The stirring anthem ended and those in the large Saturday night crowd, some clutching programs, took their seats. Steve Javie, a top-tier NBA referee for 25 seasons, moved into position and got ready once again to interpret the rules.
But this was Mass at St. Andrew’s Roman Catholic Church in Newtown (Bucks County), not a basketball arena. Javie was wearing a green chasuble and white cassock, not the NBA’s two-tone officiating uniform. And the rules he was about to address in one of his first homilies as a permanent deacon in the Catholic church were eternal, not subject to collective bargaining.
“People ask me if there are similarities between being a deacon and a referee,” Javie said before that recent 5 p.m. Mass. “It’s funny because people used to think they could tell me how to do my old job. That hasn’t changed, except now people are telling me how to preach.”
A Montgomery County native who pitched at Temple and briefly in the Baltimore Orioles organization, Javie was destined to be a sports official. His father, Stan, was a field and back judge in the NFL, and his godfather, John Stevens, a longtime American League umpire.
Javie, 64, consistently was rated as one of the NBA’s top referees. He worked more than 1,500 games, including 200-plus in the playoffs and 20 in the Finals.
“Steve was the best referee I ever worked with, and I reffed with everybody,” said Joe Crawford, a friend and former NBA colleague. “He knew the rules. He got plays right. And he had [guts]. He was very aggressive but always under control.”
Bad knees finally forced Javie to limp away after the 2011 season, his last assignment being the decisive sixth game of that year’s NBA Finals.
By then, he was on a spiritual quest. Thanks to his wife of 28 years, Mary Ellen, he’d rediscovered a faith he’d virtually abandoned as a young man. The couple had started a charity benefiting underprivileged children in Montgomery County and Philadelphia. But he needed more.
“I thought, ‘I’ve got to be doing something more with my life than blowing whistles against basketball players,’ " he said.
At a St. Andrew’s event, a visiting speaker mentioned the Catholic diaconate. The possibility of becoming a deacon hung constantly around his neck like the whistles he wore as a referee.
“It’s a calling,” he said. “It’s nothing I aspired to. I knew I was getting near the end of my career because my knees were failing. That realization makes you think about what you’re going to do afterwards.”
The journey Javie started in 2012 ended this June 8, when he and six others were formally ordained as deacons during an ornate ceremony at the Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul. The grueling process that got him there took seven years and yielded a master’s in theology, a new title, and the right to deliver homilies, wear a collar, and perform such traditional priestly duties as baptisms and marriages.
“I was at the ordination,” Crawford said. “Watching him do all the little things around the altar, you could see how prepared and calm he was. That’s how he was as a referee. Anything he gets into, he gets into all the way. He’s so devout now. As a matter of fact, he’s so devout that sometimes I have to tell him, `Steve, shut the … up.’ ”
Assigned to St. Andrew’s, his home parish and the largest in the Philadelphia archdiocese, Javie delivered his second homily last Saturday.
“I’m not afraid to get up and talk in front of people because I’ve been doing that my whole life,” he said. “But talking about something really personal like faith, that’s stressful.”
Actually, Javie, who usually speaks in rapid and intense bursts, seemed more poised and conversational while addressing the parishioners, which he did not from the pulpit but from in front of the altar.
“He’s very at ease, which probably comes from what he did all those years,” said Monsignor Michael Picard, St. Andrew’s pastor. “His preaching, even though he’s just starting, is really superb.”
The story of how Javie switched from the arena to the altar is one that combines love found and spirituality sought.
It began in the late 1980s when the NBA’s travel demands made him a regular at Philadelphia International Airport’s US Airways counter. That’s where he met Mary Ellen.
“I was someone who except for Christmas and Easter didn’t go to Mass. But I could see she was a devout Catholic,” Javie said. “So on our second date, I thought I’d impress her and I said, `How about if we go to Mass, then get lunch afterward?’
“We’re sitting there in church, and this priest is droning on. I’m looking at my watch thinking I’ll sit here an hour then be with her the rest of the afternoon. I wasn’t paying attention, wasn’t getting anything out of it. Afterward, she asked me what I thought. I told her I didn’t get anything out of it. She looked at me and said, `What did you put into it?’ That stopped me in my tracks. She said, `Did you maybe say a prayer for somebody in your family who needed it? Did you pray to the Holy Spirit for enlightenment?’ She really got me thinking.”
The experience led Javie to re-examine his Catholicism. He took Communion daily, read more about faith and marriage and, on the road, attended Mass whenever possible.
The renewed devotion helped in 1999 when Javie was one of 15 referees implicated in a tax-evasion case that involved misuse of frequent-flyer miles. He was the only one acquitted on all charges.
Noticing their colleague’s newfound focus, the referees Javie worked with began to ask questions. Some even accompanied him to church.
“A lot of guys I traveled with, they struggled with all the temptations that come with being on the road,” Javie said. “I would try to talk to them about it. My thinking was we’re all sinful, but if we can talk about these things with each other, it might make our marriages and families a little more solid.
“When I was a crew chief, the second guy would sometimes grab the new guy and say, ‘OK, Steve, tell him what you talked to me about.’ I’d try to mentor them, not just in basketball but in life.”
After retirement and the deacon decision, Javie ramped up his religiosity. From August through May, he took three-hour classes at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in philosophy, theology, spirituality, and homiletics. Then there were workshops, psychological examinations and, before ordination, written, practical and oral examinations.
“We’ve never been blessed with children, but we’ve got nine nephews and nieces and I tell them I never studied that hard in my life," Javie said. "Those professors were brilliant. It was a really intense, extensive process.”
His new schedule is sometimes as hectic as his old one. A day after ordination, Javie had to deliver his first homily at St. Andrew’s. There are Masses, ceremonies, home and hospital visits, counseling sessions, and speaking engagements.
“I made a living in sports,” he said. “They paid me to referee, and it was a good job. But this is something else, a really incredible journey. I worked in the Finals for 15 years. I worked Game 7s. But that doesn’t compare with this. It’s a feeling I can’t describe.”
Those who know Javie well, such as his fellow Whitemarsh Valley Country Club members, now feel free to move conversations beyond typical locker-room talk.
“Now that they know what I’ve been through, they feel like they have permission to talk about their faith, even to complain about it,” Javie said. “They realize that I’ve changed in one way, but not socially or personality-wise. I’m just Steve Javie. I always have been. It just so happens I’m not a referee anymore. I’m serving the Lord now.”