretty high standards. From the first game I reffed at 17 years old until my final one last season, my feeling going onto the court has never changed. I always have a mortal fear of failing."