The new twist in NBA officiating
Former Army leader using data analysis to improve game, but not everyone is on board
NEW YORK CITY -- Ronald Johnson thought his 21-year-old son, Ian, set him up. It was early April 2008, and Johnson, a two-star Army general, had just retired after 32 years of military service. His impressive résumé included leading the reconstruction efforts in Iraq and in the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast for the Army Corps of Engineers. Job offers had been streaming in, including one from defense contractor Lockheed Martin.
"I was going be the vice president of performance excellence," Johnson said. "I was about to sign the deal, and I came home, and there was a note on my kitchen countertop that my son had written. It said: 'Dad, David Stern, the commissioner of the NBA wants to talk to you.'"
That night, Johnson confronted Ian, an experienced practical joker.
"'You think I'm really stupid, don't you? That's real funny.' And he says, 'No, Dad, seriously!'"
Ronald Johnson had met Stern, but that was two years prior, at an NBA rookie orientation session in 2006. The highly decorated combat engineer preached the gospel of leadership that day and spoke briefly with Stern over lunch.
"I remember being taken with his ability to communicate with young people and his caring," Stern said of his first meeting with Johnson. The two hadn't spoken since.
Two years later, when Johnson followed through on Ian's message and called Stern's Manhattan office, he found himself faced with an unexpected proposal. Johnson said when he told Stern that he was about to sign on with Lockheed Martin, Stern replied: "Don't do it I have an idea, and I'd like to talk to you about it."
An awkward dance followed over the course of more than three months and five separate interviews at the NBA's headquarters. Stern talked to him about leading the officiating program, but Johnson didn't really have expectations of making the cut -- after all, his basketball officiating experience consisted of refereeing rec-league games. He couldn't help but wonder how that qualified him to manage the league's 60 referees. But Stern was clearly focused elsewhere.
Still reeling from the gambling scandal caused by disgraced referee Tim Donaghy, Stern told Johnson: "I don't want anybody that knows anything about officiating, because they'll miss the point."
"I was looking for a skill set," Stern said. "I was looking for somebody that had integrity, who could deal with the trove of data that we have." Stern said Johnson was "straight out of central casting."
In July 2008, Stern named Johnson, 56, senior vice president of referee operations. His new mission: Lead a new department, responsible for all aspects of referee operations (the management of league officials had previously fallen under basketball operations). Johnson's key lieutenants would be Bernie Fryer, a 28-year veteran official, who retired from the hard-court pounding a year earlier to become director of officials, and former referee Joe Borgia, an NBA vice president charged with developing new officials.
"This job is not about the person being an expert in refereeing. I've got people below me that are expert at that," Johnson told "Outside the Lines" in a recent interview at the NBA's Manhattan offices. "The key thing that is needed in this organization, I think, is both the leadership and the management of all that data I've definitely got credentials for doing that."
Johnson's renewed emphasis on data analysis as a yardstick for measuring referee performance comes at a time when the NBA has a multitude of ways to assess the way officials do their jobs.
But not everyone is pleased with the way all that information is processed in Johnson's computer-assisted world. "Outside the Lines" spoke to nine former NBA referees about the current state of officiating in the league. What emerged is a clear philosophical divide, as older retired officials, in particular, largely reject Johnson's data-driven analysis, based on the premise that it is robbing the game of a human element.
"I think that they want the game to be more of a science than the art of officiating," one retired official said.
"I understand their view, but the reality is we need 60 officials on the same page calling the same game," Stern said of such criticism. "We have an accumulation of data that tells a real story and we have someone who understands it."
For his part, Johnson said he's merely using his educational background and training to pursue a goal he concedes is unreachable.
"My mission, if I should be so bold, is to deliver a perfectly officiated game every night," Johnson said.
He holds a master's degree in operations research and systems analysis from Georgia Tech's School of Industrial Engineering, and his number-crunching skills are a central part of his plan to improve NBA officiating.
In an NBA office on the 16th floor of the Olympic Tower in Manhattan, a bank of television monitors consume one wall. Johnson recently sat at a central console where he controlled a PowerPoint demonstration detailing how NBA officials are scrutinized and held accountable in the digital age. In this same room, Fryer and Borgia constantly review game tape and scrutinize questionable calls, frame by frame.
When Fryer began his officiating career in 1978, referees operated with virtually no oversight.
"If you were working in L.A., or Seattle, or Portland, or Denver, the games were never televised," Fryer said. "So when you had a problem, the problem was [communicated] by a written report, or you'd make a phone call."
Today, NBA managers have a flood of nearly instant information about referee performance.
"Most people don't understand to what degree we observe, measure and evaluate every act a referee takes on the court or fails to take," Johnson said.
Each game is reviewed in person by one of 30 observers (prior to the 2003-04 season, four league observers floated from arena to arena.) The observers, mostly former college-level referees, electronically file game reports within 48 hours of the final buzzer, grading each official based on the calls they made correctly and also those they missed.
"We've improved the program of observers on [Johnson's] watch," Stern said. The 30 observers themselves are now monitored by what Stern called "super observers," a team of actuaries that randomly scrutinizes observer reports, checking them for inaccuracies.
