Dick Bavetta retired last week after a 39-year career as an NBA referee. The longtime whistleblower did so in a relatively unspectacular fashion, considering his accomplishments, granting interviews to the league’s website and the Associated Press, hardly making a spectacle, and declining on turning the 2014-15 season into a year-long victory tour of sorts. A 40-year run would have been a tidy end to things, but Bavetta and his family decided that enough was enough.
Bavetta’s extended family includes the hundreds of players and coaches that he’s worked with since 1975, a staggering crew that moves from the pre-ABA merger to the dregs of the drug years to the booming 1980s, the Jordan-dominated 1990s, and all the various bits of dynasties that have followed in the years since the fin de siècle.
The combination of those last two realms would be typified by the 1998 NBA Finals, one that saw Michael Jordan on his last legs with the Chicago Bulls, working against a Utah Jazz team that seemed ready to establish a mini-dynasty of its own while using a group that included Jordan-aged superstars and younger contributors.
Down 3-2 in Game 6, the Jazz saw a Howard Eisley three-pointer waved off and a Ron Harper two-pointer waved in by Bavetta. In the days before instant replay, the in-the-moment calls held up, even though it was obvious from the Standard Definition outset that both weren’t the right call. Watch:
That’s a five point swing in a game that would end with a one point Bulls victory. Had Utah prevailed, it would have taken two in a row against Chicago and earned the right to play for the championship at home, where the Bulls would have lost four of six in two combined Finals’ if the Jazz would have taken Game 6. Game 7 would have been played with an aching and/or drugged up or even inactive Scottie Pippen, working through major back woes, as well.
Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, a former Bull coach and the first Bull to have his number retired as a player, still holds no ill will for Bavetta’s role in possibly denying him his only NBA championship ring. From Brad Rock at the Deseret News:
“I think everybody has a chance of missing calls; nobody bats a thousand in this league, in coaching as well. But I think his interest was in doing the best he could for the league and everyone involved,” Sloan said. “I never felt anything malicious about the calls. After the game was over and you see what’s going on, they do a pretty darn good job.”
“I think you’ve got to put it behind you and go about your business. To be so concerned about something like that — you have no control over it whatsoever — so you just have to hope your team gets the benefit of the doubt,” Sloan said.
That’s a pretty high-minded approach, as Sloan has more than earned the right to be a little cranky about those lost five points. In the modern NBA, official replay rules would have soon overruled those calls (though not after Jerry Sloan would have absolutely lost his mind on the needlessly-long review process on the most obvious of High Definition replays), and Michael Jordan would have had to dig deeper into his bag of tricks in order to pull out a win.
(People can bitch about this all they want, but Michael Jordan’s off arm – with his entire body and ball moving the opposite direction and with all the momentum going the other way, was not enough to push the 6-6 and 220 lb. Bryon Russell to the ground. Jordan had been turning the corner and going hard right on Russell all evening, rarely pulling back for the jumper that topped off his Chicago career, and Bryon got shook. Get over it.)
(But Russell fell dude and his hand was on him!)
(Get over it.)
(Jerry Sloan has.)
Enjoy your retirement, Dick Bavetta. Don’t be a stranger.
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