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How NBA Referees Are Adjusting to Life Inside the Bubble

Zoom chats, video breakdowns, workouts and weekly tests are just some of the few things NBA refs are doing to prepare for the restart.

ORLANDO – Scott Brooks will admit: He’s said a few things to referees he regrets. Heat of the moment, a call doesn’t go his way, the Wizards coach has blurted out reactions he wishes he could take back. Fortunately, most don’t catch a referees ear. A roaring crowd offers a layer of protection. When the NBA resumes its season on July 30, that protection will be taken away.

“That is going to be interesting,” Brooks told SI. “That will be interesting for everybody. They’re going to hear everything—and you don’t want that.”

As the NBA prepares to return, how games will be refereed moves to the forefront. The NBA has 45 referees in Florida, along with five replay officials. Like the media, referees must quarantine for a week before they can enter the bubble. The selection process included a review of the officials health status by an independent panel of doctors (no referee opted out for COVID-19 related reasons) along with the league’s regular ranking system. The number of officials will be whittled down to 36 in the playoffs.

Monty McCutchen, the NBA’s Vice President and Head of Referee Development and Training, says any changes officials make will be “human adjustments.”

“I don't mean to minimize anything, but an event like this is what training's all about,” McCutchen told SI. “It’s to train so that you are ready under a myriad of circumstances, that the work itself then supersedes outside noise.”

McCutchen, a 25-year NBA referee, said that while officiating in an empty venue may be an unfamiliar experience for most referees, it won’t be new. Most referees began in high school gyms. McCutchen recalls his own experiences in May, Texas. “You work a JV game, you have a couple of Mom’s and Dad’s, that’s it,” McCutchen said. The current referees have similar histories.

“If you're an NBA referee and you're impacted by someone who paid $17 for a beer, you're not ready to do your work on any given night,” McCutchen said. “Now, that being said, I do think that there's going to be an adjustment to the new environment. You're used to a certain kind of environment where you go in and there's an energy to crowds. I'm actually excited about the challenge.”

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While the pandemic shut the league down in mid-March, the referees, McCutchen says, have continued to work. A group of development advisors, a panel of retired referees that includes Bennett Salvatore and Joey Crawford, meet once a week with 12-15 officials. Over Zoom, the panel does video breakdowns. There are weekly tests on the referees internal website.

“We've been trying to stay real sharp from the day things stopped, “McCutchen said. “We can't run up and down the floor, obviously, but we've been sharp about sticking to the work mentally.”

In the bubble, McCutchen has encouraged referees to develop a routine. Physio balls, elastic bands and jump ropes were brought to the officials room for the initial quarantine. The referees union bought Peloton bikes. There will be a referee rec room on campus, where officials can play ping pong or go fishing off the deck. Group golf outings will be set up. There will be regular meetings. Like with players, the mental health of referees will be monitored.

“This is going to test our abilities, especially our Finals officials and conference finals officials, who will be here a very long time,” McCutchen said. “I want to make sure that we have activities and ideas about how we can look out for one another.”

As for dealing with excited coaches, McCutchen admits that referees may need to let some things go. He points out that the NBA’s respect for the game standards are mostly visual—the air punch, running up and stomping in front of an official, clapping sarcastically at a call—and those standards will remain in place. It’s some of the verbal reactions, including outbursts from assistant coaches, that referees may have to be more tolerant of. 

“We’ll have a discussion about it,” McCutchen said. “I think we do need to be cognizant of how that's just a form of language, if you will. However, if it gets so loud that it really is demeaning to the game itself, we have to then take into account the other game participants. Are they doing that? And if they're not, then what kind of standard are you setting if you're allowing it?”

Coaches have expressed confidence in the referees ability to adjust to the new environment. “I think it’s going to be fine,” Brooks said. I think you’re going to see a lot of respect between referees and players.” Added Jazz coach Quin Snyder, “I think the refs do a great job. It’s the hardest sport in the world to referee. Certainly there are moments when you get on a ref and are emotional. Their ability to receive it in the right way something that makes an excellent official … I think by and large we will get the same high level of refereeing that we do during the year.”

Referees, McCutchen says, are looking forward to the challenge. “I say this very complimentary, but we're all referee geeks,” said McCutchen. “Referee nerds, referee people who just are so immersed in something that they don't care what the outside world thinks about that because we love it so much.” NBA referees, McCutchen said, are perfectionists, self critical, constantly reviewing the minutia, whether it’s being a half a step out of position or if their viewpoint would have improved by focusing on a different spot on the rim. “They know the craft so well that every little nuance they can pick out, how they could have done better had they just done this small thing, they will,” McCutchen said. “Any of those kinds of nuances are part of our daily discussions, and working in an empty gym allows for that purity of talking the craft in that way. I think it's exciting.”