Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.
The best referees subscribe to a simple credo: It’s best not to be noticed. The point being that if fans and media are talking about you, it’s probably because something went wrong. Monty McCutchen gleefully broke the code last week, though for all the right reasons.
McCutchen—the NBA’s head of officiating, and previously one of its top-rated refs—made an impromptu TV appearance to discuss a disputed traveling call against Knicks star Julius Randle, made in the final seconds of a loss to the Nets. McCutchen patiently explained the rule, and why his crew got the call right. But all NBA Twitter cared about was his ZZ Top–worthy pandemic beard.
McCutchen, speaking via Zoom from his North Carolina home, chuckled at the reactions.
“I'm glad Twitter had some fun with it,” he said, smiling through the thicket of gray fuzz. “It seemed a good-hearted thing.”
McCutchen, 55, is surely used to the scrutiny. He spent 25 years as an NBA referee, and was one of the league’s best, before moving into the administrative ranks. His current title is senior vice president and head of referee development and training. Off the court, McCutchen is known for his colorful bow ties and plaid suits, so he’s certainly comfortable with, um, unconventional style choices (though he’d been clean-shaven until the pandemic). The wild beard? Just a symbol of these unconventional times we’re living in, he said.
In a wide-ranging discussion with Sports Illustrated, McCutchen discussed the Randle play, the unique quirks of this season, the record number of female referees, players complaining about “respect” and, of course, the beard.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The full conversation can be found on this week’s The Crossover podcast, with Howard Beck and Chris Mannix.
Sports Illustrated: I am morally obligated to start with the beard because it was the talk of NBA Twitter. So what's the story?
Monty McCutchen: I grew up as a person that lived in a house that literature was a big part of life. And so you learn to live your life narratively, and you learn to live life metaphorically. And so the beard has been a fun pandemic thing. We're in unprecedented times. But I'll shave it off when it's time to get back into the office and get rolling. The NBA has been an immensely important part of my life. And I would never do anything I hope to take away from that. It's been fun for the staff. It's been fun for some people to tease me. And I do like the metaphor of a rally beard, so to speak, to get us all back to normal times.
SI: The Julius Randle play caused quite a bit of consternation and confusion. [The Nets’ Kyrie Irving made contact with the ball as Randle rose to shoot, causing the ball to slip briefly. Randle landed with the ball still in his hands and was called for traveling.] What prompted you to go on TV to explain it?
MM: I think it was a great play to educate our public and to educate our fans across the league. There are certain parts of our rulebook that don't happen very often. When they do happen, they tend to happen in the middle of the first quarter or the middle of the third quarter, and they don't get the attention that an unseen play gets whenever it comes with four seconds, three seconds, like it did in the game with New York. And the rule that that Scott [Foster] called correctly, and I should say that very clearly—it was called correctly—has been in our case book and rule book for quite some time.
SI: I think the general understanding, or maybe misunderstanding, that fans had is that if the ball got dislodged on the way up—and it certainly bobbles in Randle’s hands momentarily—that allows him to come back down, and eliminates the possibility of traveling.
MM: Where we disagree, and where we've seen on tape, is it does not come loose from his hands. The [contact] forces Julius to move the ball with his hands. But both hands must separate from the ball—not " 'cause the ball to go from my left to my right, while it's still in my possession." And in this case, the ball did not come loose. Had the ball come loose, even for an inch, if both hands had separated from the ball, then yes, Julius Randle can repossess the ball, come down, dribble, do anything he would like, because that's a new possession. But we didn't get full separation on this play. And that's why it's called correctly.
SI: Right. It was not a clean strip, or a steal or a block. So the fact it shifted in his fingers a little, and that Kyrie affected it, is not enough?
MM: His left hand had complete control of the ball, and the right hand didn't even come off completely. And so we have to have separation for that to be new possession. And that's the key in that play.
SI: There's been a lot of discussion about how challenging these conditions are for the teams, operating amidst the pandemic. Referees are operating under the same conditions, the same restrictions on their day-to-day lives, to abide by the NBA’s health and safety protocols. And unlike the teams, your staff is flying commercial, which adds another layer of potential risk. What has it been like for your staff? And how many have been affected by the virus?
MM: Due to flying commercial, our referees have to leave two days in advance from home now, to make sure that they're getting several PCR-negative tests before they go on the floor. We can't do a PCR test, and then fly and then go on the floor. We have had some people test positive, a very, very small number. They were not impacting games at that point; the testing did exactly what it was supposed to do. But we've had people miss games. We've had more two-person games [instead of a three-person crew] than we've ever had in a season. But the vast majority of those are because of an inconclusive test, a test that ended up being negative every time after that. But someone still missed the game, because we're committed to the health and safety of the people who are putting on the game.
