How NBA stars such as Draymond Green and Dillon Brooks take player-referee relationships to new levels
DILLON BROOKS STEPPED onto the Crypto.com Arena court Saturday evening before any of the other Memphis Grizzlies starters for Game 3 against the Los Angeles Lakers. Brooks walked across the floor, straight down the half-court line and directly toward referee crew chief Marc Davis.
Brooks looked Davis in the eye and extended his right hand. After a firm handshake, Brooks calmly uttered a few words to Davis before asking for the ball, which he fired down the sideline to teammate Jaren Jackson Jr., part of their usual routine before the opening tip.
“Sometimes before the games, I try to put stuff in [the referee’s] mind,” Brooks told ESPN late in the regular season. “Like, ‘I’m going to play physical a little bit.’
“Some of them, I won’t even say nothing. Because sometimes I think [a referee believes], ‘Oh, OK, I can give him a little call here. He won’t get mad.’ It’s all a game. The same way you study the other team, you got to know your refs.”
Brooks, who on Sunday joined Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green and Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden with a flagrant foul 2 and ejection during the first week of the 2023 playoffs, is one of many NBA players who could be considered difficult to officiate.
Brooks is among the players whose playing style or personality — or a combination of both — make establishing a rapport with referees a priority. Other high-profile players opt to keep their discussions with the officials to a minimum, as to not be perceived as disingenuous. The thought process, in general, is that laying a foundation of mutual respect might help a player’s cause when he’s complaining and lobbying for calls (or no-calls) in the heat of the moment.
“There’s always a set of players who play right to the edge,” Monty McCutchen, the NBA’s senior vice president in charge of referee training and development, told ESPN. “That’s part of what makes our league great; people care this much about their craft and what they’ve dedicated their lives to. I think that that applies to referees as well.
“However, when you are the one that has the power of adjudication, there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that. That responsibility means, to the best of our abilities, we train to remove our own personal emotions out of [calls].”
The NBA employs 74 referees and an additional eight the league categorizes as non-staff officials. From that pool, 36 are selected to officiate in the first round of the playoffs based on the criteria of NBA referee operations graded rankings, playcalling accuracy and team rankings. That number dwindles each round of the playoffs as officials are evaluated by the league to determine who advances. The players, for their part, recognize that officiating NBA action is a difficult job.
“The game is so fast, the game is so physical,” Brooks said. “It’s hard for some of those guys to get up and down, especially some of them. They old. I try to give them their props.”
PREGAME FRIENDLINESS IS not a foolproof plan. Brooks led the NBA with 18 technical fouls this season — 10 of which were called for barking at refs, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Nor does it work with every ref. That’s one thing on which NBA rivals Brooks and Green can agree.
“Different referees you approach differently, because different referees show different respect to players than others,” Green told ESPN. “Those that there’s mutual respect with you approach differently than those that approach the game like, ‘It’s my way or the highway.’
“I’ve been in this league 11 years, so you just kind of know who’s who. You know tendencies, know which refs you can talk to, know which refs that you can’t.”
Buddying up with the officials is not for everyone.
“I don’t like to go up to the referees and kiss their butt and talk to them [pregame],” Milwaukee Bucks superstar and MVP finalist Giannis Antetokounmpo said after a Dec. 9 win against the Dallas Mavericks. “That’s not my personality. I feel like even they know that’s fake when I do it.”
Antetokounmpo makes a point to avoid arguing when he believes the whistle should have been blown on a drive to the basket, yet still sometimes reaches what he calls a “tipping point” at times — as evidenced by Antetokounmpo’s seven technicals this season. But he understands that he presents a major challenge to referees “because I create so much contact.”
“I believe I get calls. So I try not to complain,” said Antetokounmpo, who led the league with 12.3 free throws attempted per game this season, adding: “They’re going to miss so much.”
Sixers center Joel Embiid, the MVP favorite, ranked second with 11.7 free throws per game. He figures he’d shoot at least five more if refs called every clear foul committed on him.
“They’re allowed to make mistakes,” Embiid told ESPN. “You easily get mad at missed calls and all that stuff. But — unless it’s too crazy — I don’t usually get too mad about it. All I got to do is really go talk to them and let them know that this play just happened, to watch out for the next time, and I also usually like to ask [for] a lot of explanations.”
How about the players who tend to rant at refs? Is there a method to getting mad that actually pays dividends?
“You’ve got to pay a lot of fines,” Green, who ranked second in the league with 17 technicals this season and has paid more than $1 million in fines during his career, said. “That’s the technique.”
LUKA DONCIC COULD be considered the (reddened) face of complaining to referees. The Mavericks superstar frequently flails his arms in frustration when he doesn’t get a call after driving to the basket. Or Doncic will point to the underside of his forearm, offering a fresh welt or scratch as proof of a missed call.
Doncic occasionally does this in lieu of running back on defense, one reason the lottery-bound Mavericks ranked 25th in defensive efficiency this season.
Doncic has admitted on multiple occasions throughout his five-year pro career that his incessant protesting is a problem. As coach Jason Kidd put it after the Mavs blew a 27-point lead in a Feb. 26 loss to the Lakers, Doncic tends to get “distracted by the whistle,” pouring so much energy into disputing the officiating that he loses focus on his game.
