Behind the crucial calls NBA refs make on the biggest stage

Westbrook awarded timeout, avoids travel call (0:35)

In Game 1 of the 2016 WCF. Russell Westbrook appears to travel with 17.2 seconds remaining as he calls for a timeout and the timeout is granted. (0:35)

FOR TWO GLORIOUS hours on Thursday night, all is right in the basketball universe. From where Monty McCutchen is sitting in the raucous lower bowl of Oracle Arena, about 20 rows up from the floor during Game 1 of the NBA Finals, a multitude of spotlights bathe the court with a warm glow.

The NBA's new vice president and head of referee development and training, McCutchen observes the Game 1 crew move with precision from end to end. McCutchen, after a 25-year career as one the league's most highly regarded game officials, is pleased with what he's witnessing tonight. It isn't merely that the calls are decisive and clean -- with the world's top players even, at times, raising their hands in acknowledgment that they'd committed a foul -- it's how they're being made.

"It's not about the minutiae of the 100 percent accuracy," McCutchen says in the second quarter. "I'm looking at our positioning. Our mind is given away by our body. If we are in dependable positions, then we're adhering to our principles and this will lead to good work. Tonight, their bodies are showing that they're in control of their minds. And if we're in the right places, then I trust our judgment."

The crowd groans at a no-call when Steph Curry gratuitously tries to leap into Jordan Clarkson while hoisting a twisting, left-handed attempt from about 19 feet. But Clarkson deftly lands without moving forward before Curry throws the ball at the basket, maintaining legal guarding position. Curry protests by half-heartedly flinging his hand at nobody in particular, but even he doesn't seem entirely convinced he was cheated out of a couple of foul shots.

While he watches the action, McCutchen is on his personal device, logged into a Slack channel on which he discusses impressions of the referees' performance with a group that includes the league's new senior vice president and head of referee operations, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, and the league's five developmental advisers, all retired officials.

One row up and 10 seats over, Byron Spruell, the NBA's president of league operations -- and McCutchen's boss -- is similarly pleased as an exciting game with a razor-thin margin heads toward the midway point of the fourth quarter. Spruell, hired two summers ago, has presided over an initiative by the NBA to improve officiating.

"This is the quality product of intense competition being played out by great players on the court and adjudicated by excellent referees," Spruell would say the following morning. "That's what you're sitting there watching. In my mind, I'm thinking, 'We're getting another clean game.' And then what happened happened."

What happens is a chance event, one of the vagaries of the confrontational, fast-moving professional game played by otherworldly athletes and watched by tens of millions across the globe: Kevin Durant and LeBron James meet in the paint -- a collision between an unstoppable force and an immovable object.

"While it appears on tape, 'How could anyone not see that?' that's not how life works. We all have doubt in our work, even after it's done." Monty McCutchen, NBA vice president and head of referee development and training

With the Warriors trailing by two and only 40 seconds remaining in regulation, Durant beats Jeff Green off the dribble and makes his approach into the paint, where James meets him. Two whistles pierce the deafening roar of the crowd. One belongs to Tony Brothers, the trailing referee, who calls a blocking foul on James. But crew chief Kenny Mauer, situated just behind the baseline, motions a charge, and that's the initial call on the play.

Neither of the two officials, nor the third, Ed Malloy, is entirely certain whether James is fully outside the restricted area, which triggers a replay review. And after huddling around the replay monitor, the officials reverse the call -- a despondent James is assessed a blocking foul. What moments earlier appeared to be a 2-point lead and possession for Cleveland in the season's most important minute out of more than nearly 80,000 played since opening night becomes a tie game.

In an instant, the crisp, clean game spirals into turmoil. And seemingly every NBA fan online, on a couch, in a sports bar and glued to a device transforms into an amateur replay official, interpreting the granular legalese of the NBA rulebook, a digital campus of Talmudic basketball scholars.

THE 2017-18 NBA season has been one of transition for the league's officiating ranks. Once owners and the players' association cleared the hurdle of constructing a new collective bargaining agreement in December 2016, the NBA moved toward its next major undertaking: a 16-point plan to modernize the league's referee operation.

