The outstretched arms pleading for sympathy are the same. So are the yelps of protest and the sometimes angry glares.
As a rule, NBA players treat Violet Palmer no differently than her male counterparts, which is the way she likes it.
“I’m a referee,” she said, “and I’m there to call a game.”
Palmer, 48, has been in the NBA since 1997, when she and Dee Kantner became the first female officials to work for a major professional sports league in the United States.
“Back in those early days, I never thought of myself as any kind of pioneer or a barrier breaker,” Palmer said. “I was just getting a chance in a game that I love and was too concerned with doing all of the things right to earn that position.
“But as the years have gone by and I’ve been asked to speak at a lot of career days and the subject comes up each year with Black History Month, I have come to understand the significance. I’m proud of having done something that nobody else has done and I’m most hopeful about having opened the doors for other young women in the future.”
Kantner was fired in 2002 for poor performance, but Palmer has continued to thrive and has a string of seven consecutive years of working in the playoffs, advancing as far as the conference semifinals. Only 36 of the league’s 62 officials work the postseason, an assignment based strictly on ratings and merit.
“I think all anybody cares about is competency,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “Gender has nothing to do with it. Competency speaks for itself.”
“They could be a Martian for all I care,” said Heat forward Shane Battier. “As long as they get calls right, are approachable and don’t have an ego trip, it doesn’t matter who it is blowing that whistle.
“I really think Violet is one of the better officials. She’s decisive in her calls. You’re allowed to talk to her. That’s all we want.”
Palmer’s playing career began at Compton High in Los Angeles and she went on to win a pair of NCAA Division II national titles at Cal Poly Pomona as a point guard in 1985 and 1986. After college, she worked for the City of Los Angeles as a recreation director and began to officiate games on the side at the high school and college level.
“I’m a basketball junkie,” she said. “Officiating was a way to stay close to the game and earn some part-time money. I had no idea when I started that I could make a career out of it. Then one day (1995) I got a call at home from (then NBA supervisor of officials) Darell Garretson, who said he’d started to track me and that the NBA was looking to train some women. At first, I thought some of my friends were playing a joke. But I found he was serious, got into the NBA training program and the first time I refereed a game in the summer league, I thought: ‘Oh boy! I love this and I will get me a job.’ ”
That job at the highest level of the game has evolved way past the point where anyone makes note or takes exception to her gender these days. Though in 2007, Celtics radio commentator Cedric Maxwell complained about calls and said she should “go back to the kitchen.”
Palmer laughs, shakes off any comments and only worries about making the next call. When she gets knocked down on the court, most of the players will lend a hand to help her back up. When she hits them with a technical foul, most will eventually come back and apologize for getting out of line. And a few have mentioned that the perfume she wears makes her the best-smelling ref in the league.
“I don’t mind,” she said laughing. “I am a woman. What I’ve found over the years is that while a lot of the fans in the stands are abusive, many of the players were raised by single, strong mothers and they respect me in that way.”
Part of that respect afforded to Palmer is probably reflected in the fact that two more female referees — Lauren Holtkamp and Brenda Pantoja — have officiated NBA games this season with virtually no fanfare and little notice.
“I think the ladies coming up need to pay homage to Violet for her paving the way,” said Spurs veteran Stephen Jackson said. “To me, Violet’s done a great job. Honestly, she does a better job than some men. She gets the utmost respect from me and she showed the NBA they could bring women in and they could get the job done.”
“I’m close to both of them,” Palmer said. “Any time they have a question, the first person they call is me. I had to walk through a lot of this by myself. To have more women coming behind is very inspiring to me. I’m happy to hold up the banner.”