The right woman for the job
Seventeen-year NBA veteran referee Violet Palmer is not the most obvious nomination for someone to be thankful for in sports this Thanksgiving. But her continued presence as the league's only female referee underscores how sometimes the best social experiments are the ones that quickly cease being seen as such.
What gets exposed is how wrongheaded the logic or prejudices that were in play were in the first place. Palmer's gender was supposedly going to be a shock to sports establishment's system when she and Dee Kantner became the NBA's first female referees in 1997.
Laughing, Palmer said, "Oh yes, we heard it all."
But Palmer has found a way to keep vaulting lightly over the cynicism. Kanter left the NBA after five years, in 2002, but Palmer has lasted long enough to finally see more female officials coming up in the pipeline behind her, thanks in part to how well she has paved the way.
"Two more women have already been working two or three NBA games a month this season as on-the-job training that will go through January," Palmer said of Brenda Pantajo and Lauren Holtkamp. "And I'm not sure anyone even noticed much. Which is great."
Going unnoticed might seem like a small thing to be happy about. But for Palmer, making the remarkable seem unremarkable is a definite point of pride. She never lingered much on how she's a pioneer until, say, she walked into a post office one day and saw a picture of herself among other African-American heroes on a Black History Month poster. If you ask Palmer how she's accomplished all she has, no platitudes or false humility comes spilling from her mouth. She said recently, "I didn't just kick the door -- I knocked it down." She's also performed well enough during the regular season since 2006 to be selected as a playoff referee, another first for women in any major American pro sport.
While some people say "luck" helped them get to where they are, still others -- especially groundbreakers such as Palmer -- get someplace special because they're not willing to trust that luck has anything to do with it. They work. They grind. They study and sweat. They listen and learn, chasing excellence and virtuosity for the sake of it, perhaps not even imagining where it might lead. But when a window of opportunity presents itself, they are perfectly prepared to nail it.
Rod Thorn, as the NBA's executive vice president of operations, made the final decision to hire Palmer. Thorn said that. in her case, it was the seriousness of purpose she exudes and the officiating skills that made Palmer stand out on film as the league was quietly tracking her pre-NBA work month after month.
"She handles herself in the right way, she's bright and, after a lot of observation of her work and conversations with her, it just became clear that she was put together the right way to be a pioneer," Thorn said. "Because that's what she and Dee were."
But Palmer didn't know the NBA was observing her. The league has only 62 active referees. She had no idea they were planning to pluck her out of the crowded, often competitively cut-throat pool for a tryout until she got a surprise call one day. "I thought it was a prank," she admitted with a laugh, thinking back to the phone call she took from Aaron Wade, who handled officials in the Continental Basketball Association and assisted then-NBA director of officiating Darrell Garretson.
"I mean, really, how many people in the NBA are going to call you and suggest, 'Hey, you want a job?' I thought it was comical, that maybe one of my friends [was] playing a joke on me. But then Mr. Wade explained the NBA was interested in putting women in its developmental program. I thought at the very least it would be interesting."
This was 1995, and Palmer said she never aspired to work in the NBA, because it seemed "unrealistic." She'd won two NCAA Division II titles as a college point guard for Cal-Poly Pomona, in '85 and '86, before working her way up the officiating ladder. She had a good life. As she once told USA Today, "I was the No. 3 referee in the world for women's basketball. I had everything: The Final Four. Big TV games. All the limelight I wanted.
"But my personality is if you give me a challenge, I'm going to take it. In the back of my mind, I said, 'It doesn't cost me anything. I can just try it. If nothing happens, the training will be good.'"
But Palmer raised her sights almost immediately the first time she walked on the floor to work an NBA summer league game at Long Beach State in '95.
"I thought, 'I don't know what their [the NBA's] intention is, but I am going to referee in the NBA,'" she said recently. "I knew right then. It was just everything about it: the level of play; me being as competitive as I was. And I just knew, I just knew I would be able to do this."
Others weren't so sure.
There was some silly fretting that a woman might not be able to handle the bad language or foot-stomping antics of NBA players and coaches.
"I'm from Compton," Palmer dryly responded. "I've heard worse in the streets."
There were complaints female NBA refs wouldn't be physically tough enough to handle the rigors of the job. It was a canard the 5-foot-8 Palmer disproved when she was tripped up during a 2009 game and fell and tore her rotator cuff in the third quarter but finished the game anyway "with just one arm." Days later, she underwent season-ending surgery.
There were the predictable sexist insults, too, such as the time Celtics broadcaster Cedric "Cornbread" Maxwell, a former player, disagreed with a call and said on the air that Palmer should get "back in the kitchen" and later added "cook him some bacon and eggs."
There was also a lot of talk about how a woman wouldn't be able to break up on-court fights -- a complaint that should make any NBA observer with a nickel's worth of sense want to shout: "Have you, um ... seen Dick Bavetta?"
"Ha!" Thorn said with a laugh. "Good point. That's a very good point."
Bavetta is the 73-year-old NBA ref whom everyone loves to love for his longevity, unprepossessing 6-foot, 156-pound build and unwavering good humor. (Six years ago, he was challenged to a hysterical, 3½-lengths-of-the-court footrace by a pre-Weight Watchers version of 44-year-old Charles Barkley -- and only narrowly lost after diving headfirst for the finish line at midcourt.)
When asked if she sees herself staying in the league long enough for her and Bavetta to work the NBA Finals in 2028, Palmer joked, "Dick might work them. But I won't still be around.
"I am 47 and I do feel aches now and then. As a woman, there are a few things different for me and changes physically."
Whenever Palmer does go off into retirement, she said it will be contentedly.
Palmer joked that her toughest remaining critic now might be her own mom, who is a die-hard Lakers fan and tries to watch all of Palmer's games along with her father, James, using the NBA League Pass TV package Violet bought them.
"She's a true fan, she understands the game very well, and she is a hoot," Palmer said with a laugh. "She'll call me in a heartbeat and say, 'Whoo, that game last night -- I love you to death, but you sure did treat my Lakers bad! You were bad. You were not just not that good.' Or she'll say, 'I hope you guys are looking at the film because -- whoo! -- I think y'all missed it!'"
Palmer laughed more. She knows she can hardly T her mom.
"I just say, 'Yeah, mom. I looked at it. I saw the play. Yes, yes. Yes.
"I know you got my back. And I'm thankful for that."
But that's not all Palmer appreciates every night she walks on court.
"The travel gets lonely at times," she admitted, "But I absolutely love what I do. Some of my best friends in the world are the other NBA refs. And I feel I've earned the respect of the players.
"One of the things I'm proudest of is the woman thing still exists, but it doesn't matter. They know when I'm out there officiating, I'm on it. I can do the work."