Fans always want to know what goes through a player’s mind in a big moment, and we’re always curious to know the Xs-and-Os lifestyle of a coach. But what is like to be a referee, and what are they focusing on during a game?
That question was answered for season ticket holders Tuesday night at American Airlines Center, when Don Vaden, director of officials for the NBA, gave a “Chalk Talk” to Hall of Fame season ticket holders. He opened by crediting Mavs proprietor Mark Cuban for lobbying for a concrete grading system for officials, and part of Vaden’s job is to oversee that process. Now, every call a referee makes can be reviewed in real-time and after the fact to determine if it was either correct or incorrect. Instant replay certainly helps in that way.
“It’s one thing to get it right on the floor,” Vaden said, “and another when you can go in slow motion and watch it frame by frame, and go ‘ah, there it is!'”
Vaden, who’s been a member of the referee operations staff for more than a decade and officiated games for 15 seasons, showed the same video he reviews with every team during training camp and the preseason, which highlights the main areas of focus for the officials during the upcoming season. For 2015-16, officials are focusing on illegal screens, defensive verticality, and identifying when continuation begins when a player is fouled driving to the basket.
The eye-opening video literally highlighted players during different sequences either making a legal play or committing a foul. Sometimes in real time, it appears as if a player made a clean play, but when watching a play from a different angle, slowing it down, or simply by taking a closer look at the rule, it becomes obvious that he committed an infraction. There were numerous examples, and many were hilarious. Many NBA players tend to believe they never foul anyone, but in many situations they were caught red-handed. More than 100 season ticket holders turned out to the event, and many were in stitches at some of the plays, much to Vaden’s delight.
“We never get cheered,” he joked. “It’s OK to boo.”
Before launching a Q&A session, he also gave the scoop on some of the finer points of officiating. You’ll rarely see the same group of officials in one arena more than once per month, as the league wants to keep a steady rotation going. He identified the differences between the lead, trail, and slot officials — the latter two terms aren’t ones you hear very often. Vaden said referees get up for big games, too, such as last weekend’s West Coast showdown between Golden State and Oklahoma City. He said the key for those officials is obviously managing that game well, but also maintaining that same level of focus in their next game, no matter the arena and no matter the stakes of the game.
Finally, referees can be competitive, as well. Vaden referenced Joey Crawford, a longtime NBA referee who’s retiring at the end of the season. Crawford has a reputation as being a very intense official, but Vaden said — just as it’s the case with players — officials don’t always act off the floor the way they do on it.
“He’s had his moments because he’s as competitive as the players,” Vaden said of Crawford. “But off the floor, there is no nicer gentleman.”
The next time you’re watching a Mavs game and there’s an official review, or maybe the referees have a quick conference to determine if the call should be a block or charge, just take a moment to consider everything that goes into managing a game. There are an awful lot of moving parts, and with only three sets of watching eyes, sometimes it takes a quick chat to get on the same page. That’s a perspective fans aren’t normally encouraged to adopt, but, as Vaden illustrated, it can be essential to developing a more intimate understanding of the game we love.