Commentary

NBA hires Army general to improve league's perception of refs

With the addition of Army Gen. Ronald Johnson as the new NBA VP of operations, there was an expectation of a burr-cut hard-ass who was going to have the officials ironing razor-sharp creases in their game slacks and dropping to give him 20 push-ups right in the middle of a game after a blown call, but it's not going to be anything like that, writes Ric Bucher.

Updated: August 6, 2009, 4:15 PM ET
By Ric Bucher | ESPN The Magazine

When I heard that the NBA had hired a former Army general to oversee its referees in the wake of the Tim Donaghy scandal, I expected it to be some burr-cut hard-ass who was going to have the officials ironing razor-sharp creases in their game slacks, polishing their regulation black sneakers until they were sunspots in the darkened pregame intros, and dropping to give him 20 push-ups right in the middle of a game after a blown call.

The refs were half expecting the same. But the consensus among them seemed to be, "Ah, how much worse could it be? Besides, David did give us Bernie."

[+] EnlargePhil Jackson/Bernie Fryer
Elsa/Getty ImagesBernie Fryer, the head of officials, has a new boss in Gen. Johnson to bring about a new perception of NBA refs.

David, as in NBA commissioner David Stern, did. He replaced Ronnie Nunn as the head of officials with Bernie Fryer, and Stu Jackson with the aforementioned Army general, Ronald Johnson.

Remember when Jackson said, in explaining the playoff suspensions two years ago that wound up hurting the Suns more than the Spurs after a fracas instigated by San Antonio's Robert Horry, that "correctness" was more important than "fairness"? The refs, under Jackson and Nunn, felt they were being corrected unfairly. Fryer had retired early rather than continue working under the Jackson-Nunn system, so the refs figured at least they had someone who understood their pain.

Then they met Gen. Ronald Johnson, the NBA's new VP of operations, and cautious optimism turned into a full-fledged spike in morale. After I had the chance to do the same on Wednesday at the league's referee seminar in Jersey City, N.J., I can understand why.

Anyone looking for Johnson to transform the league's officiating system with some classic boot-camp beat-downs is going to be disappointed. For those gleefully anticipating the public excoriation of more refs for hidden agendas or general incompetence -- and I know some of you are, according to message-board rants -- courtesy of no-nonsense military justice, well, that pound-of-flesh exhibition doesn't look likely.

"I really don't believe these guys are anything except of high moral standard," Johnson said.

Johnson, in the few months that he's been on the job, has apparently had the same come-to-Jesus revelation I did after I trained to be an NBDL ref and went behind the scenes to see firsthand the typical day and night of an NBA crew: These guys (and gal) are regular Joes (and a Josephine) who accept the challenge of an impossible task, understanding that everyone -- including owners, fans, players, coaches, scouts, GMs -- is convinced the job could be done better if only (insert your favorite complaint/solution here).

[This job] has changed how I view the game. There's nobody better at doing this than these guys.

-- Ronald Johnson, new NBA VP of operations

Everyone, that is, except anyone who has actually stood in their shoes. Which now, apparently, includes the general.

Turns out the burr-cut hard-ass has neither, favoring broken-in purple polo shirts and cracking jokes more than whips. When someone asked him how he felt about something, he prefaced his answer by saying, "I'm an officer. I don't feel." When comparing his previous job and current one, he said in both it mattered only that he ended the day "breathing, vertically or horizontally, either is OK by me." When whistles were awarded to a pair of broadcasters, he joked that there were tracking devices in them. Describing the value of having been deputy commanding general of the Army Corps of Engineers: "I can build it and I can blow it up." Aware of the trepidation the refs had about a 32-year Army vet taking charge, he said he had fanned the rumor that he was going to have them switch to camouflage uniforms.

He also conceded that before he took the job, he was like the typical fan-coach-player-GM-scout-owner, yelling, "What kind of call was that?"

Now he knows the answer: It's the call that particular ref thought was right from his particular vantage point. Which, in most cases, is a better one than the fan-coach-player-GM-scout-owner has.

The job "has changed how I view the game," he said. "There's nobody better at doing this than these guys."

And, yet, as the video session conducted for the attending media and team broadcasters demonstrated, officials are far from perfect. Fryer went frame by stultifying frame over the mistakes made by the crew officiating a 79-76 win by the Pistons over the Cavs to clinch the 2007 Eastern Conference finals, explaining along the way how each infraction (called or missed) is scrutinized and dissected by the refs themselves, an observer at every game, a supervisor and then the director of officials. It was less a lesson in correct calls as much as a demonstration of how inexact a science officiating is and always will be. Some plays were reviewed a half-dozen times in slow motion from several angles and there was still room to debate what the proper call should have been.

That, in essence, is what makes every ref so intrinsically disliked: We watch sports because we want it to be the realm in our lives where there is no gray area, where there is an indisputable result, play by play, game by game. Three outs. Three seconds. Four downs. Six fouls. A winner and a loser, a hero and a goat. We can accept bad decisions by the players and coaches because we know that is part of the human drama of the game. We've all played, we've all made mistakes and made up for them. Or not. But we don't want it from the refs who are charged with assuring we get our illusory definitive playing field and indisputable result.

The problem is that rules are black and white only on the page. Once they're in use, the shades of gray are infinite. Refs, meanwhile, are just as human as the coaches and players. (And for every fan, coach or player who has complained that the refs should work to get more calls right, I'd counter with this: Why haven't the averages for turnovers and missed shots improved? Don't tell me it's because unlike the refs, someone is working to keep them from perfection. At least it's five versus five. The crew of three refs has 10 guys flopping and holding and yelling in mock pain.)

Fryer showed the last play of that Pistons-Cavs game to demonstrate how what looks one way in real time can become something different in slo-mo. LeBron James drives into the paint, pivots to his right and misses an awkward jumper while being closely guarded by Rip Hamilton. Replay shows James wasn't just closely guarded but fouled twice. The room is dismayed at how obvious the transgression is in slow motion, but then a murmur rises that James also may have traveled on the play. Several more replays confirm his pivot foot slid as he made his spin before getting fouled. While Fryer was disappointed two calls were missed on the play, the general atmosphere in the room seemed to be, "OK, good, so justice was served after all."

Since Donaghy was indicted, the one thing I've heard from refs is that, while they never saw any evidence of Donaghy's gambling ways, they weren't surprised because he was "a lone wolf" and "an odd duck." He would've been voted "most likely" if they had been told someone in their ranks was betting on games. Better trust in management and a better understanding that one troubled ref can create issues for the collective, then, might have allowed the league to root Donaghy out or at least discover his problem before the FBI did.

That, it would seem, is Johnson's secret mission. He's not going to institute a new training policy that will reduce missed calls because no such policy exists. Besides, that's not going to safeguard against another Donaghy, who is in prison for betting on games, not purposely blowing calls. What Johnson does want to improve is the league's understanding of how referees are doing on and off the court.

"They don't care what you know until they know you care," he said. "If you lead the guys and not just manage them, not just contact them when it's about a missed call, then you can build their trust.

"These people are good people, but maybe I'm naive."

A general, naive? About the ways of men? Maybe he's not quite done with the camouflage after all.

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine.

Ric Bucher

NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer