A Tribute to the Longest-Tenured NBA Official

Inspirational stories about Dick Bavetta – 40 years in the league

Being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame is arguably one of the greatest achievements anyone can accomplish after long-time involvement in the game we love. Ordinarily, this honor is reserved for players and coaches, but Dick Bavetta’s officiating career was anything but ordinary. As a crowning moment of his 4-decade long work, he joined an elite group of the NBA’s finest officials after his selection to the Hall of Fame in 2015.

Officiating for 39 years in the NBA and finally putting his whistle down at the respectable age of 74 (!), he holds the record for most games officiated in any of the 4 major leagues, running up and down the court at an astonishing 2,635 NBA games, including 270 playoff and 27 finals match-ups, never missing an assignment.

A flashback on his career is the perfect way to see how he handled critical situations at crowded arenas, and also to learn and discuss how he earned the respect of the world’s best basketball players and coaches, resulting in some of them even calling him the greatest basketball referee ever.


Firm but approachable

Present day Miami Heat players and fellow professionals remember him as man who had the discipline and focus just like a true NBA player and who had an encyclopedic knowledge of the rules book. Emphasizing his ability to know how to talk with players and coaches, they all praised his demeanor and the way he handled things. He was tough with his decisions but he let you feel that you could get your point across. It is said that he was always consistent and was never affected by the score or at which stage the game was, bringing a fair atmosphere to the game. He was a man who you could trust, and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra even said that Dick’s his personality expanded past the game.

Is it beneficial to talk with players as a referee?

As a younger referee, Dick was always discouraged from discussing plays with players. Early in his career, this was considered a sign of weakness as most older officials advised him to just make the calls and to not talk as the ref simply has no need to explain his calls, but Bavetta said this is not his style, claiming:

I believe in talking to people and explaining them why we called something.

When he asked players and coaches on how he could further improve, the thing that kept coming back was that “We find you very approachable. We can talk to you and that’s very important to us.’ That’s what I tried to carry throughout my career.” Even more oddly, Dick advises referees to sometimes even admit their mistakes, as he believes it leads to a higher acceptance and credibility.

“I knew there was no way I was going to referee a game without missing calls. But I had no problem during a timeout or after looking at plays at halftime in going over to somebody and saying, ‘I owe you an apology.’”

By being approachable, there’s a comfort level that’s established when people say, “I know if there’s a question about a play, I can come over to you and get an honest response.”

According to the FIBA referee’s mechanics manual, “officials have to make instantaneous decisions. Inevitably any decision that is taken quickly will, at times, lack rationality and occasionally may even be wrong.”  Dick Bavetta argues together with late official Earl Strom (who is also a Hall of Famer) that officials should try to get each play right and that it is not a problem if a human being shows his vulnerability in admitting his errors at times, rather than trying to sell and stubbornly hold to bad calls.

The NBA rule states that players are allowed to react to calls with which they disagree, provided that it is not overly demonstrative, prolonged or profane. Veteran NBA official Monty McCutchen (who worked the 2013 finals game 7) added that top referees are more than happy to explain calls if they are approached in the right way.[1] Bavetta also has his piece of advice on this: “on the court, never speak to a player, a coach, team personnel, a fan, in a manner in which you would not allow them to speak to you”.[2]

Reaching the top

Staying healthy for such a long age is a respectable feat on its own, however, in terms of basketball officiating, he took his responsibilities to the extreme, running 8–13 kilometers a day, and once even officiating an NBA game with a broken nose after he had been accidentally hit 2 days earlier. However, becoming an NBA ref did not always seem to be the case for Bavetta.

His early passion for the game included sneaking out from his work as a Wall Street stock broker just to officiate high school games that took place work time. Before finally getting to the NBA in 1975, he spent 9 years trying to get to there, having repeatedly been rejected for his “childish” and “weak” appearance. As a response, Dick trained harder, adding biking, kayaking and working out to his training repertoire, alongside with mastering the rules of the game.