After each game, the crew chief responsible for the three-person officiating team must also electronically file a report of any atypical or missed calls (all technical fouls and flagrant fouls are required to be reported to the league offices.)
In addition, three group supervisors each monitor the progress of 20 officials each -- constantly providing feedback and constructive criticism.
The result, Johnson said, is a rich database from which to assess referee performance.
"In one year -- preseason, a season and playoffs -- we're talking about gathering some 10,000 referee events," Johnson said. "An event is a whistle blown or a whistle that should have been blown but wasn't."
"If I have a referee that seems to have a trend to miss travels, I can go into this database and see what types of travels this referee is having problems with."
In addition to reports from observers, crew chiefs and group supervisors, Johnson has another tool as his disposal -- the team inquiry website.
Created two years ago, the TIW allows teams to instantly provide feedback to Johnson if they feel calls have been missed, or made based on inappropriate bias.
While Johnson insists the league would have implemented the TIW system under any circumstances, it came into existence when Tim Donaghy leveled explosive allegations -- that certain officials call games based on their bias toward particular players and coaches.
"It would not be in the interest of a referee to act based upon a bias," Johnson said. "We'll know it through our data analysis. This person will stifle their progress here in the NBA."
Living in a digital world
Perhaps not surprisingly, retired players, like former officials, look back with a sense of nostalgia to an era when referees operated with a greater degree of independence from the league's central office.
"They're taking a very, very subjective job being an official, where your judgment comes into play on almost every whistle, and trying to make it into black and white," said Celtics Hall of Famer Kevin McHale, who served as both general manager and coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
McHale, who played from 1980-93, said the game in his era was much more physical -- controlled less by the NBA rulebook than by an eye-for-an-eye sense of justice.
"If you got really tagged, they allowed you to go knock somebody in the head," McHale said. "And they would say, 'OK, you guys are even now. You each got a good shot in. Now, let's just play basketball.' They monitored it that way. That no longer exists."
Today, McHale said, such physical on-court behavior would result in flagrant fouls and, in the worst case, fines and suspensions.
Now an analyst for NBA-TV, McHale said the current officiating system, with its computerized oversight, has "roboticized" this latest breed of NBA referees, rendering them either unwilling or unable to practice what McHale describes as the lost art of letting some fouls go in order to protect the flow of the game.
"Nobody goes to a game to watch 500 whistles," McHale said. "I just wish they'd let them play a little bit more in the paint, and not call the ticky-tack stuff out front."
Stern rejects the notion of independence from the rule book."That's not a methodology for inspiring confidence in your coaches and players," he said.
While the league remains sensitive to such criticism, Johnson insists the data analysis is critical to ensure more consistently called games. He has other ambitious plans aimed at improving the performance of league officials.
A fan of the Malcolm Gladwell book "Outliers," Johnson accepts Gladwell's theory that 10,000 hours of experience practicing one's craft can mean the difference between moderate and extraordinary success.
Ever the number cruncher, Johnson has calculated that it would take an NBA referee 64 years to obtain 10,000 hours of officiating experience solely in a game environment (based on the assumption that each NBA game is roughly two-and-a-half hours).
So Johnson's plan is to develop a combination of Web tests, video-replay reviews and some type of "simulation trainer that will allow a referee with some virtual goggles ... to be able to look at a scenario and make a call." In other words, in Johnson's world, the work of NBA officials will be far from over after they log an estimated 4-7 miles on the hardwood during game nights.
"If we do this right, and we motivate guys to use the virtual experience as much as the real-time experience, you can do it [achieve 10,000 hours of officiating experience] in 9.2 years," Johnson said.
Johnson also would like to implement new standards of physical fitness for a league in which the officials' age range is from 27 to 71. When asked if he's considering adapting the Army's physical fitness standards, Johnson said: "I wouldn't do push-ups, sit-ups and a two-mile run with referees, but I might do some adaptation of that: block shuttle run, a mile run to check their endurance, and then some timed sit-ups or crunches."
All of this talk of improving the on-court performance of referees is not to suggest that officials have magically ceased to be lightning rods of criticism.
During the final weeks of last season, for example, Lakers coach Phil Jackson received two $35,000 fines from the league for criticizing officials. Already in this young NBA season, officials have been questioned repeatedly for enforcing the league's new "respect for the game" guidelines, which prohibit any type of overt protests of foul calls.
Overcoming negative perceptions is nothing new for Johnson. When he returned Stern's phone call, at the depths of the Donaghy scandal, Johnson was undaunted by the challenge ahead.
"I came from the Corps of Engineers. We got beat up so badly with Katrina. I don't care that it's bad. I think people are good," Johnson said.
"Donaghy was an unfortunate piece of our history. People always say, 'Well what do you think about Donaghy?' And I say, 'I'm sorry it happened,' but then again I'm glad it did, otherwise I wouldn't be here."
John Barr is a reporter in ESPN's Enterprise Unit. He can be reached through e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Producer Rayna Banks contributed to this report.