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Paying homage to NBA referee Dick Bavetta's memorable 39-year career

Paying homage to NBA referee Dick Bavetta's memorable 39-year career Photo:

The NBA announced Tuesday that longtime referee Dick Bavetta is retiring.

Bavetta, 74, will be remembered as the league's officiating iron man, having refereed a record 2,635 consecutive regular season games from his Dec. 2, 1975, debut through the conclusion of the 2013-14 season. The NBA's previous record for most consecutive regular season games officiated was 2,134, held by former referee Jake O'Donnell and surpassed by Bavetta in 2006. 

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Back in AprilBavetta surpassed Cal Ripken Jr.'s famous iron man streak of 2,632 consecutive Major League Baseball games played. For comparison's sake, A.C. Green, who spent the majority of his career with the Lakers, holds the NBA's iron man record with 1,192 consecutive games played.

“Dick’s dedication and commitment to his craft has been an inspiration to all NBA officials,” NBA president of basketball operations Rod Thorn said in a statement. “We are grateful for his contributions to our league, and we wish him the best as he enjoys his well-earned retirement.”

Bavetta's lengthy career began before Larry Bird and Magic Johnson entered the league, continued for the entirety of Michael Jordan's reign, and outlasted post-Jordan stars like Shaquille O'Neal and Allen Iverson. 

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A native of Brooklyn, Bavetta never once called in sick during a 39-year career that also saw him oversee 270 playoff games, 27 Finals games and three All-Star Games. Bavetta worked in every Finals series from 1990 through 2008, according to the New York Times.

“I am most proud of never having missed an assigned game, be it exhibition, regular season or playoffs, throughout my entire career," Bavetta said in a statement. "It really has been a great run.”

Perhaps the most memorable moment of his tenure was his race against Hall of Famer Charles Barkley at the 2007 All-Star Game.

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The 43-year-old Barkley was able to defeat the 67-year-old Bavetta, and the two men exchanged a hug and a brief kiss afterwards.

Being an official is a thankless job, and a search of the Sports Illustrated Vault reveals that Bavetta took his share of abuse in print over the years.

From a 1979 article by Douglas S. Looney detailing an exchange between Lakers coach Jerry West and Kansas City Kings president Joe Axelson:

After noting that his Los Angeles Lakers had been accused of playing a zone defense, which is illegal in the NBA, Coach Jerry
West said, "Let God strike me dead, we don't play a zone." Which prompted Joe Axelson, president and general manager of the KC Kings, to write West, "Please don't test the Almighty in this fashion. I would like to think He has more important things on His
mind than the NBA, but don't tempt Him. Besides, just because [referees] Bavetta and Saar and Hollins don't know a zone when they see one, He might."

From a 1984 article by Alexander Wolff detailing a famous fight between Larry Bird and Julius Erving:

How did Bird and Erving allow themselves to sink into a common street fight? One theory holds that a knee injury that forced referee Jack Madden from the Nov. 9 game early in the third quarter and left his partner, Dick Bavetta, alone, contributed to a situation in which physical contact got out of hand. Bavetta had to go it alone, and, wrote Dan Shaughnessy in The Boston Globe, "It was like leaving Barney Fife in charge of Hill Street Precinct." 

From a 2007 article by Jack McCallum that describes a letter written by fellow referee Joey Crawford to the NBA league office after a game in which Crawford ejected Tim Duncan for laughing on the bench:

In his report to the league office about the incident, which he filed by e-mail after the game, Crawford defended his decision, stated that he would do it again if faced with the same circumstances and, further, made an unkind comment about fellow ref Dick Bavetta, saying it would be a "travesty" if Bavetta ended up working Game 7 of the Finals. The world saw how unrepentant Crawford was when excerpts were leaked to Bloomberg.com and ESPN.com. 

McCallum also noted in 2008 that Bavetta was a target of some controversy after disgraced referee Tim Donaghy, who was imprisoned after pleading guilty to charges that he bet on games, referred to Bavetta a "company man" for his role in a memorable, disputed game between the Kings and Lakers during the 2002 playoffs.

Phil Taylor wrote in 2009 that Bavetta "resembles the farmer with the pitchfork in American Gothic."

Even so, Bavetta's work did earn multiple nods of approval over the years.

In 1997, he finished tied for second in an SI poll of players, coaches and executives asking for "the referee whom they would want to decide between a charge or a block with the score tied and a few seconds left in the game."

"If I see Bavetta or [Hugh] Evans," one coach says, "I know there's not going to be any one-sidedness."

Three years later, Bavetta was included along with Crawford, Steve Javie, Hue Hollins and Bennett Salvatore as being among the NBA's best officials.

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