With regards to this story, Dick has a message for all:

You have to prove people wrong by proving them you’re good at this. Don’t complain, work hard and good things will happen.

Game control when the odds are against you

9 years into the league, in November 1984, at a time when there were only 2 officials at a game, Dick, still a relatively young referee, was forced to officiate the second half of the Philadelphia–Boston game alone after his veteran partner broke his leg. Inventing the special “one-person mechanics”, Bavetta rushed up and down the floor to both baselines provided he had the time.

To take control, he stopped the game and called both coaches together, telling them “listen: I’m by myself. I’m going to work for 2 men. I’m going to work as hard as one person can possibly work, but this is only going to be successful if I have your cooperation.” For sure, both coaches assured Dick with their assistance, yet, 4 technical fouls later, Philadelphia coach Billy Cunningham was in the air, jumping and arguing about calls. Dick went to cool him down in a strict manner, saying: “if you do that one more time, I’m gonna throw you.” to which the coach replied mockingly, “you don’t have the guts”. Sure, he was disqualified from the game with his second technical, but when Dick went to the scorer’s table to report, it turned out that the coach only had one technical as Dick erroneously thought that the other official had already called another on him, so he sent somebody to Cunningham’s locker room to note him that he can still stay in the game, which he did.

Still in that game, Philly’s and Boston’s two superstars at that time, Julius Erving and Larry Bird, respectably, faced off in a serious match-up, but in the 4th quarter emotions took over as the two of them started to fight and strangle each other, resulting in Dick ejecting both of them.

After the game, the critics were surprisingly positive, saying that his courage to throw out 2 superstars under these circumstances said a lot about him.

Sure enough, Dick officiated his first playoff game two years later.

Restoring order by making the right decision

During a 2006 game between the Denver Nuggets and the New York Knicks, officiated by Dick Bavetta and two rookie referees, including Violet Palmer, the first female official to make it to league, a violent fight broke out between the players late in the game. Punches came and went, players came off the benches, the security got involved and when they finally managed to pacify the sides, the two young officials approached crew chief Bavetta by asking: “Uncle Dick, what do we do now?”

As the fight got so messy that Dick himself couldn’t quite figure out who the trouble makers were and who the peace makers were,

he didn’t risk to leave a problem in the game.

Dick said: “We’re going throw all 10 on the court”. As the two colleagues stared at him in disbelief, Bavetta moved on to explain: “I can’t figure out who’s the problem, and why risk leaving a problem in the game. The best is to eject all ten.” This is the only way they could make sure that the guilty guys were gone. Dick even informed personally both coaches about his decision and neither of them had a problem with it. During the aftermath of the game, the NBA office asked Bavetta whether this decision was too extreme, but he had the response: “Were there any further problems? No. Any misapplication of a rule? No. Any feedback from either of the teams? No.” After this smart explanation, I can’t argue with Dick’s decision, either. [3]

A legacy for all

Dick Bavetta’s personality, longevity and knowledge of the game is extraordinary. He wanted to represent officials in a way he hoped everybody did. In 1992, he became the first NBA official to referee at the Olympics and was even assigned to officiate the bronze medal match (as he was ineligible for the gold medal match in which the Dream Team played). After nearly four decades in the world’s top basketball league, he says the cultural change is huge, and that these days the players are younger and more energized. Bavetta saw court side the finest days of Michael Jordan, recalling him a player “who was always able to come up with something new”. Not only did he bring his rule knowledge to game days, but also an understanding to the game. Long-time NBA official Dan Crawford, who was the crew chief at the 2013 finals game 7 and was also named referee of this year’s all-star game, looked back on Bavetta’s legacy by saying “We will never, ever see another Dick Bavetta-type in the NBA again.” [4]


About David

David Szots is an aspiring young basketball official who is passionate about studying the world’s top referees and is looking for quality content all over the web to help others and share information


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