EARNING THEIR STRIPES : Veteran Officials Garretson and Rush Put Prospective NBA Referees to the Test at Summer Training Camp

Times Staff Writer

Mark Wunderlich, an aspiring National Basketball Assn. referee, does not expect to be officiating a Laker-Celtic game next year. He figures he’ll still be a salesman.

But last weekend in El Segundo, Wunderlich removed his coat and tie and became a student again--a student under two of the NBA’s premier officials, Darell Garretson and Ed Rush.

Summer training camp was in session for prospective officials. Wunderlich, 28, of Philadelphia, joined Al Williams of Santa Barbara, Russell Wells of Long Beach and three others in their late 20s who dream of running the court in stripes one day alongside Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird.


Rush said that each student was at least three years away from reaching the NBA. Wunderlich thinks it will take longer, but he’s in no hurry.

“There’s no way I’m going to be in the league next year,” he said. “But you don’t come (to training camp) with that intention. If you do, you’re wacky. You come here to learn something, to implement some of the things you learn and to catch somebody’s eye so four or five years from now you might have a shot at the NBA.”

Garretson, supervisor of NBA officials since 1981, selected his six students from 200-300 applicants who have little, if any, experience officiating pro ball. Each, though, has showed some promise officiating high school, college or recreational league games.

“These six guys are in a highly selected group,” said Rush, a 21-veteran of pro officiating. “We only brought six here so we could force-feed them and cram information down their throats so that they can leave here with a foundation of information they can use to get to the next level.”

That next level, if they reach it, will still be two steps shy of the NBA, where officials earn between $30,000-$130,000 a season. The league’s three-level training program prepares students for full-time positions. But Garretson and Rush don’t expect all six students to find NBA jobs.

In a five-day camp, they expect them to listen, learn and familiarize themselves with the often misunderstood job of officiating pro basketball.

Much of the seminar involves long hours of scanning videotape to notice and discuss mistakes. Court time is limited, class time is long.

The first day, the VCR wasn’t shut off until 11 p.m., 14 1/2 hours after class had begun.

“When I left (Philadelphia), I told my wife I’d see Los Angeles and tell her all about it,” Wunderlich said. “All I’ve seen is the Imperial Highway.”

Wunderlich and his classmates have also seen the inside of Inglewood Morningside High School’s gym, where Garretson and Rush take their students to work NBA pro-am games.

But more important, said Garretson, is what’s inside his students’ heads.

“We find out a lot about our candidates in camp,” he said. “We want to know what happens to them when we get them away from home, how they handle their night life, how well they can get up and contribute to our class.

“We want to find out how much responsibility they can take, whether a guy is a leader or a follower.”

According to Rush, the leaders usually progress, and the followers often drop out. Ability is crucial, even if a prospective official subscribes to the work ethic.

“Some of these guys will be eliminated because sometimes you can see immediately that a guy is only going to go to a certain level,” Rush said.

“There is an ability level you must start with. You just have to have the talent.”

The difference today is that all students, no matter how talented, gain a uniform working knowledge of NBA mechanics, positioning and temperament by attending training camp.

Garretson, a 20-year veteran, instituted the consistent training program in tandem with the NBA’s pro-am games, developed in 1979 specifically to train referees. Since then, the uniformity of Garretson’s teaching and the opportunity to apply those lessons in the summer pro-am games and the Continental Basketball Assn. have helped NBA officiating to improve along with the game.

Perfection is an impossibility, Rush said, but a uniform training system facilitates consistency, making high quality in the young referee a distinct possibility. NBA officials, who attended training camp in the early 1980s, have come into the league knowing much more than those who came in 20 years ago.

“When I came in, it was really a scattered approach,” Rush remembered. “If the league saw a guy who they thought could work the NBA, he’d go to a team’s training camp and work intra-squad scrimmages, and if he had some kind of court presence, he might work some exhibition games, and it was strictly survival.

“They weren’t specific as to telling you where to go on the court when the ball is in a specific place. But Darell has developed a system where if they read his manual and follow it, they’ll have angles and perfect position in all situations.”

Rush teamed with Dan Crawford, a training camp alumnus, the last two years. Said Rush: “Crawford was a half-dozen years ahead of me when I started because of the training program.