Over the course of 2017, the league would draw on everything from the use of analytics to the wide-ranging expertise of Johnson to remake its education and training processes. McCutchen, one of the league's most respected game officials, was hired to oversee referee development and training.

The timing and magnitude of the effort dovetailed with a period of souring relations between players and referees. Less than three weeks before McCutchen was brought on, LeBron James was ejected from a game for the first time in his career. Less than a week later, mild-mannered Warriors guard Shaun Livingston literally butted heads with 18-year veteran referee Courtney Kirkland after Livingston contested a no-call. McCutchen barely had a chance to order business cards in mid-January when Carmelo Anthony declared he was "done with the refs."

"The season started out chippy," says Spruell. "No question about it. Player-to-player interactions, player-to-referee interactions, coach-to-referee interactions. As we got to midseason, flagrants were ticking up a little bit."

Just before the start of the postseason, ESPN's Brian Windhorst enumerated the confluence of factors contributing to the icy conditions, from the retirement of some venerable officials to the disproportionate number of high-profile players involved in incidents that are now amplified 24 hours a day on every conceivable media platform.

"If there's an empathy toward all of our humanness, I think the league will be in a better place." Monty McCutchen

"When you have a public narrative, whether it's completely true or not, it's inconsequential to the fact that there's a kernel of truth to it," McCutchen says.

Officiating has long been a thorn in the side of the league, with even the most avid fans historically suspicious of NBA officiating. The very nature of basketball at the professional level presents a bevy of challenges. Now more than ever, the game travels at warp speed. Calls like traveling and the block/charge are inordinately difficult for human beings to make in real time, no matter how advanced and experienced the game official.

By and large, according to the league, NBA officials get the vast majority of calls correct. An independent website examining data from the controversial "Last Two Minutes Reports" determined that more than 92 percent of calls during that period are correct. Moreover, the league's data shows that referees in this year's playoffs, including Game 1 of the Finals, have an accuracy rate of 92.6 percent in the last two minutes and overtime when taking into account whistles and non-calls.

"NBA officiating," McCutchen says frequently, "is about excellence, not perfection."

SPRINTING DOWN THE sideline in Russell Westbrook's wake is one of the many challenges of a job fraught with many, but that was the task for McCutchen on this day -- with Westbrook racing down the floor, the Thunder leading the Warriors by three and 20 seconds remaining in Game 1 of the 2016 Western Conference finals.

McCutchen was acutely aware of the situation: Trailing, Golden State needed to foul to reclaim possession. Mindful of that, he focused his attention on the players' upper bodies, because that's often where the contact between defender and offensive player would occur.

Pressured by Klay Thompson, Westbrook tried to put on the breaks as he crossed midcourt. In doing so, Westbrook's right foot glided across the surface for a good 18 inches before he motioned for a timeout, which McCutchen granted. The Thunder would go on to win the game 108-102.

Moments later, McCutchen would return to the officials' locker room in the bowels of Oracle Arena -- the same sparse space appointed with an old leatherette couch, a monitor, a stationary bike and a sad deli platter where he would review the block/charge with Mauer and his crew a little less than two years later. But unlike the complicated sequence on Thursday night, McCutchen's error was cut and dry: He missed the call. And now, he'd have to write about it.

"First of all, you have to face the computer and type it in," McCutchen remembers. "You've got to own that. You can't run from it. Fifty million people just saw this. It's not like you're going to get away with it."

Like a schoolkid who must take to the chalkboard and scrawl his misdeed repeatedly across the length of the wall, NBA officials must immediately fill out a game report documenting such high-profile moments. In that report, McCutchen conveyed to his superiors that Westbrook should've been whistled for a travel, but that the sequence was not correctly seen in live action. He wrote that multiple replay views showed Westbrook's pivot foot was dragged significantly enough to be an illegal act. "I let my eyes get a little high for the foul, and [Westbrook] drags his pivot foot, significantly enough for it to be a travel," McCutchen would later say. "And I don't see it."

