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No More Mr. T Once a hothead who handed out technicals in bunches, Steve Javie has matured into one of the league's top officials

Oct. 30, 2000
Oct. 30, 2000

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Oct. 30, 2000

NBA Preview 2000-01

No More Mr. T Once a hothead who handed out technicals in bunches, Steve Javie has matured into one of the league's top officials

As Steve Javie, once the enfant terrible of NBA referees, begins
his 15th season, he's sure of one thing: He'll never again give
the thumb to a team mascot. "People still bring it up," says
Javie, who on April 4, 1991, ejected Washington Bullets mascot
Hoops for making gestures to incite the Capital Centre crowd
against the refs. Javie flashes a smile, something he once rarely
did on the court. "It had a positive side to it, though," he
says. "Joey Crawford [a fellow NBA ref and close friend] told me,
'A lot of the players think you're crazy. They're scared of
you.'"

This is an article from the Oct. 30, 2000 issue Original Layout

Some still think he's a little crazy, and some are still scared
of him, or, more precisely, scared of his propensity to use the T
more often than a Boston commuter. But over the years Javie, 45,
has gotten much better at swallowing his whistle, raising his
flash point and negotiating his way through tense moments instead
of calling quick technical fouls. Plus, he has learned a trick or
two about making the correct call on block-or-charge (not as
difficult as it seems) and who-knocked-it-out-of-bounds (much
more difficult than it seems) situations. In short, he's Exhibit
A in making the case that officials, like players, don't enter
the NBA as finished products. "Before, if you got Steve mad, it
was over for the night," says Miami Heat forward Anthony Mason, a
griper who's no favorite of refs. "Now you can speak to him, and
he'll explain things. He's come a long way. He's one of the
best."

It's surprising that Javie (pronounced JAV-ee) is free to talk
about his growth. After years of keeping its referees under a gag
order, the NBA is allowing them to speak to the media. This
recent conversation with Javie, which took place over a 1 1/2-hour
lunch in Dallas, was perhaps the longest on-the-record chat a
referee has had in many years. (Some officials, such as the
retired Jake O'Donnell and the late Earl Strom, were generous in
providing off-the-record opinions.)

Given Javie's surly on-court demeanor, some observers thought he
was too much like Darrell Garretson, the former supervisor of
officials who brought him into the league--too much the hard-ass
who didn't get along with the players, too much the ref who made
calls with his head but not his gut. Perhaps he was. But Javie is
now the 21st-century paradigm for the NBA official, a man whose
every call is caught on videotape, reviewed and subject to rebuke
from the league office. O'Donnell was infamous for calling few
technicals but making a transgressor pay, first, by getting in
the miscreant's face and, second, by making bad calls against
him. These days a ref who resorts to a makeup call is, to NBA
headquarters, a ref who has made two bad calls. Individuality is
out; uniformity is in. Still, some refs stand out. Crawford is
generally thought to be the best, with a handful of others right
behind: Javie, Hue Hollins, Dick Bavetta and the often overlooked
Bennett Salvatore.

Javie's father, Stan, is a noted former NFL back judge who worked
four Super Bowls during a 30-year career. He returned every night
to his suburban Philadelphia home from his job as a salesman and
read his rule book for a half hour before dinner. "Know your rule
book," he counseled his son. The younger Javie's godfather,
Johnny Stevens, was a major league umpire for 25 years. Steve
graduated from Temple, where he pitched and majored in business
administration. When his baseball career stalled at Class A in
1978, he went to umpiring school. He umped for 2 1/2 years until
he had a falling out with Florida State League executives because
he felt he should be promoted. Javie had already been officiating
high school basketball games in the off-season, and it wasn't
long before he found himself in the CBA, partly because of his
father's friendship with Strom, partly because he was a promising
ref. He worked CBA games for five years.

The minor league baseball-CBA background was both good and bad
preparation for the NBA: good because Javie arrived in the NBA
battle-tested, bad because he arrived with a prison warden's
mind-set. "He had a baseball mentality, where there's a 'my-way'
approach," says Wally Rooney, a former NBA ref who is the
assistant supervisor of officials for the league. "In baseball
you argue and you're gone. Here, it's not zero to technical.
There's room in between."

Also, keeping order in the CBA required a big stick and a quick
whistle. "If there weren't two fights and two technicals in a
game," Javie says, "something was wrong." There was the night at
the Armory in Albany, N.Y., when Albany Patroons coach Phil
Jackson, considerably less Zen-like back then, chased Javie down
the stairs at halftime after having been T'd up. These days, when
Jackson, the Los Angeles Lakers coach, is riding him, Javie will
look at him and say, "Come on, Phil. You didn't talk to me like
that in Albany."

