The Other Side of the Tape

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

There's a long strip of yellow construction tape that cordons off sections 104 and 119 on opposite sides of the stands in Cox Pavilion at NBA Summer League. These are the VIP sections where team execs, player development people, scouts, and agents sit during games to assess the talent on the court.

On the other side of that tape in section 105, you'll find Joe Borgia, the NBA's vice president of referee operations, and Bernie Fryer, vice president and director of officials. Borgia and Fryer prefer to sit a little closer to halfcourt to do their evaluating, but their assignments aren't all that different than those of the guys sitting to their right. They're here to watch games, study the fine details, and figure out who on the court is NBA-ready -- only their subjects aren't wearing team jerseys, but the familiar grays of NBA officials.

In some sense, what Borgia and Fryer are doing is more important to you, the NBA fan. Whether Quincy Douby or Marcus Williams land on NBA rosters and earn significant minutes this upcoming season is relatively inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but the NBA's ability to find and develop good officials is essential to the health of the league.

Borgia and Fryer were gracious enough to allow me to sit with them for the first half of the Bucks-Bulls game on Wednesday afternoon as they broke down what they saw from the game crew.

Here's a quick intro from Borgia and Fryer:

Borgia and Fryer also have a couple of veteran officials sitting courtside, taking notes on the officials. These instructors chart specific plays to go over with the young officials in the video room later as teaching moments -- not much different than a player studying tape with a coach.

Today, the general route to the NBA for officials goes through the D-League and the WNBA. Summer League, as it is for the players, functions as a tryout for a spot on one of those rosters. Only a select few non-NBA officials -- 15 in all -- got invitations to Summer League, and a young official may go to Summer League for several years before getting the call to work the D-League, assuming he or she ever does.

Curtis Blair, who has one year of NBA experience as an official, is the crew chief for the Bucks-Bulls game. Not unlike NBA teams here in Vegas with their second-year players, league officials like younger refs with less experience to attend Summer League. "We want to see how he handles working a game with junior referees, and see if he can take charge of a game," Fryer said. "This gives him added experience as he progresses in his NBA career."

Joining Blair are Cathy Ridella, who has one year of D-League experience after a strong 2008 Summer League, and Josh Johnson, who has worked as a college official and impressed at a recent pre-draft camp in Los Angeles. "We saw some potential there," said Borgia of Johnson's performance at the camp.

  • When you listen to Borgia and Fryer speak, the parallels between player and referee evaluation are strikingly similar. Here was Borgia talking about Johnson: "He was just identified after working with the pre-draft players, so now we bring him here where the players are a little bigger, stronger, faster, quicker to see if he can officiate at this next level." Borgia could be talking about an undersized small-conference guard who hasn't yet played agasint the top competition, couldn't he?

  • The first thing Borgia and Fryer look for is general court presence. "You watch their presentation," Borgia said. "Referees are actors. If they're good, they're believable." When a ref calls a foul, Borgia studies how they sell the call. Are their signals clear and strong? Did the scorers table understand them? Did they demonstrate what kind of foul was it? Another element of court presence is physical. Are these officials in the kind of shape the pro game demands. "If you don't have the physical ability to run the break, then you can't get in position to make the right call," Borgia said.

  • There are three referee positions on the court: the lead, the slot, and the trail. The lead navigates the baseline. The trail generally mirrors the lead near the top of the circle. The slot is positioned near the free throw line extended on the opposite side from the trail. Positioning is the key to being a good official, and it's the feature Borgia and Fryer examine most closely on a given possession. "Players move, and when they do, all of a sudden that good open look you had is gone," Borgia said. "We look to see if that official quickly makes an position adjustment to keep an open look so they can make a call if needed. It's like players. You have a set offense that you run. If you don't run it right, things fall apart."

  • Watching a game with your attention solely on the referees is really difficult if you come to the game with a fan's -- or even an analyst's -- background. Learning how to follow both players and officals simultaneously was dizzying to the point of impossible. If you had asked me in the second quarter who was having a good game for either Chicago or Milwaukee -- or even who was winning -- I couldn't have been able to tell you, even though I hadn't taken my eyes off the court!

  • For officials, it's also a challenge. Each of the three positions mentioned above -- the lead, the slot, and the trail -- have a "primary area" on the court that they're responsible for at a given time. If you're the slot and the ball is on the far side of the court, there might be two players fighting for position in your vicinity. It's your job to monitor that, to make sure there's no off-the-ball foul. But just as it was for me, it's natural for a young ref to follow the ball instead of focusing on that area. "As soon as the ball is passed out of their primary area to the weak side, they'll have a bad habit of following the ball with their eyes -- like fans do -- instead of going to the weak side rebounder, or to a matchup in the post that's actively being guarded," Fryer said. "If you follow the ball, you'll miss off-the-ball stuff, and that's a common mistake by new referees." Borgia and Fryer call this error "ballwatching."

  • According to Fryer, quick reaction to a play is another skill young officials have to develop. "Things happen so quickly, especially in the paint," Fryer said. "By the time they recognize it, it's passed and we're already into the next play. So we get a lot of non-calls, because they're just a play behind. That comes with experience."

  • There's a play in the second quarter that caught Borgia and Fryer's attention when Taj Gibson fouled Amir Johnson on a rebound in the lane. The paint is the domain of all three officials, and on this possession Ridella whistled Gibson for the foul, while Johnson did not, even though he was closer to the play. Did Johnson not see the foul? Or was it merely a case that once Ridella made the call, that Johnson didn't think it was necessary to blow his whistle? It's not a big thing, but something Borgia noted to ask Joh
    nson about after the game. There's another play just before halftime when Blair "guesses wrong" as the lead on a play that originates at the middle of the court. Anticipating that the dribbler is going left, Blair slides along the baseline that way -- only the ball ends up on the right side of the floor. "It's no different than a player," Borgia said. "Sometimes you get fooled." Ultimately, nothing materialized on the play, so Blair's position was a non-factor. Similar to a player, there are sins of commission commited by a younger official that are natural and, to some degree, excusable. Generally, the game benefits from officials who have an intuitive sense of where a play is going to go. That Blair guessed wrong wasn't a catastrophe -- and it's also one of the reasons there are three officials.

After Summer League, Borgia and Fryer will review the performances of all 15 official candidates and determine which are ready to take the next step -- maybe to the D-League or the WNBA. The others will return to college ball, where they'll continue to be monitored by Borgia, Fryer, and their staff. If they're fortunate, their phones will ring again next spring.