That report was then sent off to the league, which logs hundreds and thousands of calls but pays particularly close attention to the most crucial ones, like the one McCutchen missed. "Then you go back to the hotel and live with that," McCutchen says.

McCutchen adds that the key for any referee is resisting any urge to mope or play victim. Though their error will be replayed ad infinitum for the next 48 hours and they'll be roasted by millions of fans and every sports highlight and debate show, they have to take it.

"You live with your imperfection," McCutchen says. "For me, and I think for other referees, there's a knot in your stomach. There's a pit."

Players, coaches and, for that matter, virtually every person in public life is afforded the privilege to apologize for mistakes, defend their honor or offer consolation to those they've wronged -- the owners, the execs, the players and the coaches with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, the fans who live and die with their team. Yet referees are prohibited from saying anything, apart from a couple of boilerplate quotes to a pool reporter following the game before they go marinate in their blunder.

MOMENTS AFTER THE final buzzer of Game 1, an NBA security guard stationed outside the officials' locker room at Oracle Arena opens the door for McCutchen, Johnson and Spruell. After a brief discussion, the alternate referee on the crew, Tom Washington, fires up the replay monitor to review both the controversial block/charge play, as well as the altercation starring Tristan Thompson that occurred in the closing seconds of overtime.

They are here to crowd around a screen, the referees still drenched in sweat from their 2½-hour, high-intensity workout, to watch the anatomy of one of the most consequential seconds in recent NBA Finals history. Their colleagues in business wear -- to the extent the ever-dapper McCutchen's chalk-stripe suit, two-toned wingtips and cross-patterned bow tie and dress shirt can be called business wear -- stand behind them and observe the judges in their chambers, weighing the evidence, balancing their memories with this new visual information. This is not the Last Two Minute Report, which is completed back in New York by the league, but a learning session of sorts while the game is still fresh.

To many fans watching Game 1, a debate raged as to why the call was even reviewed in the first place. But to those in this room, around this screen, that question is moot; it wasn't the inconclusive nature of the collision between James and Durant that triggered the trip to the scorer's table to review the play on the replay monitor, but rather the crew's lack of certainty that James was fully outside the restricted area.

"That doubt comes when you see three bodies in the restricted area," McCutchen says. "While it appears on tape, 'How could anyone not see that?' that's not how life works. We all have doubt in our work, even after it's done."

With the benefit of countless slow-motion replays from multiple angles, broadcasters and fans had seen James clearly standing 2 feet outside the circle, but what Mauer and Brothers had seen in real time was a tangle of legs and feet. A major complicating factor was Cavs forward Jeff Green, who was Durant's primary defender on the play. The right toe of Green, the third player in the collision, had tickled the circle as James had fallen back into him.

Twenty feet and seven hundred pounds of bodies had crashed into each other at high speed. All the while, the three officials, several feet away, had to focus their eyes on Durant's upward shooting motion and the positioning of James' torso, as well as the location of his feet. The replay rule was instituted precisely because that to-do list is nearly impossible for a human being.

"You want to solidify that, yes, that was the exact process we want to follow to call this play correctly," McCutchen says.

Such a replay review is permitted inside of two minutes of the fourth quarter and the entirety of overtime. Once the uncertainty over the defender's proximity to the restricted area prompts the review, the officials are permitted to assess the accuracy of the block/charge call on the floor.

"I read that play just as well as I've read any play in my career, maybe in my life," James said. "I [had] seen the play happening. I knew I was outside the charge line, and I knew I took the hit."

Still, the replay appeared to show that James was adjusting his upper body as Durant planted his right foot and moved into his shooting motion. After the crew reviewed the play from 12 different angles, Mauer removed his headphones and motioned for the reversal and two foul shots for Durant and an opportunity for the Warriors to tie the game.

Over by the Cleveland bench, Brothers explained the call to an indignant scrum of Cavs, including James, George Hill, coach Tyronn Lue and assistant Jim Boylan. James winced, reinserted his mouthpiece, shook his head and marched down the court to return to the scene.

