HUE HOLLINS worked 27 seasons as an NBA referee. Mike Mathis worked 26. Both worked games with Tim Donaghy in the mid- to late 1990s. Both recall an eager, young official focused on improving, on becoming good enough to eventually work in the playoffs and, ultimately, the Finals.
Both Hollins and Mathis are appalled that Donaghy pleaded guilty last week to two federal charges, with the possibility of facing more at the state level if prosecutors say they have evidence that he deliberately miscalled games. But Hollins and Mathis share another painful belief:
That the NBA's problems in officiating run far deeper.
Both see a disconnect in the practices of hiring and training referees, which, in their minds, has led to a dropoff in the quality of officiating and a general acceptance of that dropoff.
"It's in a state of degradation," said Hollins, now living in Chino Hills, Calif. "It's changed, and not for the better. There's a lack of training, and the people who try and do the training have no experience. Zero. Some are referees who were fired, but came back as supervisors and observers. There's no prerequisite for group supervisors; they hire anyone. They have hired anyone."
Hollins said he has wanted to work as a supervisor since his retirement 2 years ago and wrote to commissioner David Stern and executive vice president for basketball operations Stu Jackson, who oversees the officiating program, but has never gotten a response.
"They don't want people who can make referees better," Hollins said. "They want people they can control."
Mathis, a former head of the National Association of Basketball Referees, lives in Cincinnati and directs the Mathis Foundation, working with and helping supply scholarships for foster children. He said he has seen problems coming "for 20 years, not in gambling, but in the state of affairs of officiating."
Mathis, who went out on disability in December 2001, said that the problems are in hiring, training and accountability and that "the NBA fails miserably on those accounts."
The current officiating staff is under a gag order, but one referee, speaking on the assurance of anonymity, said: "It's apples and oranges. I'm not disagreeing with their points, but these are two guys who are disgruntled, who weren't happy when they were here. I don't need a supervisor or an observer to tell me what's right and wrong in life.
"People throw a lot of stuff on the wall. I would venture to say that most employees look at supervisors and think they can do better. Mike Mathis isn't speaking for us. He doesn't have a clue what's going on today. He's not in the loop, but some of what [Hollins and Mathis] say is true; there are problems in the profession that need to be addressed."
A league representative said, "In consideration of the ongoing investigation, we will not be commenting further at this time."
This is how Hollins recalls Donaghy:
"I was his crew chief at one time. Then, I thought he was an up-and-coming referee, a little bit headstrong, a guy who wanted to move in a hurry, a typical young referee who wanted to do the playoffs. In everything else, he was fine."
And this is Mathis' recollection:
"I would have told you he had a hell of a future. He had moxie, arrogance, a little over the edge. But he had the cojones to make calls at the end of games and to make them on superstars the same as on anybody else. He could take a small problem and make it into a big one, but these were all things that could be worked with."
It all apparently changed as Donaghy began providing inside information to gamblers, telling them, among other things, which referees would work specific games. That information is confidential until the crew arrives at an arena, but is available on a master schedule.
"In 27 years, I never had [a master schedule]," Hollins said. "I never wanted one."
Added Mathis: "If [referees] are now the flag-bearers of integrity, that's wonderful. But then shouldn't referees get as much attention as the marketing, [public relations], etc., areas? People are asleep at the switch when it comes to officiating."
Both Hollins and Mathis said the observers assigned in every NBA city have included former referees who were fired, a onetime college football trainer, former scorekeepers, a former player and others with no specific background in officiating.
"Somebody's out of work, somebody needs a job, a friend of a friend gets a job," Mathis said.
"They make out the reports after games, and careers of referees are determined by that."
Hollins said that, for 17 years, he directed a camp for officials in Los Angeles, and that several current league referees passed through his sessions, including current director of officials Ronnie Nunn, Monte McCutcheon, Violet Palmer, Derek Richardson, Rodney Mott and Jim Capers Jr.
"When people tell me the job of a referee is a science, I say it's not a science, it's an art," Hollins said.
"Refereeing right now is in bad shape, top to bottom. How can they have people telling a referee about what it's like to work in the first round [of the playoffs] when they've never worked in the first round?"
Hollins said he believes that, given the opportunity, "I could turn this thing around in a heartbeat." He followed that by saying, "If someone you know has a heart attack, do you send that person to an emergency room or to an auto mechanic?"
"Poor officiating is accepted," Mathis said, pointing to the final play of the 1998 Finals, when Michael Jordan drained a jump shot over Utah's Bryon Russell to nail down the Chicago Bulls' sixth championship. Mathis contends that Jordan should have been called for an offensive foul as he pushed off, but that the whistle was not blown because of Jordan's stature as a superstar.
"If we're going to stay up with the players, we'd better improve," Mathis said. "And we have not."
Said the anonymous referee: "Missed calls happen. Nobody's trying to miss them. The best officials miss calls. You can miss a play, no matter what the level of training. They've been documented for years. I'm not saying there aren't problems, but it's not fair to point to one play." *