Flash back three decades. Kevin McHale was an All-Star Celtics big man, well known for being perpetually aggrieved by referees. Often, upon learning a foul had been called on him, McHale would contort his face into shocked disbelief and raise his lanky arms to the heavens as if only the basketball gods themselves could understand him.

Dick Bavetta already was a veteran referee when he called a Celtics game in the early 1980s. But he had blown a call. McHale grimaced. Then Bavetta missed another call, and McHale recoiled. Bavetta missed another, and McHale howled. As McHale recalled, “I was killing him.” Finally, it got bad enough that when McHale went to the free-throw line, he looked at Bavetta and said, “Dick, what’s up?”

“He goes, ‘Kevin, you ever have a bad game?’” McHale said. “And I stopped and I looked at him and I said, ‘Yeah, I have.’ He said, ‘I’m having one.’ I told him, ‘Dick, I am not going to say another word to you the rest of the night, I hear ya.’ Everybody has a bad night in the NBA. I just shut up, I did not say another word to the guy.”

Fast forward three decades. That kind of communication between coaches and players has virtually disappeare

d. Over the years, and as a response to a number of NBA hardships and controversies, the league has sought to wall off its referees from the kind of expressive criticism that made players like McHale so much fun for opposing fans to despise. Instead, referees have tried to keep player and coach reactions to a minimum, wielding technical fouls as their defense.

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“It is 100 percent different from the fall of 1980, when I came into the league, to where it is right now,” McHale said. “They didn’t immediately T you up.”

Even those with less of a combative streak than McHale agree.

“I noticed a difference at the end of my career,” said Grant Hill, NBA TV analyst and an NBA star from 1994-2013. “The officials did not interact and engage in that kind of dialogue. I enjoyed it when I first came into the league, where, with certain officials who had been around a long time, you could have a conversation with those guys, you would talk to each other and you got to know their personalities. There was always a little bit of back-and-forth, and I thought it was healthy. But I noticed that newer officials who came in at the end of my career, you couldn’t engage in that kind of conversation and dialogue.”

But something happened as the league increasingly cut off that dialogue. The relationship worsened, diminishing the way fans view referees and sapping some of the fun out of the game.

The NBA wants to change that dynamic. Bob Delaney is in his third year at the league office, now as vice president of referee operations and director of officials, after 24 years as a game official. While his duties include improving referees’ performance in the nuts-and-bolts work of getting calls right — see the massive changes to replay and the creation of at times controversial “last two-minute reports” — he also is carrying out a different task: creating a kinder, gentler cast of referees.

That starts with understanding that refs, no matter how they are harangued by players and coaches or despised by fans, can be more human in how they approach the job. “People are not going to say every time you blow the whistle, ‘Great call, hey, good for you,’” Delaney said. “We have got to have an understanding of reality.”

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Delaney was sitting at a table in a hotel meeting room in Elizabeth, N.J., during the NBA’s annual referee conference before the start of training camp. Acknowledging that referees are error-prone like the rest of us, Delaney reflected on one of the significant blind spots he and his colleagues had back in the late 1990s and early 2000s: Shaquille O’Neal.

“I look back and say, I didn’t, nor did my generation, referee Shaquille O’Neal well,” Delaney said. “He was so strong, and he would go through contact, but when you watch film, you’d say, ‘He got hit.’ But you wouldn’t realize he got hit, because some of the tell-tale signs that help us — speed, quickness, balance and rhythm, when that’s disrupted, it’s a foul. With Shaquille, he’d go through it.”

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It was in the era of O’Neal, too, that the ref-player relationship hardened. Constructive banter gradually was replaced by a more confrontational dynamic, in which officials quickly shut down discussion and dissent. Two events were inflection points in that change.

The first was the nasty 2004 Pacers-Pistons brawl in Detroit, the “Malice at the Palace” that saw a scuffle between players explode into a fight that went into the stands and involved fans. The NBA was suffering a downturn in popularity at the time, with physical defenses suffocating scoring and audience. Team scoring dropped below 96 points per game and teams shot less than 45 percent every year from 2000-04. Fearing the public perception of an offensively challenged league packed with unruly and belligerent players, the NBA cracked down.