Back in the officials' locker room, following the game, the crew that had convened to review the call is relieved. The process, to them, had fulfilled its mission, and they're satisfied they got the game's biggest call correct. Still, there's a tension in the air, the collective knowledge that, try as they might, officials are powerless against the whims of the basketball deities.

"It can be easy for 47 minutes and 20 seconds," McCutchen says. "But our work is 48, or in this case 53."

Tensions high between NBA players and officials

With NBA stars complaining about referees and getting tossed from games, some players now say the refs are ruining the game.

THE MISSED TRAVEL call on Westbrook might have haunted McCutchen, but he also remembers his best moments, too. On the same court, just a few weeks later, McCutchen officiated what he regards as the finest game of his career -- the historic Game 7 in which Cleveland defeated Golden State for the Cavaliers' first championship.

"We were really good that night," McCutchen says of the 2016 Finals Game 7 crew that included longtime refs Danny Crawford and Mike Callahan. "There were four minutes with no scoring. From a referee standpoint, if you go four minutes with no scoring, your decisions become more highlighted, and you're acutely aware of that while it's happening. 'Be correct here. The game calls for your best here.'"

As is usually the case with an officiating performance -- particularly one that boasted enormous historical import, electrifying highlights, timeless performances that will be celebrated for ages -- nobody really cares that the crew nailed it except a few hundred family, friends and referee lifers. The indifference is logical. Municipalities don't receive praise when they pick up the trash, and who commends the surgeon for not botching a vasectomy?

Meanwhile, back in Oracle for Thursday's Game 1, McCutchen is in his seat, 20 rows up, alternating his attention between the three referees -- their movements, positioning, intensity -- briefing Johnson on specifics and the Slack chat. Though there's an air of supportive parent about him, he rejects that characterization. "I'm more of a detective."

As the game unfolds, McCutchen offers nuances essential to referee performance the layperson might not consider. When the shot clock ticks down on Durant as he's trying to carve out room in the corner, McCutchen notes that referees will turn their focus on the area between the elbow and hand, because the play will almost certainly conclude with a jump shot. And when a team like the Warriors races out of halftime on one of their patented, high-octane spurts, the officials must recognize, within a single possession, that dynamic.

"That's the difference between staying ahead of the game and playing catch-up the rest of the night," McCutchen says. "Often the timber and tone of the series is established by the environment set by the officials in Game 1."

In the mind of much of the public -- and even many of the league's local broadcast crews -- officials are necessary evils, agents of injustice who never stop screwing their favorite players. The Houston Rockets missed 27 consecutive 3-point attempts in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, but it's a no-call on Jordan Bell in the second quarter on a James Harden off-the-dribble 3 that doomed them. Both Hill and JR Smith had a chance to put the Cavs up decisively in the final seconds of Game 1, but as much emphasis for the loss was assigned to the officiating crew for a call they ultimately got right.

It's not just fans who erupt in the moment. Spruell, the league's head of operations, spends most nights during the season at his Manhattan apartment watching as much of the evening's slate of games as possible. The texts and phone calls often start by 8 p.m. ET. General managers who are certain their team was on the receiving end of an incorrect or errant no-call register their complaints.

Spruell, whose background is in client services with a major corporate consulting firm, is oddly unruffled by the exchanges, and even takes a certain satisfaction in allowing the notoriously profane and angry execs to air their grievances.

"I feel good about it because that's part of my role -- to resolve issues," Spruell says. "They know my balance. I'll take the call, and you can be emotional, but you're not going to m-----f--- me on the phone. Let's have a meaningful conversation. If you've got an issue, I'll get back to you."

How emotionally charged are the league's executives about officiating? Execs whose teams aren't even playing in a particular game will contact Spruell during the action if they view a call that offends their sensibilities.

Hysterics surrounding officiating predate the digital age, but the immediacy of the present day has created a hyper-charged world in which players, execs and any fan with a wireless signal can rewatch a missed call on loop, stew in their exasperation, text a friend who shares a belief that a specific referee is a lackey for the NBA, fuel that mutual ire ... then watch it again. In this respect, the NBA is more like the rest of the world than it is exceptional.

