Can an Army General Whip NBA Refs into Shape?

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Left; Jed Jacobsohn / Getty : AP

NBA referees Dick Bavetta, Scott Foster and Ken Mauer, left, and General Ron Johnson

The NBA takes the less-than-stellar image of its referees very seriously. But when the league announced in July that it was putting a two-star Army general in charge of its officiating, the jokes started flying. Even the refs themselves can't resist corny quips. "You know, instead of getting cups of water over at the [scoring] table, we're going to get a canteen," says 32-year veteran ref Joey Crawford. "If you screw up a play, are you going to go down and do 100 push-ups?" Ronald Johnson, the retired general whom the league hired to revive trust in the referees, plays along. "I told them I prefer to see guys doing flutter kicks," Johnson says of the grueling military calisthenics exercise used to strengthen leg muscles and abs. "They'd probably start crying faster."

For all the one-liners, the challenges facing the general are no joke. As the NBA tips off its 2008-'09 regular season this week, Johnson will inherit a demoralized group of referees who have taken a public beating in the fallout from the Tim Donaghy scandal. In August of 2007, Donaghy, a veteran NBA official of 13 years, pleaded guilty to two felony charges related to gambling. He admitted to passing along inside information about referee-player relationships and the physical condition of players to gamblers in exchange for cash. He also copped to betting on basketball games himself, and was ultimately sentenced to 15 months in prison this summer.

But Donaghy made certain that the stench of corruption went beyond his own bad behavior, crashing this year's dream finals between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers with scandalous accusations. Before Game 3 of that series, he alleged in a court filing that two refs conspired to fix the 2002 Western Conference finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings. Donaghy claimed he wasn't the only rogue referee, as he described a corrupt culture in which refs would play tennis with coaches, ask players for autographs, and accept free meals and gifts from coaches and team officials. He said one ref was so close to a particular general manager that he deliberately made calls in his favor.

Though federal prosecutors did not press charges on these allegations, and the NBA just released an independent report that refutes Donaghy's claims, the damage to referee credibility was done. "We were shaken," says Crawford, who himself came under fire in the spring of 2007 for jawing with and unnecessarily ejecting San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan from a game. (Crawford was suspended for the 2007 playoffs, and he now admits that he "overreacted" with Duncan.) Crawford, describing the blow to his profession's reputation, says, "It was almost like you were in shock. You find yourself constantly defending yourself, defending your profession, defending your league. It was a tough time."

To restore that lost credibility, without which no professional sport can thrive, the NBA surprised everyone by going way outside the sports world to tap Johnson, who commanded the Army Corps of Engineer's reconstruction efforts in Iraq from 2003 to '04. Johnson, who spent the past 32 years as a combat engineer, has no experience in sports administration and has refereed only the occasional youth game. When asked for his reaction to Johnson's hiring, Hue Hollins, a 27-year NBA official who retired in 2003, says, "I passed out. You'd think you'd hire someone who knows something about basketball."

But NBA commissioner David Stern hired Johnson, who retired this spring as the second-highest-ranking engineer in the Army, for his management experience, not his ability to distinguish a charge from a blocking foul. "I've got some work to do to establish some credibility," Johnson, 54, admits. "But let me say something: credibility in this position has nothing to do with my ability to be an expert referee. I believe that in my heart." Johnson insists that he's used to learning on the fly. "Throughout my Army career, I've been promoted and moved around a lot, and never had time to master one thing," says Johnson. "I've really focused on leading and managing on a strategic level. So I guess you can say I feel comfortable with a broad range of ignorance. But I'm a quick study."

In particular, Johnson plans to use his math background to spot trends and further improve the league's already sophisticated data analysis and video-feedback systems. "I've got this chart sitting in front of my desk comparing preseason travels, offensive three-second calls and defensive three-second calls for the past two years," he says. "I can sit here and determine if there's a statistically significant difference." If a certain type of violation is being called with more or less frequency, Johnson plans to figure out what's driving the change. His two biggest priorities are lowering the number of technical fouls called in games — during the 2007 playoffs in particular, the refs called techs at an alarming rate, needlessly inserting themselves into the action — and tackling the perception that referees favor certain star players, which the recent report specifies as a real concern. Johnson has encouraged coaches and owners to contact him directly with bias complaints.

One of those who is sure to take him up on the offer — though he would surely make his opinion heard regardless — is Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, arguably the loudest ref critic on the planet. And though it's early in Johnson's tenure, Cuban is encouraged. "The biggest challenge the officiating group had was lack of experience in managing high-stress professionals," Cuban writes in an e-mail. "To say [Johnson] has that part mastered is an understatement." In addition to bringing on Johnson, the NBA has changed its management structure, separating referee oversight from its general basketball operations and dedicating a specific person to work with the refs full-time. Johnson occupies a new post in the NBA hierarchy, as senior vice president of referee operations. Former NBA coach and general manager Stu Jackson, who ostensibly oversaw the refs in addition to his myriad other responsibilities as the league's executive vice president for basketball operations, is now free to focus on other matters. "We finally have somebody who is just ours," veteran ref Crawford says. "Before, we had people that had 7,000 hats. He's not going to be easy, but he's a leader. And we're dying to be led, to be honest with you."

During the referees' preseason training camp this September, the general demanded discipline. He told his troops that even the most trivial rules would be enforced. For example, the refs have long ignored the rule that requires them to wear black shoes with no white Nike swooshes or other logos. Johnson will be scoping their feet. Over the past few years, officials have relied on arena security to let them know when a team is going on the court to warm up, ignoring the edict that they stand near the sidelines before the players make their way out. This year, there will be no more lounging in the locker room. "He's made it perfectly clear," says Crawford. "Here are the work rules, buddy." To the military man, it's all about example. "How hypocritical are we if we can't be the model of rule-following in the NBA?" Johnson says.

To some degree, of course, Johnson is enjoying the honeymoon phase of his NBA career. How many times have we seen players break public bread with a new coach after his hiring only to toss it in his face a few months later? And at the end of the day, fans don't care if Mother Teresa is in charge of the refs: if Joey Crawford misses that goal-tending call at the end of a Lakers game or sends Kobe to the showers early, all of Los Angeles will be calling for his head. The refs need more than a leader with an impressive résumé, and Johnson knows it. "I told the referees that our challenge here is winning the respect and trust of our customers," he says. "I want to perform our way out of this."

(See Pictures of the Week here.)

(See photos of outspoken Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban here.)