So Javie arrived in the NBA in 1986 with one finger on the
trigger, and, in his words, he "just kept firing." The NBA
doesn't release stats on how many technicals individual refs hand
out, but Javie was unquestionably among the league leaders in the
late 1980s and early '90s. Worse, he wouldn't discuss his calls
with players or coaches and was intractable. Javie says that no
one told him to stop issuing so many T's--"Some guys think you
have to back off or you won't be here," says retired official
Jack Madden, one of Javie's mentors, "but I say you've got to go
at the guys right away, and then back off a little"--but Javie
learned that diplomacy must go hand in hand with reproof. Madden
was an important teacher in that regard.

"I'd get so mad I'd lose control for two or three minutes, and
that's when I would miss calls," says Javie. "I learned from Jack
how important it was not to let players and coaches get you out
of your game. One of the ways you do that? Walk away so you don't
hear so much stuff. Don't stand there and listen to it, or you
will get mad."

Another lesson Javie learned was not to be so quick to play Sir
Galahad to his partners. That's what he was doing when he dashed
halfway down the Capital Centre court to T-up Bullets center
Pervis Ellison after Ellison had thrown a ball at referee Billy
Spooner. Javie tossed Ellison, tossed Washington coach Wes Unseld
for arguing the ejection and then tossed Hoops. "My fatal
mistake," says Javie, "was getting involved with Billy and Pervis
in the first place. You have to be there for your partners, but
most of the time you've got to let them call their game."

Other lessons?

--Never be satisfied. Javie was proud of his performance during
his debut game, in 1986, and shared that feeling with Crawford in
the refs' locker room at the Pontiac Silverdome. "At least we
didn't have any fights," said his unimpressed partner. A couple
of days later Javie got Garretson's rating on his performance: 40
points out of a possible 100. "I was almost in tears," says
Javie, "but I learned how much work this job involves." He now
studiously watches videotape and, 90 minutes after a game, can
usually be found reviewing it in his hotel room.

--Set your limits and stick to them. "Charles Barkley was the
master at knowing what a player could get away with from one ref
or another," says Javie. "I still call a lot of T's, but guys
know what I'll take and what I won't." The one exception, he
says, is in the waning seconds of an important game: "For the
most part you can't run a star player down the stretch even if he
crosses the line."

--Referee the defense, not the offense. "The big difference
between NBA refs and officials at other levels is that we don't
watch the ball," says Javie. "If you're watching the
offense--and most guys do it when they first come up--that
block-or-charge call is very difficult. But if you're watching
the defense, if you know for sure whether the defender got to
the spot, that call isn't so difficult."

--Ask for help. "You come into this league with the attitude
that you want to be respected, and part of that is making your
own calls," says Javie. "Well, what you learn is that on
bang-bang calls, you've got to consult your partners. That's a
sign of strength, not weakness. It's particularly helpful on
out-of-bounds calls, which almost any ref will tell you are the
hardest. You've got a bunch of big guys with the quickest hands
in the world slapping and pulling at the ball, and suddenly it
squirts out of bounds. Off who? Maybe your partner had a better
angle than you. Another tip? Watch how players react. In that
split second before you have to blow the whistle and point one
way or the other, you're liable to see two or three of them
heading upcourt. In effect they've made the call for you."

--Make nice with the team leader. "Darrell Garretson taught me
that," says Javie. "What that does is keep the game in control.
For example, when Dennis Rodman was with the Bulls and getting
out of hand, I could go to Michael Jordan and say, 'You better
do something. I'm going to hit him,' and Michael would calm down
Rodman before I had to whistle a technical."

A final lesson Javie learned concerns self-preservation. Several
seasons ago he watched the Denver Nuggets' Bryant Stith deliver
an unintentional 18-stitch gash to the face of referee Bruce
Alexander when Alexander made the toss on a jump ball. Since then
Javie, a crew chief, has appointed one of his colleagues to throw
the ball up to start every game.

There was a time when players might have thought of taking a shot
at Javie to slow down the one-man technical machine. Now? "Steve
might be one of the most sensible officials," says Indiana Pacers
star Reggie Miller. "And throwing out the mascot? Man, I'll
always love him for that."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DARREN CARROLLCOLOR PHOTO: MANUELLO PAGANELLI
"I'd get so mad that I would lose control for two or three
minutes and then miss calls."