Just as I tried to avoid anticipating a call, I tried very hard not to prejudge a game. Naturally, the officials spend a lot of time in the dressing room before a game going over player matchups and what to look for in certain situations. If Bird is playing, we might discuss how he likes to sag into the passing lanes, so we have to keep him honest, don't let him play a zone. Don Nelson of the Warriors is probably the coach who best disguises illegal defenses. We might talk about what to watch for from his players. Or if we know there is a particular grudge between players, we discuss that matchup. Sleepy Floyd of the Rockets and Jeff Hornacek of the Suns have a real thing going. We'll remind ourselves to be particularly alert to these guys if they start banging. Akeem Olajuwon likes to back into guys when he's on offense, bumping them back under the basket. Kevin McHale is the same way. These guys use their legs and butts to gain position. We might remind ourselves to let the defensive guy have an extra bump, let him have just a little bit more license to fight his way around as a defender. Buck Williams and Karl Malone are two very physical guys. We might talk about how they're going to bang on each other and how we should let 'em play—unless one is taking advantage of the other. We'll talk about a guy who likes to kick a leg out when he's shooting, trying to draw contact with the defender and get the foul shot to go with the basket.
If you have guys who talk a lot of trash, trying to distract their opponents, we'll remind ourselves to keep tabs on it. M.L. Carr and Cedric Maxwell, when they were with the Celtics, were really into this. We might talk about a guy like Dennis Rodman and how he likes to hotdog it out there. How much is too much? Usually, you let it go unless he's enticing a player to come back at him, or if he starts trying to show up the officials. I remember a playoff game when Rodman was new to the league. He started talking it up against Bird. I told him to knock it off. Bird said, "That's O.K., I'll take care of him," and commenced to run off about 10 straight points on Rodman.
We might discuss a guy like Mark Aguirre, who'll drive the lane and use his left arm to ward off the defender, then allow body contact as he's taking his shot, trying to draw the foul. If we have a guy who's adept at faking the defender, then leaning into him as he shoots, we'll talk about how that's an offensive foul. David Thompson was great at that. Artis Gilmore was so strong he could actually hold the defender in place with one hand and wheel up his shot with the other. We would remind ourselves to watch for that and the way Gilmore would take all these little steps while faking his shot. The Hoppers are always worth a word of caution. Doug Collins was the master at that. He would chest up to the offensive player, then flop over backwards, trying to draw the offensive foul. I'm sure he was actually fouled on many occasions and it wasn't called because, after a while, the referees got gun-shy about being conned.
But some officials get too caught up in pregame analysis. I don't think it's wise to go into a game thinking this guy is going to be doing this or that guy will try to pull that stunt. You'll end up watching for that and letting stuff that is developing go right by. There's a difference between expecting something to happen, almost predicting it, and sensing it. In the latter case, you have to feel the game and have confidence in your ability to interpret it.
When Norm Drucker was the Supervisor of Officials, from 1977 to '81, he tried to provide an era of common sense. He tried to get more interpretation into the calls, to use the rules as a guide, rather than go strictly by the book. In contrast to the present-day regime of Darrell Garretson, Drucker was more personal in his approach to the officials. He didn't allow politics to dictate his decisions. He dealt with people in private. He never set out to embarrass people. He didn't live by the threat. All that changed when Garretson took over in 1981.
Beyond the politics and intimidation, what bothered me most under Garretson was the insistence on taking the personalities of the officials out of the game. We were to be as anonymous and regimented as could be achieved with living, breathing human beings. It was like corporate America had swallowed a whistle. Everything was to be standardized: standardized signals, standardized techniques, standardized mechanics. We had a checklist we had to send to the league office after every game. We could be fined if we didn't discuss each of these things on the list with our partners. We were not to initiate any conversation with anyone-coaches, players, fans. We were told exactly where our eyes were supposed to be aimed; virtually every aspect imaginable was defined in exacting terminology. Officials were to have virtually no contact with anyone other than the other officials.
This ran against my nature and the way it was when I came into the league. In those days you saw the teams much more frequently. Officials were supposed to avoid flying with the teams if they could, but flights were much less frequent and we would keep bumping into the players as we traveled. We could stay in the same hotels as the teams in old days; that was great because you could work a game, have a run-in with a player or coach, and see that same guy in the lounge later that night and talk the night away without any hassles. Today, you can't do that. The league wants as much separation as possible. I can see the intent behind this. Players and coaches seem to feel things more personally than they used to; things seem to get carried over after a game and if you run into a player or coach you had an argument with, the beef can start right up where you left off. Maybe it's because there are so many more teams, or maybe it's because they're all making so much money, but there isn't that fraternal "we're all in this together" feeling anymore.
Early in my career, Mendy Rudolph and I had a game in Cincinnati a couple of nights before Christmas. We ended up staying at the same hotel as the Celtics. There was this piano bar in the basement called the Coal Hole, a dingy little place. We all ended up there after the game—Cousy, Loscutoff, Heinsohn, Ramsey, all these guys having a beer. This piano player was doing a half-baked job. He went on a break and Mendy went over and started playing Christmas songs. He wasn't a bad piano player. All the players and I gathered around and we were singing and carrying on. It was great, two Jews leading a bunch of Celtics in carols. That's just the way it worked in those days.
Part of working the game is establishing who you are with these people. If they only see you as a nonhuman whistle machine, you'll be less able to establish a rapport and encourage mutual respect. The pro call isn't just sensing the game, but also having a sense of who the people are who are playing and coaching. Today, it's all treated like it's a matter of life and death. The officials are always looking over their shoulders, afraid someone's going to pitch them into the league office for being a human being. We've got some referees who in an airport won't even stop if they bump into a team. I don't think you best serve the game by taking it to that degree of regimentation. What the hell's wrong with a little individuality?
What concerns me most about the system is how it takes away the thinking process. Officials who are following its code to the letter are being taught that structure is everything. If your full concentration is on where you're standing, how you have your shoulders aligned, how many steps you are away from the other officials, you're not thinking about the flow of the action. Certainly a sense of order is necessary. But the system is trying to protect the referees from being vulnerable to human error. You can't fear that vulnerability as an official.