Every sport has rules and people in charge of making sure those rules are followed. But no umpire, line judge, or ref of any other sports makes as much of an impact on the game as a basketball official.
Referees have endless power, and no one to overrule them—it’s a scary thought. A bad ref can be a big obstacle. One call can turn a great play into a bad play, turn a bad play into a great play, completely change the momentum, or even cost a team the match.
Dealing with referees become its own game within the game. As much as a referee can impact the game, players can have an impact on them.
How do players influence officials?
Players need to remember that refs are human. If a coworker does something incorrectly, almost no one would bombard them with waving arms of disbelief, verbal jabs, and obvious glares. But in the setting of a competitive game, things like that—or worse—are done all of the time to refs. Remember, they’re human, too.
Creating a scene to disrespect the ref may make even the most fair official have to fight their natural instinct to retaliate. Sometimes that retaliation can be in the form of a technical foul, but other times it can be in the form of 50/50 balls going in the other direction.
The opposite can be just as true.
I once had a ref give me a Flagrant 2 foul, forcing me to leave the game. Later on, the ref watched the reply and realized that the opposing player had flopped and the flagrant was ill-advised. The next time that same guy reffed us, he came and talked to me before the game and apologized. I was grateful for his kindness to come say that to me, and we laughed it off.
Afterward, every time he worked our games, I was going to get calls—and I knew it. I could be more aggressive making defensive plays on the ball and searching for contact on offense. I fed it too. I would joke with him when I could, go get the ball when it rolled away, talk with him in only the kindest way. I did what I had to because I knew the value of having a ref on my side.
Are “player reputations” a real thing?
Player reputations are definitely a real thing. Like I said, refs are human. They remember the things players have done or said to them in the past. I have played with teammates with horrible reputations. And every one of them deserved it. I talked with one about trying to reverse his ref reputation. He could acknowledge the problem, but when the ref made one call he disagreed with, he couldnt contain himself. The refs knew it and he struggled getting a call all year. When you’re out there, you can sense when the refs have a specific player’s number.
Even refs we were unfamiliar with were well aware of certain players and gave them a short leash from tip-off. The referee community is a chatty one and they share stories about players who are problems. I’m sure, back in the day, every ref was mentality prepared for Rasheed Wallace.
How should a player talk to a ref?
More importantly than knowing how to talk to a ref, is knowing when not to talk to a ref. That answer would be most of the time. Often in France, refs would invoke a policy that only the captain and coach could talk to officials. I was the captain, so it was important that I knew how to talk to them.
My rule: if I have something to say, I ask. For instance, instead of “I didn’t touch him!” it’s better to say, “Did I get him on the arm? Or with the body?” Also, it helped when I made it look like I wasn’t talking to the ref so they didn’t think the crowd was watching and waiting to see the reaction. It can’t be made it a show. I wouldn’t go find the ref after timeout, or publicly chase them down, but rather would ask them in the most discrete way possible.
There were times when I could feel that the ref was ready to give someone a technical foul. Maybe they have been yelled at or booed a lot. You could see the stress, and a look like they need to assert their dominance—this is the moment the team should gather together and adequately repeat, “ZERO communication with the refs!” Recognizing these moments is very important.
How much of a role does emotion play?
It’s easy to say the right things now about how a player should act in-game. It’s only logical to be collected and respectful. The hard part is coming down from a peak level of competition while expressing displeasure in an acceptable fashion, and then returning to competing again.
I struggled at times with making the jump back into competition mode. I would relax myself until I got to the point that I could have a calm conversation, but then it became hard to get back in the game action again. It’s much easier to wear your feelings on your sleeve.
Emotion does not only affect the ability of a player to be civil, but a few bad calls can be deflating for the spirit of a team. Calls one way or another can create momentum and affect a team’s psyche. Sometimes communicating with the ref won’t make a difference, and the only way to combat that is with mental toughness and good leadership.
The impact officials can make on a game is huge. A ref can be more important than over half the players on a team on any given night. I would much rather my team get a majority of the calls than to have my sixth-best player play well. The referees are always going to be a big part of the game but for the players, they’re just another game within the game.