Our staff has done a wonderful job. It's been a difficult year. Testing is early in the morning, after late nights; they get up and they go do it. They don't even get the social interaction of going to the game together. They each take separate cars and leave the arena separately. And so there's been a huge sense of isolation for our staff that they don't have the team camaraderie that our teams enjoy. And that that has not been an easy load to carry. And I'm proud of them, because analytically, we see that they've performed very high under these conditions.
SI: Arenas are either empty or mostly empty. How much more player chatter [and profanities, insults, complaints] are refs hearing because there's no crowd to drown it out? Has it led to more technical fouls? Are your referees happy to not have 20,000 people chanting, “Ref, you suck”?
MM: Our technical fouls are down significantly from the last two seasons, at exactly this point in a season. I think every single person that is a participant in that game has somewhat of an empathy for what everyone else is going through. And I think that everyone—players, coaches, and even our referees in adjudication—have taken into account, "Hey, we're all under the gun here, we're all really doing our best." And I think that it speaks to the overall goodness of our league.
I'm sure [referees] are hearing a little more, but you hear plenty with 20,000 people in the stands. I personally think that the referees are no different than anyone else: We want normalcy. We want to get back to the energy that fans, our franchises and their fan bases bring to our league. Everyone is missing that energy, I believe. It's a good energy to have in life: passion.
SI: On the plus side, one of the innovations during the pandemic is that your referees now explain replay decisions into the microphone, directly to the camera. [Bill Kennedy and Zach Zarba seem to particularly enjoy it.] Can we keep this once the pandemic is over? Because I think this is actually very helpful for the viewers at home.
MM: I would suspect we would keep it. We want to make sure that when we do get 20,000 people back into arena, that there's a sense that that we're not inciting [the crowd]. But it is very informative, it has been received wildly successfully. And I think that we'll only get better at it. The important part of that is to inform and not perform. I think it's been an incredibly positive experience. But we don't want referees to be focal points.
SI: In recent weeks, we’ve heard several stars, including Paul George and Rudy Gobert, complain about a perceived lack of respect from referees. Of course, players often say this when calls don’t go their way. How do you view those complaints?
MM: For NBA referees to respect the game, they must respect players. And our NBA referees respect the game. Referees are going to miss calls. We are constantly looking at those complaints with our data people. I most certainly am not nullifying someone's feeling in the amount of work that they put into this game as players. And when they don't feel that it's gone the way that they think it should, there's going to be frustration.
SI: There are five women on the officiating staff this season, the most ever. In January, Natalie Sago and Jenna Schroeder became the first women to officiate an NBA game together. Is diversifying the staff along gender lines a continuing priority? And are there more women in the pipeline?
MM: Well, 42% of our G League is women officials. So there are most certainly more people in the pipeline. We have an elite camp, and a midlevel camp and a grassroots camp even prior to getting into the G League. And I would suspect without having the numbers in front of me that that's much closer to 50-50, in terms of women and men. We want talented referees, full stop, period. I don't care if they're men, I don't care if they're women, I don't care what race or culture they come from. If they have the desire, and the talent and the persistence to learn the craft of officiating, then I want them to be a part of our group.
LUKEWARM TAKE OF THE WEEK
I’ll normally keep it lighthearted in this space and give you my not-quite-hot take on the NBA issues of the day. But today I’m asking you instead to spend a few minutes listening to others, and on a much more serious issue: the wave of violence against Asian Americans in this country.
The recent mass shooting in Georgia, in which eight people—six of Asian descent—were killed, is only the latest and most violent example. Hate crimes targeting Asian Americans have been on the rise for the last year, inflamed by the cynical rhetoric of elected officials and talk-show flamethrowers who sought to blame China for the coronavirus pandemic.
And no, the sports world is not immune. Jeremy Lin, currently playing in the G League, was called “coronavirus” by an opposing player. (The NBA has since identified and disciplined the player.)
I cannot possibly speak to the issue as eloquently as some of my friends and peers already have. So please, take a minute to listen to Lin’s testimonial for Bleacher Report here. Watch Pablo Torre’s video essay for ESPN. And read Tim Kawakami’s heartfelt and passionate plea here.
If you have the means, New York magazine has a list of 61 ways to support Asian communities here.
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