Basketball referee life: A dive into the minds behind the stripes

The life of a referee is most assuredly a strange one.

Credit: Michelle Couling Photography

The life of a referee is most assuredly a strange one.

Tasked with maintaining order in a chaotic, lightning-fast atmosphere, their mandates can shift the balance of a game, and more notably, draw the ire of bloodthirsty fans around the globe.

Basketball in particular has a lot of moving parts, both literally and figuratively, and even attempting to break down a play that you’ve seen in slow motion is enough to make your head spin.

Imagine doing it in realtime.

In an effort to get some insight into the people behind the striped shirts — not all of them wear striped shirts, obviously, but it’s an enduring enough tradition for such an analogy — we spoke with three officials who have worked at the highest levels of basketball in Australia and abroad. Like the athletes under their watchful eye, these guys are lifers. Their careers span generations of basketball, and for some, their paths practically seemed to be carved in stone.

Take Jack Taylor, for instance, whose grandfather was a referee in the NRL predecessor, New South Wales Rugby League.

“I started refereeing when I was 10 years old out in Canberra,” Taylor told The Pick and Roll. “I always wanted to become a referee, and [my grandfather] encouraged me, instead of becoming a referee in rugby league, to think about what other sport it was.

“From the 2000 Olympics, I fell in love with the game of basketball and started playing, and then from there, made the logical journey to becoming a referee.”

Taylor went on to referee in a variety of leagues, logging over 500 ACT Premier League matches before arriving on the WNBL stage. He was part of the officiating team in the Finals matchup this year between Canberra and Southside. He’s also involved with the NSW Waratah League and acquired his FIBA international license last year.

Game 2 of the WNBL Finals Series would see the appearance of Jason Kelly with a whistle in his mouth, not an uncommon sight for the Werribee native.

“I started off when I was 13, as a little old green shirt referee — not that we wore green shirts back in the day,” Kelly described wryly. “Used to play, wasn’t until I got to about 20 years old that I realised that, ‘hey, I’m not going to be a player’…

“Well, actually, I knew very early on that I wasn’t going to be a player because I wasn’t very good. But then, [I] got involved in refereeing the VJBL on a Friday night, and then started in 1996 on what is now known as Big V, but back in the day it was called CVIBL.”

He reeled off a laundry list of appearances, including the NBL1 (then known as the CBA), the NBL, SEABL, ABL, and more championship matches than you could count on both hands and feet. In February he was awarded a WNBL life membership for his accomplishments.

“I’ve done 222 WNBL games, 431 NBL1 (including SEABL) games, 308 Big V games, and countless games in domestic and VJBL,” he summed up. “I’ve done alright for a bloke from the other side of the West Gate Bridge.”

The underlying factor here, of course, is that the officials who work at the highest levels are there for a reason, logging years of service across a myriad of leagues before they arrive at the grand stage. It’s a taxing role, mentally and physically, with much more to consider beyond the fundamentals of basketball. It requires a textbook understanding of the rules, an ability to diagnose a dynamic situation from multiple perspectives, and above all else, maintain and uphold the integrity of the game.

“Logically speaking, your job is to be there as a representative of the game and to make sure the game is played in the way that the rules require the game to be played,” Taylor said.

“I would say, probably for me, the biggest challenge in refereeing is finding that balance between ensuring that the game is played to the letter of the law and managing the people who play the game, to ensure that it still creates the positive spectacle and an enjoyable atmosphere for everyone to participate, both watching, playing, coaching, and obviously, refereeing as well.”

“I think the biggest challenge for any referee out there is consistency, and realising that, as a referee, we’re not the most liked people in the world,” Kelly added. “If it happens on one end that I call a foul in favour of your team, you love me. But then on the other end of the court, 30 seconds later, I call a foul against your team, you no longer love me, you hate me, you’re booing me.

“What we need to be able to do as referees is to remove that emotion, and be able to apply the rules of the game, and when we do that, we gain consistency.”

Imagine it: a job where your every decision is so heavily scrutinised, where you’re trying to rein in a group of athletes in the heat of the moment, in addition to the coaches on the sideline and a stand of onlookers, some convinced you’re a villain.

To the layman, it sounds terrifying.

“So often you’ll see clips pop up on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or on the evening news, where something happens during a game, be it football, basketball or any sport for that matter — the official kicked the call. They got it wrong.” Kelly continued. “And they get hung and quartered by the public court.

