By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
There was a miserable morning in Toronto a few years back, when the airport was frozen over and the de-icing trucks were bone dry. He and fellow ref Mike (Duke) Callahan were booked for another game that night in Cleveland, so they rented a car and slid their way out of Ontario, no GPS and only the city of Buffalo as their North Star to navigate to northeast Ohio.
There was the time he had a flight to work a Celtics game re-routed to Bangor, Maine, and bribed a cab driver into taking him overnight to Boston for $400. Even then, they had to stop at the driver’s house first, so he could convince his wife it was OK.
There have been snowstorms in Chicago, a broken nose in New Jersey and the triple-crown of airport lockdowns — LaGuardia, Kennedy and Newark all shut down by weather. Yet even mail carriers with their “neither snow nor rain…” creed could learn a few things from veteran NBA referee Dick Bavetta.
Travel snags and injuries have caused a few close calls, but when the 74-year-old Bavetta works the Brooklyn Nets-New York Knicks game Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden (7 ET, ESPN), he will log his 2,633rd consecutive game. His streak dates back to his NBA debut game on Dec. 2, 1975, which means Bavetta has given the NBA 38 1/2 years of unbroken service without using one sick day.
Why is the number notable? Cal Ripken Jr., the MLB Baltimore Orioles’ Hall of Fame shortstop, pushed his more famous streak of consecutive games to 2,632 after eclipsing Lou Gehrig in 1995.
“They could always find people to work if you had to miss a game, but I never wanted to inconvenience other referees,” Bavetta said from his hotel in New York Tuesday. “To me, it was determination, dedication. I’ve always said, ‘No, we’ve got to give it our best shot to get there.’ ”
Bavetta’s Manhattan hotel was close enough this time that, even in the event of a flash blizzard, he could walk to MSG for tipoff between the Nets and Knicks. That meant he only had to avoid a misstep or an overzealous taxi in the crosswalk.
VIDEO: Open Court’s crew recalls Dick Bavetta’s classic footrace with Charles Barkley
Dedicated to honing his craft
Referees’ schedules aren’t made public in advance, so it’s hard to know when one of them actually has stuck to his or not. A full season is pretty much the same as the players and the teams: 82 games. In his first two years, Bavetta was a part-timer, which meant he was scheduled for 68-70 games (making $200 a night, $16,000 a year at the start).
Since then, he has been full-time like no one else, adding 270 playoff games, including 27 in The Finals, to his resume. He has worked multiple All-Star games and international NBA events, as well as the “Dream Team” Olympics in 1992.
Raised in New York, Bavetta attended Power Memorial, the same Manhattan high school where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played. He had a first career as a broker on Wall Street, but his brother, Joe, refereed ABA games. That helped draw Dick into the profession. After years of amateur, high school and college games, Bavetta worked in the minors (the Eastern League that morphed into the CBA) for nine years.
Each year, he tried to get to the NBA. Finally, after honing his craft (“I thought I was ready earlier, but I wasn’t”) he made it on his ninth try. Now he ranks as the NBA’s all-time leader among officials in games, with fellow vet Joey Crawford in hot pursuit 100 or so games behind.
“My upbringing was, you didn’t miss days of school and you went to work, regardless of the circumstances,” said Bavetta, the son of a New York cop. “I can’t remember even high school games in New York City or the Eastern League … whatever it would take to get to the game.”
A rough career, on and off the court
His only real concession to the grind has been requesting no back-to-back games for the past five or six seasons. Bavetta had plenty of years doing five games in seven nights or seven in nine, but spacing out his games gives him more travel and recovery time. That’s helpful with the streak, but it does accordion-out his schedule, making it tough to get even consecutive days off. And on the days in between, he still works out — he had just gotten back from a long run through Central Park before he picked up the phone.
Schedules rocked by family members or other things from his personal life? Fuhgedaboudit. They’ve been scheduled around his NBA work.
“I’ve missed birthdays,” Bavetta said. “Haven’t missed weddings.”
Obviously Bavetta has had memorable games prior to this one tonight. He had to go solo at a Celtics-76ers game after partner Jack Madden suffered a broken leg and it ended up being the game in which Larry Bird and Julius Erving grabbed each other by the throat and got tossed. There have been controversial moments, too, as Utah Jazz and Sacramento Kings fans can quickly recall and grumble about from the playoffs.
One game a while back that nearly snapped Bavetta’s streak, though, came in New York. When a skirmish broke out between Knicks center Patrick Ewing and the Pacers’ Jalen Rose that night, Rose threw a punch that missed Ewing and hit Bavetta smack in the nose. “I’m going down and if it wasn’t for the fact I was holding onto Patrick’s jersey, I’d have been down and out,” Bavetta remembered.
Bavetta stubbornly finished the game with a broken nose and a Band-Aid across it, but required micro-surgery the next morning. That was supposed to put him out for at least a week but, hey, he had a Nets game at the Meadowlands the next night. So naturally, he persuaded doctors to give him clearance.
That night, Bavetta went onto the court again with a Band-Aid across his nose. His two fellow refs, goofing on him, did the same and got the folks at the scorers’ table to all tape Band-Aids across their noses, too. Nets forward Jayson Williams already had a broken nose and was wearing one.
So when Charlotte’s Baron Davis walked to center court shortly before tipoff for the captains’ meeting, he wondered what was going on.
Said Bavetta: “I told him, ‘Baron, you can’t attend this meeting unless a Band-Aid on your nose.’ He went back and got one so he wouldn’t be different. … We do whatever it takes to work the game.”
Bavetta keeps chugging along
Bavetta has seen all the changes swirl around him through the years, from two-man crews to the current three, from the “play on!” mentality a few decades ago to the replays and zero-tolerance policy applied by the referees’ overseers today.
As for how much longer, Bavetta said: “I haven’t thought about it. People ask about years. I look at this thing in days. Getting to the next game. I worked in Atlanta Monday, I’m in New York Wednesday. Health is so fleeting – I’ve seen it where a player just turns the wrong way. A calf pull, a knee can go in an instant.”
The streak-breaker, whether MLB decides to recognize Bavetta’s total or not, puts him full circle. He made his debut in 1975, eight days before his 36th birthday, in a Celtics-at-Knicks contest. “I said, ‘What better way than to have the streak ‘broken’ than back at Madison Square Garden?’ But the league arranged my schedule accordingly,” Bavetta said. “We don’t get a say.”
So might he job around the perimeter of the court after the final horn, a la Ripken, slapping hands with fans in attendance? “I don’t think so,” he said. “Probably couldn’t afford the fine.”
Missing calls is a fact of any game official’s life, from umpires to NBA refs. Missing games, that’s been the infallible thing for Bavetta.
Gallery: Dick Bavetta’s career