Jake O’Donnell Is Gone, NBA Era Goes With Him


The regular NBA referees are back and all except one grabbed a whistle.

Jake O’Donnell, who never hesitated to make a tough call in 28 seasons, gave the NBA a double-technical and automatic ejection from his life.

In any other season, O’Donnell’s retirement would simply have been a passing of an era. O’Donnell was the last of the truly great referees, a man who belongs in the company of the late Mendy Rudolph, Norm Drucker, the late Earl Strom and Richie Powers. They had personality and presence.


But O’Donnell picked a bad time to quit, if only because of his last game.

Because of the controversy that swirled during and after the playoff game last May 9, the first in the series between the Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets, O’Donnell’s retirement gave the impression that he was forced out, something he and the NBA vehemently deny.

“That game had nothing to do with my retirement,” O’Donnell said.

In that game, O’Donnell refused to shake hands with Houston’s Clyde Drexler at tipoff. Then he ejected Drexler in the first quarter after calling a touch foul before slapping the Rocket guard with two quick technicals.

It appeared that O’Donnell was immersed in a personal feud with Drexler, which was widely rumored at the time. The league certainly thought something was amiss because it suspended O’Donnell for the rest of the playoffs and wouldn’t allow him to work the NBA finals, ending a string of 23 consecutive appearances.

The league heightened speculation with its mysterious handling of the episode. There was no official comment about the elimination of the game’s best ref. What’s more, a source said the league, months later, paid O’Donnell for the games he was suspended. Word circulated that O’Donnell was prepared to threaten with a lawsuit.

“It shouldn’t have been controversial in the first place,” O’Donnell says now. “The NBA made it controversial. There was no grounds for what they did. It was handled wrong.

“They felt I was after Drexler because I didn’t shake his hand that night. Well, I hadn’t shook his hand in a couple of years. There was one game where he didn’t extend his hand, and so I said, ‘Fine.’ So I hadn’t shaken his hand since.

“Things like this have happened before. [Darell] Garretson wouldn’t shake Larry Bird’s hand. If I had to do it all over again, I would’ve done it the same way.”

O’Donnell says he had nothing personal against Drexler and didn’t hold grudges.

“I just don’t take any crap from anyone, and he couldn’t handle that,” O’Donnell says. “If he thinks it was personal, fine, but it wasn’t from my standpoint.”

O’Donnell’s no-nonsense approach was the trait that made him enormously popular among players and gave him the appearance of impartiality, which is a requirement for any referee longing for respect.

O’Donnell offered his take on a few other referee-related subjects:

--The replacement refs: “That whole scene was terrible. They took them out of the CBA, and not only were they out of the CBA, some of them hadn’t worked pro ball in years. It was a disgrace, but they were going to prove a point to the regular referees.”

--His most memorable games: “That Atlanta-Boston seventh game in the Eastern Conference finals [in 1986], when Bird and Dominique [Wilkins] had their shootout. Another was when [Michael] Jordan scored his 63 points [in ‘86], and the seventh game of the Lakers-Pistons [in ‘88]. Plus those Philadelphia-Boston series in the ‘80s. They were always wonderful to work.”

--On Garretson, the league’s chief of officials, who had many differences of opinion with Strom and O’Donnell: “Darell Garretson is a very egotistical guy, who makes it seem like it’s not right if it’s not his way. He works hard and all, but I think some of it is just overdone. But he has to have control of the staff. There have been nothing but rifts since he took the job. He was my boss, but other than that, he had no control over me. I had a way to referee, and I wasn’t about to be a robot out there. I used my own signals.”

--On the quality of today’s refs: “The toughest thing is getting consistency from the staff. I don’t think you’ll see the Earl Stroms, the flamboyant types, anymore. You’ve seen the last of that breed. They want them all to look alike and use the same signals. Today, refs are in the background.”