“We had an organized program, and Dan Crawford came through the program, rose to the top, and in four years he was ready to go.”

Crawford, who officiated three seasons of Division I Missouri Valley Conference basketball before joining the pro ranks, said that shifting from college to pro ball was made considerably easier by the training program.

“The NBA program is a blessing in itself,” he said. “They teach you how to move, what to look for, how and when to make a call. My experience was learning how to referee all over again. It made me a much better referee.”

Crawford, who will begin his third year in the NBA in the fall, said videotape is partly responsible for his success.

Wunderlich agreed. “Videotape doesn’t lie,” he said. “It’s black and white. You see yourself, and they try to show you the positions and have you see where you should be. Darell wants to make sure that the next time you go on the floor is better than the last, and you can see that on tape.”

Added Rush: “The fact that videotape has arrived and our ability to break that down has revolutionized our approach to officiating. You sit down and look at tape and tape doesn’t lie, whereas before if I made a mistake I’d ask my partner in the locker room about the call, and he’d be dishonest with you just to be a nice guy.

“We’re much more honest with ourselves than we ever were before.”

Supplementing that honesty is an observation system the NBA uses to evaluate its prospective officials. An observer can judge an official regardless of the official’s opinion and report to the league.

Observers such as Erin Wade also assist Garretson in training camp. Wade, a former National Football League official, will begin his third year of observing this fall. He reviewed a 100-question exam last weekend with Garretson’s students, pointing out that “I don’t know” responses were not acceptable.

The exam required each student to justify his true-false answers by citing specific rules. When one student was stumped, Wade said only half-jokingly: “We’re not going to let you off the hook just because you couldn’t find the answer in the book. That’s bull.”

Wade, Garretson and Rush ease the pressure, however, by razzing their students and one another.

Wunderlich said that after his first day, Garretson told him he had made 9,000 mistakes and Rush suggested he make only 7,000 the next time. Nervousness induces mistakes, and tension is unavoidable, Wunderlich said.

“My first time out on the floor, I forgot everything I ever learned,” he said. “I was a wreck. I had my signals confused, and I was running down the wrong sideline. I was a complete waste, but the second time I felt more comfortable. But it’s tough because you have nine minutes to show two of the greatest referees in the world what you know.”

What students cannot really show in pro-am games is their court demeanor. How they cope with enraged players and coaches will be critical if they reach the NBA, and the less tense pro-am games do not offer many chances to defuse explosive situations.

Rush said that court demeanor and an even-tempered style are gained mostly from experience. “We try to talk to them about that, but it’s really vicarious,” he said. “They’re not really going to understand what it takes until they actually get in the situation where everybody around you is excited, but you have enough confidence in yourself to stay calm.

“If we get really excited with everybody else, all we do is fuel the fire.”

Technical fouls often douse the flames, and Garretson and Rush tell their students to use the technical as a tool.

Fresh from class, Wunderlich said: “You T somebody, you bring them back to where you want them in that situation and then it’s forgotten.”

The problem is that some officials tend to use the technical foul as a weapon. The training program tries to remove that source of antagonism. It has been successful even with some referees who did not attend class until years after they entered the league.

Joe Crawford, now a 10-year NBA veteran and no relation to Dan, visited Garretson’s training camp four years after he had reached the NBA and learned that an aggressive referee is not always effective.

Joe Crawford said he had been too aggressive in his early years. Garretson taught him not to take things personally, especially when calling technical fouls.

“He taught me not to go after a player or coach, not to look for a second technical after I hit him with the first,” Crawford said. “I wanted to challenge everybody, but Darell says, ‘Hit them with technicals, but don’t scream at them, don’t make them come back at you.’ ”

Crawford said that Garretson’s training program has made his job “1,000 times easier.” Garretson hopes he can help all of his students.

But he makes sure they understand that reaching the NBA is neither easy nor guaranteed. Currently, 33 officials work in a league with 23 teams, and only one or two jobs usually open each season. Rush said that the league’s expansion plans, and the advanced age of much of the staff could create at least a dozen new jobs in the next 10 years. But the only whistles most applicants will hear by the 21st Century will be off the court at quitting time.

Said Wunderlich: “When I get back on the plane, I think the odds are better that I’m going to keep my salesman’s job.”