Nobody really likes referees. It’s not their fault. They generally do a great job, but everyone from the fans to the coaches to the players are looking for a scapegoat when their team loses. This feature from SLAM 144 may change your opinion of them. They do what they do because they love the game, and they are harder on themselves than you could even imagine. Take a look to find out.—Ed.

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by Rus Bradburd

Last January, the weather predictably brutal, the College of Lake County’s basketball team squared off against McHenry County College, an hour northwest of Chicago. Never heard of either school? You’re not alone. Weather conditions weren’t the only thing that kept fans away. This was a game almost nobody cared about.

Yet two of the best referees in the country loaded up their bags-like retired gunslingers or detectives-and braved the frigid conditions to run up and down the floor of the empty gym.

One of the refs was Ron Olesiak, who’d spent 22 years in the NBA. During the ’08-09 season, he was earning over $6,000 a game. The other, George Demos, spent nearly two decades as a DI referee.

The outcome of this contest didn’t matter. More interesting is the fact that these two would even work in junior college without considering this obscure level demeaning. Two years ago Olesiak was nursing a sore hip, tabulating retirement dollars and fearing his body couldn’t stand the rigors of another NBA season. What he didn’t quite count on was the magnetic pull the hardwood still had on him.

The allure of the game is something normally associated with players and coaches. Many of the all-time best ballers-from Michael Jordan to Dominique Wilkins to Tim Hardaway-kept at it when they were past the years when most guys would retire, while a journeyman like Reggie Jordan played in six NBA seasons but toiled in the mediocre Mexican professional leagues at the end of his career.

The same dedication to the game holds true for some of the best coaches, although it’s more obvious in the college game, where there are more jobs and coaches have longer careers. Bobby Cremins and Lefty Driesell coached at less glamorous schools-while enjoying
remarkable success-as their careers were well past their zenith. Last May, Nolan Richardson became the most successful NCAA coach ever to take a WNBA job. NBA coaching greats like Hubie Brown and Mike Fratello came back to take on challenging jobs.

So maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that the refs at the top level feel the same magnetic pull. Whistleblowers like Olesiak and Demos have a similar loyalty to the game and their craft. Why else would they be pushing themselves up and down the court for a hundred bucks apiece?

Coaches get into the business for a couple reasons. Occasionally they were good players and felt the need to stay around the game (Pat Riley, KC Jones, Lenny Wilkens). More often, especially at the college level, they were frustrated players (Bob Knight), or simply poor players (Rick Majerus, Roy Williams).

NBA referees, typically, were not standouts on the hardwood. The job almost seems, by definition, to rule out the best players.

Ron Olesiak fits that definition. Sort of. His best sports were football and baseball, and even into his 40s, Olesiak was considered one of the best softball players in the country. He did play high school basketball in Chicago’s Public League, but he was an enforcer, called on to rough up the other team’s star. The job of enforcer was a natural for Olesiak.

He went on to be a combat veteran in Vietnam while still in his teens. Near the end of his NBA run, he was diagnosed with throat cancer (although he’s never even had a beer, let alone smoked a cigarette), which he beat.

But where Olesiak really made his reputation as a young man was as a tough guy/street fighter in Chicago. Even in that role, though, Olesiak was different. “He was a highly principled street fighter,” George Demos says. Meaning, he didn’t ever pick fights. He ended them quickly, though, especially if he was refereeing.

Stories abound of Olesiak decking a loudmouth after a game, and at first the tales seem contradictory-how could the fight have happened on the West Side of Chicago if it happened on the South Side? And how could the fight have happened in three different summer leagues?

“That’s easy,” Demos laughs about his friend. “It’s because it happened so many times.”

Olesiak’s tough guy reputation faded once he joined the NBA. He was a retired street fighter by then, but he brought along a quiet confidence as well as an iron will. It didn’t hurt that there were so many Chicago players in the NBA who likely knew Olesiak’s history.

Anyway, when you’ve been in combat in the jungles of Nam and fought hand-to-hand on Chicago playgrounds, a little hollering by high-paid hoopsters isn’t a big deal. Olesiak was so self-assured that he’d often go years without calling a technical foul. “Why do I need to call a lot of techs?” he asks. “It’s better for the game if I can talk to the player or coach. I don’t use techs as a weapon.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by many of Olesiak’s peers. Ken Mauer, who’s entering his 25th season as an NBA referee, says finding resolution to a confrontation before it reaches the ‘technical’ stage is paramount. “If it’s something where I can say to the player before he overreacts, ‘Talk to me, c’mon, talk to me,’ now we’re talking,” Mauer says at the NBA referees’ annual meeting in Jersey City, NJ, in mid-September. “I avoid an overreaction; therefore, it didn’t escalate.”

Plenty of refs share Olesiak and Mauer’s stance. Some just might have a different way of interacting with players.

George Demos finished his high school playing career as the leading scorer in the history of the Chicago Public League, netting 39 points per game as a senior. Unlike Olesiak, Demos’ great success as a player (he went on to score 24 ppg his final season at the University of Illinois-Chicago) meant that the court had always been good for his self-esteem, a place of past glory.

Demos was known as a player’s referee, someone who could talk to the stars, get them to smile and keep them in the game by not letting them lose their cool. “Refs get caught up in the game too,” he says, “making the tough call, and enjoying a good back-and forth-game. And I’d notice great players, great plays. I always felt that I had an extra step, an advantage, in making the calls because of my own playing career.”