The 146 games of suspension time handed out to nine players was groundbreaking, though a one-time crackdown. One lasting change that took hold: The NBA revamped the technical-foul system and put into place a zero-tolerance policy for players protesting calls.

There was, too, the Tim Donaghy betting scandal in 2007, which threw the integrity of the league into question and caused a crisis at NBA offices. The league took a number of steps to restore confidence in the game, including making a retired Army general, Ronald Johnson, the league’s senior VP of referee operations. The NBA cracked down further on complaints by players and coaches, fearing that those complaints chipped at the public perception of integrity. If players and coaches were outraged by calls, the thinking went, fans would duplicate their outrage and eventually assume the fix was in.

Communication with referees was slashed. But granting referees more authority did not defuse conflict. “We used to give a warning,” Delaney said. “That was the thing—you put the hand up, stop. But it became more of an irritant, because with that came the attitude of, ‘Not tonight, I am done with you, get back on your bench.’

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“It became parental. It goes from being a coach-referee interaction to becoming man-on-man. It actually made things rise up.”

Personal fouls are way down from the mid-1980s, a result of a league filled with less contact. And the 1990s became a hot-tempered era for all involved, as evidenced by the decline in technical fouls and ejections over the past 20 years.

Season PF/G Techs Techs/Team Ejections Eject/Team


(Statistics via StatsPass. This season's numbers updated through games on Dec. 5. *—full season pace.)

Those numbers present starting points on improving relations. With the aftershocks of the Pistons-Pacers brawl and the Donaghy scandal well in the past, the league is pulling back on its previous stances on communicating with refs. The NBA has undergone a resurgence of ratings and popularity, and is no longer a league facing a crisis of public confidence. Commissioner Adam Silver has sought to relax the non-nonsense stand that his predecessor, David Stern, felt was necessary.

At the referee meeting this offseason, the National Basketball Coaches Association was invited to have a few members attend in order to air complaints and constructive criticism. Toronto’s Dwane Casey and Brooklyn’s Kenny Atkinson were sent to represent the coaches, and the willingness of referees to listen to coaches — and vice versa — was at the top of the list of items of covered.

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“We had an open discussion,” Atkinson told Sporting News. “I think the more communication we can have, the better the relationship is going to be, the better the product is going to be. I was impressed with the referee group and how the NBA is trying to get us all on the same page. … They understand we are competing and we want to win, and we will get upset sometimes. We also have to understand they’re going to make mistakes and there should be a way of conducting ourselves as coaches and referees, I think it works both ways. I think it is a continuing process.”

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There were 51.3 seconds remaining the Celtics’ opener against Brooklyn, which was attempting a comeback from a 23-point deficit, in late October. Forward Al Horford grabbed an offensive rebound and attempted to clear the ball by dribbling to the sideline. But Horford stepped awkwardly as he reached the sideline, and it was ruled that his left foot landed out of bounds.

The home crowd booed, but the play was to be reviewed by NBA replay headquarters. On the scoreboard above center court, the crowd was shown exactly what the replay official was seeing: a closeup of Horford’s sneaker, clearly touching the out-of-bounds line. The refs had the call right. The ball was given to Brooklyn, followed by only a small smattering of disapproval from the stands — there could be no arguing with what had just been shown on the scoreboard.

This is a new aspect of Silver’s approach to refereeing in the NBA, a sort of sunlight theory of regulation. By being more and more open about the way referees do their jobs — including timely admission when mistakes are made, even in critical games — the NBA is hoping to reduce fan suspicion about refs playing favorites or rigging games. Those last two-minute reports that detailed calls made at the end of playoff games last season and annoyed so many referees were part of that. So is putting replays on the scoreboard. If a play is being reviewed, don’t do it in secret. Put it on the Jumbotron and let the fans see for themselves why a call is being confirmed or overturned.

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The emphasis on communication is part of this. The hope is that officials can get back to being human like the rest of us but can do so in a way that both leaves them in charge and makes sure the calls are right. That’s part of the task for Delaney, a well-groomed, slick-haired, thick-shouldered former cop whose street-tough demeanor was instrumental in the deep undercover work he did before he was a referee, infiltrating East Coast organized crime. Now, though, you’re likely to hear Delaney posit on the power of words and the importance of listening, more Dale Carnegie than Mendy Rudolph, more Dr. Phil than Dr. Naismith.

