Next week, the 75-year-old Dick Bavetta will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame primarily because of his remarkable, and admirable, longevity. During his 39 years as an NBA referee, Bavetta never missed a game, working a total of 2,635 contests.
Bavetta was also widely celebrated as being a fun-loving, personality-plus showman. Bantering with team mascots. Chatting with courtside fans during time outs. Doing a sideways bunny-hop with his hands on his hip to indicate a blocking foul.
Yet it could hardly be a surprise that over the course of his long career, Bavetta would attract a considerable number of critics. Like one ex-NBA player who archly sniffs that Bavetta was “a great entertainer.”
And at least one of Bavetta’s severest critics was a fellow ref — Earl Strom. The two were officiating a Philadelphia-New Jersey game in the late ’70s, when Storm whistled one of the hometown Nets for a foul in the closing seconds of a close game — a call that would’ve won the game for the 76ers. But Bavetta, who was 30 feet removed from the action, came running and jumping over to Strom, shouting, “No, no, no! I got a push-off against McGinnis!”
Storm was aghast. “Are you overruling my call?”
“I got a push off right here,” Bavetta insisted, and the Nets wound up winning the game.
Afterwards, the players were walking toward their locker rooms when the door to the refs’ locker room came flying open and Bavetta came staggering out. His shirt was torn and there was a big knot over one of his eyes. Then Strom stepped out into the runway and shouted at the quickly retreating Bavetta, “You’ll take another one of my ******* calls again, right, ****************?”
In 1989, Bavetta had another altercation with Strom, who took exception to his partner’s over-the-top bias against the visiting team. During halftime of the game, Storm vented his anger by trying to choke his partner.
However, lest Strom be dismissed as an aberrant hothead, there were several other refs who weren’t particularly fond of Bavetta.
At the time, I happened to be coaching the Rockford Lightning in the Continental Basketball Association. As part of their training, many of the young refs who worked CBA games were also officiating NBA games on a trial basis. Anyway, we were playing a game in Osh Kosh, Wisconsin, when during a timeout one of the refs was called over to the scorer’s table where he began an earnest conversation with the home team’s radio guy that left them both laughing. The ref then approached me to say that one NBA ref had tried to choke another NBA ref. “I sure hope,” the ref said to me, “that the guy who got choked was Dick Bavetta.”
Even worse, Bavetta has been accused by several parties of manipulating playoff games to appease the TV networks by either extending a series or by ensuring that a large market team advanced. Neither Bavetta nor the NBA has ever addressed this issue.
On June 14, 1998, Bavetta did something that astounded NBA insiders: It took place in Salt Lake City during the sixth game of the championship series with Chicago up three games to two. There was no access to instant replay then, but a subsequent game tape revealed that Bavetta had made a pair of atrocious calls — waving off a three-point and then a two-point field goal by the Jazz, erroneously claiming that both shots had been released after the shot clock had expired.
The five points Bavetta had taken off the scoreboard significantly helped the Bulls to squeeze out a one-point victory and win the championship.
What astonished several ex-NBA players and coaches was that, contrary to his calls during that game, they all agreed with Earl Strom that Bavetta was a chronic homer. “I couldn’t believe he shafted the Jazz in Utah,” said one player. “I mean, I used to kick and curse whenever I saw that Bavetta was working one of our road games.”
During my nine-year stint in the CBA, I had only one personal contact with Bavetta: At a preseason meeting of CBA coaches, Bavetta was on hand to go over some new rules and new interpretations of some old rules. When he was finished, he asked for questions.
It seemed that several of my players had been complaining for years about some of the CBA refs’ after-game activities. Given the relatively small cities that hosted CBA franchises, there weren’t many nightclubs and bars where the players could party after the games. These refs who were likewise interested in the same nocturnal pursuits were faced with the same limitations and subsequently frequented the very same venues.
I remembered a game the Lightning had played the previous season when one of my players had moaned when he saw that a certain ref was on the court. “Charley,” the player said, “last week that guy was drunk and drooling all over the girl I was with in a club in Tampa Bay. I had to get up in his face to make him go away. I’m telling you, man, it’s gonna be payback time.”
Sure enough, when the player merely shook his head after the ref whistled him for a charge that was clearly a block, two back-to-back toots signified a pair of technical fouls and banishment.
“What did I tell you, Charley?” the disconsolate player said as he headed for the locker room.
The other team converted both Ts, and we eventually lost the game by one point.
So at the coaches’ meeting, I brought the subject to Bavetta’s attention. Given the available alcohol and female companionship, didn’t Bavetta think it’d be best if the CBA refs were prohibited from frequenting these clubs?
Bavetta’s response was to start laughing. “What’s the matter, Charley? One of the refs got the girl you were after?” And, of course, my fellow coaches yocked along with him.
In any event, my somewhat less than hearty congratulations to Dick Bavetta. Playing for laughs has certainly served you well.