Business as Usual for NBA Referees : Pro basketball: After power struggles, fights and lockouts, they go back to work Tuesday with exception of top official Jake O’Donnell, who retires.


Before a game in 1989, the famed NBA referee, Earl Strom, got into an argument in the dressing room with his partner, Dick Bavetta, grabbed him by the neck and tried to choke him.

Within two weeks, they had made up and were again riding to games together.

So if the question is, can union members who split, 27-26, on a new contract last week referee together next week, the answer is not only “Why not?” but “What else is new?”

“I’ve had differences of opinion with referees through my 19 years in the league, just like players,” veteran referee Joe Crawford said from his Philadelphia home.


“You get into the dressing room and you may almost have a fistfight with your fellow referees. And the next night you go from L.A. to Golden State, you’ve got to go referee the game. We’re professionals.

“This 27-26 was not a big deal to me. This was business. We just wanted to have the opportunity to vote, and the 27 people won--see you later. We’re going back to work. If Jake [O’Donnell] and Jack [Madden] were there and it went 28-27, well, we’d still be out and I would back my union 100%.”

The officials will return to work Tuesday.

O’Donnell, generally regarded as the league’s top official, retired Thursday. Madden is also expected to retire. Neither voted in the union election.


The NBA discourages its referees from talking to reporters, but there has been a power struggle going on since the early ‘80s when Darell Garretson, then president of the union, moved into management as the NBA’s supervisor of officials.

The union was at first happy about it, anticipating that Garretson, who would continue to work games, would be sensitive to the feelings of his fellow officials.

In practice, however, the staff quickly split between the referees who thought Garretson turned into management on them and those who accepted his authority. Many of the young officials and some of the older ones were tabbed as “Darell guys;” many of the veterans were known as “anti-Darell guys.”

The “anti-Darell” referees included the widely respected and colorful warhorses Strom, Joe Gushue and O’Donnell, who didn’t appreciate the new corporate style, or the directions coming from the league office: Don’t chat with players on the floor; don’t give interviews.

“Darell starts making management decisions,” Crawford said, “which, down through the years Earl didn’t like, Jake didn’t like, Joe Gushue didn’t like.

“Now what happens, Darell’s a bad guy. He wasn’t the bad guy. We didn’t understand the situation. We were the ones that voted and said Darell Garretson can be management and still referee.”

The union, a tough unit that struck during the 1977 playoffs, turned docile in the ‘80s. By the ‘90s, however, the union hired Fred Slaughter, a Los Angeles-based player agent and attorney and asked him to reclaim the lost ground, leading ultimately to this season’s lockout.

Crawford, a highly rated 19-year man, was never considered a “Darell guy” but appears to have been an important swing vote in this election, casting his ballot against the veteran-led hard-liners.


“It took me a long time to figure out, because I must not be a bright guy--Darell’s not the problem,” Crawford said. “We are the problem.

“Looking at our group, we are limited as a group until we finally say to ourselves that we can do it together and start trusting our leadership.

“This isn’t a knock on Darell. This is us. We do all this stuff to ourselves. I don’t have anything but respect for my boss [Garretson] when it comes to my officiating. But when it comes to my business and my union, I listen to myself. I don’t listen to what Darell Garretson says. Part of our staff does and that’s a problem.

“I’m a very happy guy, I think that they did a tremendous job for me and my family--Fred Slaughter, Mike Mathis and Steve Javie--and for the next five years I’m going about my business. And that’s exactly how I’m approaching it.”