But a bad hip also forced him to take a few years off when he was in his 50s. Now in his 60s, he may never return to DI, but he sounds like a guy who used to be a great player. “I can still do it,” he says. “I’ve been moving pretty good out there.”

According to Olesiak, fans don’t appreciate the amount of work NBA referees put in-and he’s talking about after the game. Typically, he watched the film of the entire game, breaking down tape, rewinding constantly, pausing and using slow motion. He’d analyze questionable calls, controversial plays and the occasional obvious mistake. Was he out of position? Distracted? Did he over-anticipate? The analysis of tape is nearly as thorough as the process NBA coaches go through.

“I’m going to miss some plays,” he says, “like any referee. And nobody knows more than the ref when he’s made a bad call.”

It can be painful reviewing the tape, just like the self-torture a player or coach goes through.

Adds Mauer: “People don’t realize I’ll wake up in the middle of the night. The next day I’ll remember it.”

Veteran referee Joey Crawford experiences this the same way as Olesiak and Mauer. “You’ll miss an out-of-bounds play. You’ll miss what we call NCIs, which are non-calls incorrect,” says Crawford, entering his 34th season in the League. “You’re looking at the tape [after the game] and you think, Why didn’t I get that?”

But in a profession marked by flawed calls, Crawford states unequivocally that perfection is his goal. It hasn’t happened in his career, he says; not even for a quarter. Yet satisfaction isn’t an option, not during a ref’s career.

And like the players and coaches, the referee cannot switch off his mindset, even after retiring. “I can almost enjoy the game as a fan,” Olesiak says, “but even today while I’m watching, the hundred things going through my head are what a referee thinks. We’re so focused on refereeing that we can sometimes overlook the beauty of the game.”

That means he might miss out on a spectacular dunk because he’s watching for a travel or elbow. “After watching the film, going through it after the game,” he says, “that’s when you begin to appreciate the talent these players have.”

Referees are susceptible to more than just a monomaniacal mindset like the coaches and players. Recently, Steve Javie has said he will try to referee a limited schedule this season, having missed most of last season due to an injured right knee. And no NBA ref has been in the news as much in the last few years as Tim Donaghy, who served prison time for being illegally enticed-in his case, for leaking insider information to gamblers.

Olesiak is still highly regarded in NBA circles and ran a mini-camp for referees that coincided with a Milwaukee Bucks free agent camp last summer.

He copies a familiar coaching tactic when he’s teaching young referees: subbing every few minutes and having the “subbed” ref sit next to him on the bench. Olesiak then hands out tidbits of wisdom, as well as a running commentary on the performance of the trio still on the floor.

Experience is such a critical part of the job that even veteran refs can recall the difficulties they had when they were younger-and greener. Crawford claims that nobody knew who he was during his first five seasons in the NBA. That’s why he takes it upon himself to contact the League’s more inexperienced refs. After decades of at-times hostile interactions with coaches and players, Crawford can relate to what might set someone off. That’s why he values passing along that knowledge to the next generation of referees. “I could tell him why a player got upset at him,” Crawford explains of the types of recommendations he’ll make. That’s no different for Olesiak.

Sometimes, like the best coaches, he has to go back to the basics.

At one point, Olesiak asked the scorekeeper to blow the horn, and he walked out to the middle of the floor. The young referees were perplexed. What now?

“How many players can each team have on the court?” he asked the stunned trio of zebras, who looked around, counting. But the green team had six players, something Olesiak had done deliberately to see if anyone was paying attention.

“Even after two minutes, nobody noticed!” he said to the blushing young refs.

This mini-camp was a freebie, and Olesiak disdains the “pay to ref” mentality that pervades the profession in the summer now. Just like players wishing to be seen by DI coaches, many referees pay hundreds of dollars each July to be considered by the heads of officiating for certain leagues. Although he paid the fees himself when he was younger, things moved so quickly for him that he didn’t feel abused financially. But many referees return summer after summer with no advancement in sight. Poise, judgment and attitude-they’re all supposed to be important, but how can 50 referees get a fair assessment?

Not that Olesiak was very politically savvy when it came to advancing his own career. He can still recite his entire letter of inquiry to NBA administrator Rod Thorn: “Dear Rod Thorn, I am still interested in being an NBA referee.” Then he signed his name.

When the Lake County v. McHenry junior college game went into overtime-something refs don’t get paid extra for-Olesiak and Demos didn’t flinch. “It was a terrific game with lots of lead changes,” Olesiak recalls. “We’d all rather do an overtime game than a 40-point blowout.”

Tight games keep refs at their best. In a lopsided contest, they can lose their concentration. “Then, if we let things go, people get hurt, there might be a fight. It’s more difficult to ref when there’s a blowout.” Also, Olesiak knows that coaches will be judging him these days, seeing if he’s lost a step or his judgment after being one the elite refs in the NBA.

When the JuCo game went into a second overtime, Olesiak and Demos smiled at each other. “This is what the game is about,” Demos announced to his partner.

The game finally ended after three overtimes.

“In the locker room after the game,” Demos continues, “I flopped down on my chair, looked at Ron and laughed. We were both exhausted. What made us feel better was the fact that our third partner, who is 20 years younger, was just as tired as we were.”

The pair drove home together, feeling like-well, Demos explains: “You know the feeling, where your body and mind are tired but you’re calm. Relaxed. We were happy.”

Just like the players on the winning team. They were young again. Except when they stopped at the convenience store. They ignored the new energy drinks and the beer the way they ignore heckling fans. “We loaded up on diet sodas,” Olesiak says.

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Additional Reporting by Kyle Stack