“At the end of the day, we don’t give a brass razoo who wins the game. We don’t care who wins. What we care about is the game itself.

“I see that a lot of spectators watch the game with their hearts, not with their eyes, and that’s what fuels that conflict that comes within all sports, not just basketball. It’s an emotionally fuelled environment, and referees need to be — inverted commas — ‘heartless bastards’, and remove emotion because emotion clouds judgement.”

Taylor took a moment to break down the X’s and O’s to help elucidate the situation, and how issues may arise.

“One of the things I teach people when they start refereeing is, your job is not to watch the game, your job is to officiate the game and they are very different arts,” he explained.

“I’m doing a lot of things as a referee to prepare for what’s coming next. Not anticipating what’s happening, but doing my best to be in the best possible position to see what’s going to happen. A referee is going to make a mistake, in my opinion, because of one of three reasons. The first one, and the most common one is, they physically can’t see what they needed to see to get it right, so we call that a mechanical break.

“The second one, it probably happens the second most often, but ideally as minimal as possible, we do our best to reduce these errors, is just an error in judgement. So you might see something, but because you don’t see all of it, or for whatever other reason which may happen, you judge the play wrong.

“And the third one, which is ultimately at our level unacceptable, is obviously an error in rule knowledge, or an understanding of the rule. And they are for me, the three reasons why it breaks. So they’re probably the tradeoff to the challenge as the players face when they’re talking about a technique breaking, that’s sort of how we see it.”

For Scott Butler, his journey has taken him to the next stage, presenting its own series of challenges and expectations. He worked over 21 seasons of the NBL — including a decade’s worth of playoffs — alongside two Olympics and two World Championships, before being named the NBL Head of Referees in 2016.

“I did the bronze medal game in the World Championships in 2006 between USA and Argentina, I did the bronze medal game at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Went to the NBA summer camp in 2006, held an international badge from about 1997 onwards until my retirement due to injury.” Butler said. “Just effectively 22 years of refereeing all year round, and my body just said ‘screw you’.”

The way the NBL game is played has shifted over the years, and a great deal of that comes down to design: it was up to Butler to implement officiating methods to create the most attractive product possible.

“[The NBL] wanted me to make sure I put in a framework which allowed the game to be more open, stylistically looked more appealing, more of an NBA-style open game. The way that EuroLeague has progressed as well, their game is much more open these days, because they’ve started to move away from the rough and tumble of the FIBA system.

“So, open the game up, find ways for players to be more athletic, and to allow them to score more points, or at least provide opportunities to score more points. Putting that architecture in place has probably been the most difficult element, because some of that, in some ways, does clash a little bit with the Australian style.

“Australian players, both men and women, are known for that physical, no-nonsense style, so the most difficult part of my job, is to try and shift everybody — the teams and referees — to that style, so that we can actually have a more open game. Out of my four seasons [as Head of Referees], particularly the last three seasons, we’re having more points per game every season, and our foul count, ironically, has actually gone down each season, so the last three seasons, we’ve been under, on average, 40 fouls per game.

“We’re trying to call things early in the game, set the standard, but then, once that’s communicated the right way, then the players know how they’re allowed to play that game, and they’re scoring more points as a result.”

Consistent among all three men is a true affinity for the game of basketball, an underrated aspect that seems to get lost in translation at times.

“Referees, they love the game.” That was how Butler phrased it. “They love basketball. They’re interested in the game, they’re interested in the contest, but they don’t want to be the centre of attention.

“But there is a time in a game, when the referee must take action. I need officials who can step back and let the game breathe, because this is all good so far, but when the game gets tight and it needs officials to step in, and call that stray elbow, even though it’s accidental, that can cause problems around the floor. Or call that really heavy screen which is set late, and you want to protect the players, to make sure they can move around the floor knowing that any illegal actions will be called.

“So you need an official who can do both, and I think that sometimes the fans think that referees might want to be the centre of attention, but it’s completely the opposite.”

“I love refereeing,” Taylor affirmed. “I love the art of refereeing, officiating more generally, but also love the game of basketball.

“One of the joys that I love talking about with kids who are coming through the refereeing program, is when you have that opportunity where your dreams start to become a goal, and then you start achieving goals that were originally dreams, and for me, the WNBL Grand Final game was one of those.”

These words are perhaps a reminder for all of us to look beyond the heat of the moment, that referee uniform, and to see instead - a fellow fan who loves the game as much as we do.

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