It was time for another family meeting, no different from the annual confabs they’d had for the previous half dozen years. Every Fourth of July weekend, at their log cabin retreat in the Adirondacks of upstate New York, Dick Bavetta would put the question to his wife Paulette and daughters Christine and Michele:
What d’ya think? One more season?
“We usually put it to a vote,” Bavetta said this week. “And I don’t get a vote. They basically listen to what I have to say and then they vote. The last six years, it’s always been 2-1 to go back. Christine, who’s like our Wall Street wizard, she’d always say, ‘Daddy, why are you subjecting yourself to all this travel and everything?’
“This year when we met, it was 3-0 to retire.”
Whoa. That result rocked Bavetta in his chair, the idea that after 39 years running the courts of the NBA as one of its most durable and most visible referees, Bavetta would be done. But after a record 2,635 consecutive regular-season games — a streak that earned Bavetta attention and kudos rare during most of his working years -– along with 270 playoff appearances and 27 Finals games, now seemed as good a time as any.
Season after season, Bavetta was out there, a familiar face to players, to coaches and to certain diehard fans around the league who, whether they realized it or not, had become familiar faces to him. This season, he won’t be.
“I said, ‘What’s the thinking here?’ ” Bavetta recalled. “They said, ‘You’re 74 years old’ — and I say this with humility — ‘and you’ve pretty much accomplished everything there was to accomplish.’ “
The NBA has a July 15 deadline each summer for officials to share their intentions for the coming season, so Bavetta’s decision had been in the book for more than a month when the league announced his retirement Tuesday. He was lauded by Rod Thorn, NBA president of basketball operations, for a dedicated career that began on Dec. 2, 1975 — Knicks-Celtics, Madison Square Garden — and in time included three All-Star Games, two Olympics and other international competitions.
“My wife said to me, ‘What’s the difference if you work next year between 2,635 [games] and 2,695? Or 40 years instead of 39 years?’ And last year was a tough year travel-wise with the weather,” Bavetta said. “Just putting this all together, I have been so blessed to have good health and be able to look back on a career that finished with a cherry on top with the ‘iron man’ streak.”
A native of Brooklyn who attended the same high school (Power Memorial) as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bavetta slogged through nine seasons in the Eastern League (CBA precursor) before reaching the NBA. He also worked games at the Rucker League, Jersey Shore Basketball, FIBA and public and Catholic leagues in New York.
In a phone chat this week, NBA.com asked Bavetta to reflect on some of his highlights and lowlights at basketball’s highest level. Because he already had shared details in April of his streak-busting game — it surpassed Cal Ripken‘s MLB mark of 2,632 — and a broken nose he suffered on-court in the 1990s that nearly snapped it, we skipped those here:
- Most memorable game: Philadelphia at Boston, Nov. 9, 1984. That was the night his partner Jack Madden suffered a broken leg in a collision with Celtics guard Dennis Johnson, forcing Bavetta to work solo the rest of the way. “It turned out to be the game where [Larry] Bird and [Julius] Erving decided to start choking each other.” Bavetta ejected them both and also ran off Sixers coach Billy Cunningham, thinking he had picked up a second technical foul. But an earlier one called by Madden had been on Cunningham’s assistant Matt Guokas, so Bavetta sent word to the locker room for Cunningham to return. “He said, ‘It was bad enough having people pouring beer over my head going off the court. But then I had to have it again coming back on,’ ” the referee recalled.
- Player whose games you wish you’d worked: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson.
- Favorite NBA city: Phoenix, Miami, L.A. “I run my eight miles every day, even during the season, day of the game. So when I’m in warm weather, it makes it that much easier.”
- Favorite hotel: The Marriott River Walk in San Antonio. “I’d always get a room on the 26th floor because it’s one of the few high-rise hotels where you can open the sliding doors and sit out on the balcony. The ambiance of the city and stuff like that.”
- Favorite restaurant: “All of the Marriott concierge lounges. You can’t beat the continental breakfasts and the evening [snacks and beverages].” Can’t beat the prices, either, since it’s all comped for heavy-duty Marriott users.
- Best crowds: L.A., New York and Boston. “Avid, knowledgeable basketball fans.”
- Most memorable fans: Too many to list, from Jack Nicholson and his jibes courtside at Lakers games to seniors who thank him for motivating them to stay active. And there was a young couple who approached Bavetta during a layover at the Dallas airport a few years ago. “They asked if they could take my picture and I said sure,” Bavetta said. “They were on their honeymoon. They said, ‘This picture’s going into our wedding album.’ “
- Call you wish you had back: “Too many to mention. Every night there was something you wished you could go back and change. It has given me humility.”
- Most challenging coach: “The old-school guys,” Bavetta said. “Dick Motta and Bill Fitch come to mind. They took no prisoners — they equated lack of experience when I first started [with lack of competence]. You were challenged.”
Bavetta chuckled as he recalled tossing Motta, then coaching Washington, out of a Christmas Day game. The coach had been on him through the first half but only, ultimately, crossed the verbal line as the teams and the refs were walking off at the intermission. It happened under the stands, so “the only people who knew I threw him out were the vendors,” Bavetta said.
The P.A. announcer in Landover, Md., informed the crowd before the start of the second half. Bavetta was talking with Washington assistant Bernie Bickerstaff during warmups when he felt a tap on his shoulder. “It was Motta,” Bavetta said, “and he said, ‘I’ve just been informed that I’ve been ejected from the game.’ “
That’s right, the referee told him, and you shouldn’t even be out here now.
“But Dick, it’s Christmas Day. Where’s your holiday spirit?”
“Look at it this way,” Bavetta recalled saying. “If you leave now, you’ll get a head start on opening your presents.”
Tales like that are the kind of stories that could make for a pretty entertaining book. Bavetta said he has no interest in any sort of tell-all memoir to dwell on the controversial calls (Lakers-Kings, game 6, 2002) or characters (disgraced ref Tim Donaghy) he encountered through the years. “Just all the funny stories,” he said.
The book can wait for now, however. Bavetta already has enrolled at a junior college to take guitar lessons — his father was a concert violinist and his grandfather wrote operas, so there is untapped musical aptitude there. He said he wants to take Spanish lessons, too.
It seems logical that Bavetta — with the persistence of friend Bill King, the former Milwaukee media relations director who lobbied for Don Nelson‘s induction into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame — will join the other 14 referees already enshrined. And in the meantime, he’ll have to fight a familiar urge when the calendar turns to October and, for the first time in 49 years, he’s not on a basketball court with a whistle between his teeth.
“I’ll probably go out and look for a CYO center somewhere,” said Bavetta, who lives most of the year in Florida. “That’s how it all started for me, doing games for $5 back in Brooklyn.”
That’s way in the past. Bavetta’s head now is in the future.
“There’s more out there,” he said. “There’s grandchildren. There’s daughters to spend time with. To be able to walk away with good health and a career that has left me fulfilled, life is good, God is good.”