"When we have a lack of civility, then it's dogma," McCutchen says some 36 hours after the controversies of Game 1. "It's 'I'm right, and you're wrong.' And I think that what's happening with the internet culture is that we're much more interested in dogma than discourse. From my end, as long as I'm part of leading our group, I want there to be more discourse than dogma."

A FEW MONTHS ago, Johnson, the NBA's senior vice president and head of referee operations, swung by the offices of the Council of Foreign Relations, a think tank just around the corner from the NBA offices in midtown Manhattan, for a talk on higher education. Johnson, a member of the CFR, was sitting around the table, chatting about her new role at the NBA, which involves providing a fresh set of eyes to the operation.

Understanding geopolitics -- and universities -- as Johnson does, requires an intimate knowledge of the nature of authority. And Johnson explained to her cohorts at the table that, from the perspective of NBA players, referees very much embody authority. With that comes the natural tensions between authority and subject.

"I told the group that, in our society, we try to understand authority, whether it's about power or just upholding standards," Johnson says. "In some people's view, depending on their experiences, they might see it as about not just adjudicating something objectively, which is what referees strive to do, but people might see them as trying to wield authority. That's part of the national discussion that spills over into the arena."

This is a tension the league is eager to diffuse. In San Francisco the evening before Game 1, Johnson pulls out a placard featuring a color-coded rubric of what constitutes the essential skills for being a complete game official.

"This emphasis on accuracy had a lot of analytical thinking about playcalling, but not as much analytical thinking about those other skills that are measures of officiating," Johnson says, pointing out a relatively small area shaded green that represents just a fractional piece of the chart. "The majority of the conversation is about playcalling, but court judgment, communications skills and fitness are important things, too."

Johnson and McCutchen believe empathy and the ability to communicate will be among the most vital ingredients to cracking this code. Players, young men who in many cases are just entering the workforce, are under intense scrutiny. They drive the value of the league and hold themselves to exceedingly high professional standards, because their jobs depend on it -- not unlike officials.

"Understand that the NBA, at the highest level, is about pressure -- and it's about delivering under pressure," McCutchen says. "To have empathy in that regard, to have an understanding that other people also have difficult situations to deal with, to uphold their end of the bargain. If we can all have a sense of that and dial it back one notch and say, 'I get why a player who has been criticized in the press, I get why a coach in the middle of a losing streak in the middle of the season, I get why an official might possibly miss a call when they have 78 road games.' If there's an empathy toward all of our humanness, I think the league will be in a better place."

To McCutchen's point, Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard told ESPN's Chris Haynes in March that he felt the level of discord between players and officials was overstated. Lillard expressed a sentiment of empathy, the likes of which McCutchen and his team aspire to establish.

"Their job is so tough," Lillard said. "We see the stripes. We don't always look at them as men or as people. And I think that's part of the problem. The way we address them sometimes, I kinda gotta take a step back and put myself in their shoes."

AS MCCUTCHEN WALKS out of Oracle Arena on Thursday night, he encounters Livingston, an improbable actor in the aforementioned head-butt altercation with Kirkland this season. Livingston and McCutchen exchange pleasantries, but the conversation is restrained. Even though McCutchen has moved into a management role, he is still, at heart, an active referee, and officials are extremely careful about betraying any sort of favoritism that might come from a pleasant interaction.

Livingston tells McCutchen he wasn't aware the officiating crew is permitted to overturn the block/charge call. McCutchen explains the rule and says, with some self-deprecation, that he believes it was a call he missed in Portland some years ago that led to the reform. McCutchen can't remember the year because, well, that's what a quarter-century of officiating can do to a man.

Livingston's wife, Joanna Williams, walks ahead with their 1-year-old daughter.

"What's her name?" McCutchen asks.

"Tyler. Tyler Marie," Livingston says.

"It's nice to see families growing," McCutchen says.

Livingston says goodbye, then catches up to his kin and retreats into the vast asphalt expanse of the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum parking lot. Even on this night fraught with tension, legalese, histrionics and the irrational rage of a world determined to be angry about honest mistakes, McCutchen has found a measure of humanity, his small contribution to repairing the icy bridge between players and those who officiate the game.