It starts with mere words and gentler phrasing.

“We came up with some words that, instead of saying, ‘Not tonight, not in my game,’ we had different words to be able to soften it,” Delaney said, “and be able to still say the same thing but in a different way. So we came up with code phrases. Instead of a warning, we would say, ‘Let’s move on, time to move on. We’ve talked about this enough.’ That means the same as a warning, but it is a different way of saying it so maybe it is not as challenging. … We work with them on understanding the heat of the moment and emotion.”

Especially remarkable is the emphasis put on one word in particular: the f-bomb. Referees, who are not supposed to use foul language at all, are much more inclined to slap a technical on a player or coach once the f-word is uttered. Delaney noted that, “Internal affairs at any police department will tell you that 90 percent of complaints that come in on police officers, the word ‘f---‘ is used at some point, because of how it changes the dynamics in that conversation.” The word heightens hostility. NBA refs have had to think about the word more completely in the last two years.

“We’re going to be understanding that, if there are words used, cursing is not an automatic technical,” Delaney said. “It’s how you say it, it’s where you use it. We said this to the players. If you used it as an adjective, you’re probably going to be all right, if you used it as a noun, you probably have a problem. If you don’t know the difference, we’re going to back to diagramming sentences. You have to have knowledge of how you are presenting yourself. There is a difference between someone saying, ‘Is that a f---ing foul?’ and, ‘Hey, F---o, is that a foul?’”

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It's still a work in progress. This season has seen a number of high-profile clashes between referees and game participants, and already there have been five five-figure fines levied against players and coaches for criticism or inappropriate interaction with referees — there were just three such fines at this point last season, and zero the season before. Most recently, Clippers coach Doc Rivers was fined $15,000 for an on-court tirade after what he labeled an, "awful tech," foul from referee Ken Mauer during a game in Brooklyn. Rivers indicated after the game that he and referee Lauren Holtkamp had completed an amicable discussion before Mauer intervened and whistled Rivers for being past the half-court line.

Last spring, Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas complained about a technical foul he received late in a loss to Toronto, saying he was unable to even ask questions of the refereeing crew and adding, "As a man, you want to talk to somebody as a man, right?" Has the communication improved since then? "It depends," Thomas said. "There are certain referees you can talk to and will listen to you most nights. But not everyone."

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It’s not that referees are being asked to become touchy-feely. There won’t be halftime discussion circles at midcourt or in-game psychotherapy sessions. (“Tell me why you are really acting out right now, DeMarcus …”) But the interaction described by McHale was not such a bad thing for the league. “This has been a big thing with Adam, how we handle things,” Delaney said. “It doesn’t mean we are less authoritative, it means we are taking our authority and doing it in a way that makes a lot more sense.”

Delaney said he showed the referees three movie clips last year to illustrate the point. The first was the scene from “Goodfellas” in which Joe Pesci’s character asks a young errand-runner if he thinks he is funny, with Pesci becoming more agitated and foul-mouthed as the scene goes on before he finally shoots the kid in the foot. The second was the scene from “A Few Good Men” in which Jack Nicholson, playing a Marine colonel on the witness stand during a court-martial trial, gets increasingly angry under questioning and finally blurts out, “You can’t handle the truth!” before angrily and dramatically going on to implicate himself in a murder.   

The third was an animation of the plane flown by Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot hailed as a hero for safely landing his damaged plane in the Hudson River after birds got caught in an engine. The tape of the actual transmissions between Sullenberger and the flight tower were played over it. Sullenberger remained calm and even-voiced throughout, following his training as the plane hit the water.

After playing the three clips, Delaney said, “I asked them, how do you want to land your games? You want to land them like Pesci? You want to land them like Jack, losing his temper? Or you want to land them like Capt. Sullenberger? Our job is to land them like Capt. Sullenberger.”

Ultimately, referees are going to be the most abused, most despised people among the 18,000 or so who show up for each NBA game. That’s not going to change.

But if referees can establish a better rapport with those involved in the games they’re overseeing, if they are more willing to have the kind of dialogue players of bygone eras remember, then at least the 26 players and coaches who are also working each game won’t despise them so much. Maybe.

Contributing: Alex Novick