The art of talking to refs: How NBA players build relationships with officials
As a 19-year-old rookie with the Philadelphia 76ers, Thaddeus Young complained about every foul call. Even if the referees didn’t bother listening to him, he would keep going in hopes of getting their attention.
In a game against the San Antonio Spurs, Young again tried to start a conversation with a ref about a foul call he disagreed with.
“Hey, yo,” Young yelled.
Tim Duncan, standing next to him at the foul line, shook his head.
“Young fella,” Duncan told him, “they’ll respect you more if you learn their names. Do that, and you might even get a few calls.”
The exchange was the best advice Young ever received. He started greeting referees during pregame warmups, making small talk, joking around and even asking about their summer vacations. He also started addressing each referee by their name whenever he wanted to talk to them during a game. They started to hear him out more.
Earlier this season, Atlanta’s DeAndre Bembry saw rookie teammate Trae Young doing a similar thing. He was calling out referees by their jersey numbers instead of learning their names.
“I was like, chill, chill, chill, rook,” Bembry said. “Don’t ever do that.”
Clippers vet Garrett Temple was still yelling at refs without knowing any of their names in his third season. During one game, Temple wouldn’t stop shouting at the officiating crew from the bench. Finally, Monty McCutchen, the now retired referee, turned to him.
“Garrett,” McCutchen said. “I know your name. Now learn mine.”
Players and refs talk to each other throughout a game and these exchanges are often contentious. A player is upset about a call that was a made, or a call that wasn’t — these moments are more than just flashpoints of frustration. For some players it’s an opportunity to start a dialogue with the ref, understand their point of view and engage in a cordial back and forth.
Calling someone by their name is one of the basic principles of communicating with another human being, but figuring out how to approach and talk to referees during a game is an art and there’s a learning curve to the art form.
There are many factors that prevent these conversations from occurring at all. One of them is body language.
Whether it’s a look of disbelief, arms flailing in shock, an extended stare of disappointment, or all of the above, players have myriad ways to express their disagreement with a referee’s call. The way in which they approach the official with their elaborate display of displeasure often dictates a player’s reputation and closes off any opportunities of a useful conversation.
“If a ref feels intimidated, he’s going to be defensive and tell you to go away,” said Mark Rhodes, the author of How To Talk To Absolutely Anyone: Confident Communication in Every Situation.
Temple saw this up close in Sacramento when he played with DeMarcus Cousins, who is among the league leaders in technical fouls every season.
“If you’re watching on television, you might think he’s saying some crazy stuff,” Temple said. “But a lot of times DeMarcus [would] be saying the exact same thing as me [to the referees]. His facial expression would get him a technical foul.”
Other players take a friendlier approach and have figured out another way to build rapport with the refs by joking around and lightening up the mood.
Memphis guard C.J. Miles has been in the league long enough that he’s developed his own routine of starting a conversation with a ref. “I always tell them, ‘You know I’ve never lied to you before,’” Miles said. “And they’re like, ‘You know what. You’re right.’”
Young has mastered the art of letting refs know about their mistakes in the most cordial way possible. “I’ll say, ‘I’m sorry, that was a bad call,’” Young said, “‘but I understand you’re not perfect.’”
Even in jest, players can sometimes still cross the line.
In 2016, the Kings blew a fourth-quarter lead in Miami and lost in overtime. In a game where Cousins was whistled for six fouls in the fourth quarter, Temple felt like Sacramento got the short end of the stick. So when he walked off the court in frustration, Temple told one of the refs he would be reporting him to a hotline set up by the Players Association for officiating complaints.
It created a rift that Temple had to repair. “I saw him later in the season,” Temple said. “I went up to him and told him I didn’t report him just to lighten the mood.”
How a player approaches a referee also depends on their personality. Players can be stubborn, and in different ways.
“I don’t want to be all buddy-buddy with them,” said fourth-year Grizzlies guard Delon Wright. “And then I’m yelling at them. I’d rather just keep my distance. I don’t want to have this fake relationship with them where we have to go back and forth.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum is his new teammate Mike Conley, who has always taken an interest in talking to refs during a game in order to understand why specific foul calls were made.
“I ask questions,” Conley said. “I’ll ask, ‘What should I have done better?’ And then I’ll tell them, ‘Here’s what I thought about the call.’”
Conley has never been assessed a technical foul in his 12 years in the NBA. Refs regularly seek him out before games to let the Grizzlies point guard know how much they appreciate his respectful approach.
Because of the relationships he’s built with refs over the years, the officials are open to hearing Conley’s points, even admitting when they’re wrong. “They believe me [when I tell them they missed something] because I’ve been straight up with them since day one,” Conley said.
Even though he appears to be setting the standard for player-ref communications, the respect Conley has earned from the refs hasn’t necessarily translated to a more favorable whistle for himself.