“I change when I get on a basketball court,” Doncic said during the Mavs’ January visit to Los Angeles. “Off the court, I’m not an angry person. You can ask everybody.”
Luka gets fined for gesture late in Mavs’ loss to Warriors
Luka Doncic is not pleased after not getting a foul call and rubs his fingers together in an apparent reference to money toward an official.
Late in the 2021-22 season, he even tried singing his favorite Serbian and Slovenian songs under his breath when tempted to unleash his temper as he was nearing the automatic suspension triggered by a player’s 16th technical foul. (Doncic avoided suspension in each of the past two seasons when the league office rescinded what would have counted as his 16th.)
Doncic also has another trick: He rarely curses at officials in English. It’s hard for a ref to justify calling a technical foul if they can’t understand a word.
“Everything comes out a little bit,” Doncic, who is fluent in English, Serbian and Spanish, as well as his native Slovenian, said, cracking a grin.
And Doncic’s profanity vocabulary is not limited to those four: “I know some bad words in other languages, too.”
THERE ARE RARE instances of players being convinced that certain referees have a personal vendetta. Chris Paul vs. 29-year veteran referee Scott Foster has become a rivalry of sorts, reaching the point in recent years that Foster being assigned to officiate playoff games involving Paul’s team qualified as newsworthy. (Paul’s 12-game playoff losing streak in playoff games officiated by Foster, a skid that spanned four franchises, was snapped with the Phoenix Suns‘ Game 2 victory over the LA Clippers.)
Toronto Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet paid a $30,000 fine for making it quite clear that he has beef with Ben Taylor, declaring that the 10-year NBA veteran referee (who made the playoffs cut) was “f—ing terrible tonight” after a March 8 loss to the Clippers.
“Most of the refs are trying hard,” VanVleet said that night. “I like a lot of the refs, they’re trying hard, they’re pretty fair and communicate well. And then you got the other ones who just want to be d—s and just kind of f— the game up. And no one’s coming to see that s—. They come to see the players.”
The most common complaint by players about officials is an unwillingness to communicate. Several players told ESPN that it’s especially a problem with inexperienced officials who are perceived as attempting to establish their authority.
“I asked you a question. I just want to know, because I don’t want to make the same mistake,” Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart, whose three ejections are tied with Brooks and Sacramento’s Malik Monk for the most in the league this season, told ESPN. “I want to know what I’m doing wrong, so I can fix it. Sometimes, I think the communication is lost, especially when you have new guys officiating. They don’t really know. They just kind of pick up what they hear from somebody else, or they see one moment and that’s supposed to define you.
“We should be able to have a conversation. I should be able to ask you what I did wrong, and I should get an honest answer. Not a B.S. answer.”
McCutchen, who refereed for 25 years in the NBA before becoming the head of the league’s officiating program, agrees that players deserve answers. He instructs referees to listen to players first — although certain words can trigger an immediate technical — and avoid attempting to shout over them. Then they should respond with “an explanation through the rulebook.”
“When it comes to some of the high-energy personalities in our league, it’s really important that you don’t add fuel or oxygen to those fires,” McCutchen said. “One of the reasons they’re really great is they already possess enough fire, and there’s nothing wrong with that. What we can’t do is contribute oxygen to it by being emotional ourselves, by dealing in declarative statements. We have to remove all of that out and get to, ‘Here’s how I made my decision.’”
Other players pushed back on the notion there was a problem with the players-refs dynamic.
“It’s a tense game, so sometimes we might raise our voice a bit to try to get our point across, but I think we all learned to have a decent human conversation,” Suns superstar Kevin Durant told ESPN. “I know there’s a lot going on, but I think the players and refs’ relationship has gotten better over time since I’ve been in the league.”
Some players actually appreciate a referee who shows his personality.
“Tony Brothers will go back and forth with you,” Green said. “I love that. I think that’s incredible. You’re not a robot. …
“Those that have that human element, they have feel for the game. They’re not just like, ‘Oh, you touched him right there. By the rulebook, that’s a foul.’ You can’t referee this game just by no rulebook.”
Perhaps Green and Brooks have more in common than they might think.
“There’s guys like Tony who don’t take no s— from nobody, and that’s my favorite ref of all of them,” Brooks said of Brothers, who was alleged to refer to then-Mavericks guard Spencer Dinwiddie as a “bitch ass motherf—er” during a game on Nov. 4.
“He’ll bark back and then he’ll cut it off. He’s been in the league for so long, know what I mean? You’ve got to show respect for that.
“Then there’s guys who take it emotionally or take it the wrong way,” Brooks said. “Some of them don’t know how to ref passionate players. With me, I’m passionate, I play physical, I try to do all the little tricks on the defensive side, so it’s hard to ref me. …
“You’ve got to have conversations beforehand or after, or whatnot, and then you’ve still got to show them respect ultimately.”
If respect isn’t shown, a ref’s wrath might be felt.
“I don’t think being aggressive toward them will help you in any way,” Antetokounmpo said. “They’re human. They have emotions. If you talk bad at them, they don’t forget.”
Brooks, ever the diplomat, put it like this, “You’ve got to be positive and not so harsh with the refs.”
ESPN’s Tim Bontemps and Matt Williams contributed to this story.