This was apparent during the 2017 playoffs, when after a Game 2 loss to the Spurs in the first round, head coach David Fizdale took issue with Kawhi Leonard attempting more free throws than the entire Grizzlies team. “We don’t get the respect that these guys deserve because Mike Conley doesn’t go crazy,” Fizdale said. “He has class and he just plays the game.”
Throughout his career, teammates and coaches have encouraged Conley to be more demonstrative. Show up a ref, they told him. Take a technical foul. It’ll get you a few more calls. Conley has remained steadfast in his own approach which, in a way, makes him more stubborn than someone like Wright who simply refuses to talk to refs.
“I just want to do it my way,” Conley said. “I don’t want to be like everyone else and flop everywhere and get technical fouls just to get calls. I was raised to be respectful. I’m not going to change that for a game.”
While a player’s approach can change the in-game dynamic with an official, it also takes a referee amenable to having those exchanges during a game to make them worth having. It isn’t always the case. “Just like players, sometimes the referees can be sensitive,” Bembry said. “They can be a little standoffish when they’re in their mood.”
Some players around the league believe younger refs are more likely to call a technical foul for any signs of demonstrative behavior, which often means a player and a ref will get off on the wrong foot, hindering the chances of communication.
The NBA rulebook states that technical fouls can be assessed for disrespecting an official, overt actions indicating resentment to a call or no-call and the use of profanity. It leaves a lot of room for officials to interpret the rules and draw the line as they see fit.
No one understands both sides of the player-ref discussion better than Haywoode Workman. A second-round pick in the 1989 draft, Workman played eight seasons in the NBA before becoming a referee. He’s spent 10 seasons on the job.
Because of his playing experience, Workman brings a different perspective to his role and acts as a mentor to rookie players around the league. “I just let them know they can talk to me,” Workman said. “I’ve been in their shoes.”
Over time, he’s discovered only certain players care to build cordial relationships with refs during a game. “If I try to talk to you and you dismiss me, then we don’t talk anymore,” Workman said. “I move on and we just keep it business-like.”
Workman views the in-game conversations as an opportunity to educate players about the rulebook. “There are certain things you can do at the playground that you can’t do in a real game,” Workman said.
This season, a common complaint from players has been the lack of calls on plays where they’ve tried to draw contact from a defender on offense. Many of these players have used James Harden as an example. Harden leads the league in free throw attempts per game, with many of them coming thanks to his skill in drawing an assortment of fouls.
Players like to complain about the “superstar call,” but in this case, Workman offers a different perspective. “Some players are trying to do what [James] does,” Workman said. “But they haven’t perfected it.”
The players have a different perspective. Toronto’s Danny Green knows he won’t get the same calls as superstars in the league, but will get frustrated if there isn’t any consistency within a game.
“A guy like me won’t get a foul call like James Harden,” Green said. “But I think a lot of the complaints is that there isn’t a lot of consistency from night to night or from play to play. Nothing against Joe Harris, but if Joe Harris gets a call, and I come down and get hit the same way, and they just look at me [and not call a foul], I’m just like ‘If you’re not calling it both sides, then let it go and let us both play.’”
Workman has one piece of advice for players: pick your spots and don’t be the guy who complains about every single foul call. “So if you come at me,” Workman explained. “I know that something has really happened.”
Officiating an NBA game can be difficult, and a lot of times human error is mistaken for incompetence. Some players understand the difficulty of the job. “They’re going to make mistakes,” Conley added. “You can’t always kill them for it.”
“They travel more than we do,” Young said. “They do back-to-backs. They’re tired just like we’re tired. Just trying to have a respect level for them.”
Players around the league understand the importance of a respectful approach with referees. “I’m more inclined to listen to somebody if they’re level-headed,” Miles said. “Acting out of anger never gets you anywhere with anything. I approach them the way I want to be approached. You put out the same energy you get back.”
But saying the right things is a lot easier than doing them, especially in the heat of the moment of a competitive game.
In early January, before the Phoenix Suns played the Toronto Raptors, Josh Jackson sat at his locker and shook his head about the nine technical fouls he received in his rookie season, which tied him for 14th in the league. “I said whatever I wanted to say to the refs,” Jackson said.
Players are fined $2,000 for each of their first five technicals, and then amounts increasing incrementally for each subsequent technical. Halfway through last season, Jackson started to feel the effects of those fines.
“I started seeing how much money I was losing, and was like, oh shit, you better chill out bro,” Jackson said, laughing.
In his second season, referees have noticed a change in his approach. “They’ve told me how much they appreciate the improvement in my attitude,” Jackson said. “They know I’m trying. Even when I complain now, they will tell me I was a lot worse last year.”
Hours later, in the fourth quarter of the game, Jackson delivered a two-handed shove to Toronto’s Chris Boucher as he was in mid-air attempting a dunk. After receiving a flagrant foul, Jackson got his second technical foul of the night and was ejected for berating an official.
As teammates and members of the coaching staff tried to coax him to leave the court, Jackson had to be held back as he continued screaming at the officiating crew before finally going to the locker room.
“When guys get locked in,” Workman said, “the conversations can go awry.”
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