The Secret Lives of NBA Referees
Former crew chief Bob Delaney spent a quarter-century on the hardwood stage as a highly decorated official, which made him the ideal tour guide for a look behind the curtain at life as an NBA referee.
With more than 1,700 regular season games, 160 playoff contests and nine NBA Finals under his belt, Delaney has seen everything the league has to offer.
Delaney sat down to talk with Bleacher Report about topics ranging from the offseason habits of officials to the amazing lengths he pursued in order to review game tape. Without spoiling anything, let's just say that Blockbuster Video played a prominent role.
Many NBA fans spend a little too much time criticizing the guys blowing the whistles. If everyone knew how much work these chronically under-appreciated officials put in, the general attitude toward them would certainly change.
You've watched them break up fights, hand out technicals and keep order in the wildest environments imaginable. Now take a peek at the side of NBA officiating that nobody sees.
On His Current Connection to the NBA
B/R: How are you staying involved with the NBA since you retired as an official in 2011?
Bob Delaney: I still do some work with the NBA. I have a title of NBA Cares Ambassador, so I do some community outreach work, mostly with the military .
I'm also an NBA Referee Department Development Advisor. In that role, I mentor NBA referees during the season. But that’s not a daily thing.
I may do two games a week, either in person at the arena. Sometimes, I'll watch on TV and speak with the officials afterward. I try to offer some thoughts on how they might improve, or reinforce what they’re doing right because they live in a negative world.
It’s important to reinforce what they’re doing correctly—as well as what needs to be worked on—because more often than not, they're hearing they’re doing something wrong.
On Staying Mentally Sharp Over the Summer
B/R: Do you "work on your game," so to speak, over the summer? Or do you just want to forget about basketball entirely?
BD: When I was officiating, I needed to get away from it when the season ended. The offseason is a time to refresh and get away from the game for a while.
But at some point in July, you start getting back into the rule book, or for me, I’d teach at referee camps or referee schools because by teaching, you’re reinforcing all of the positive traits in officiating.
And anytime you teach something, you’re learning in the process.
I think a lot of our officials do that. It’s a way of giving back to the next generation of officials, but it’s also a way of getting themselves ready for the season.
On the Role of Physical Health
Once mid-to-late-August starts, you’ve got to get a serious physical conditioning program going. One of the things I think you’ll probably note about NBA officials is that they’re in tremendous physical shape.
We have to be because we’re running up and down the floor with the greatest athletes in the world. In order to keep up with them, we know that we have to be in the best physical condition we can achieve, because we know that if we are physically tired it will lead to poor decision-making.
Mental fatigue will come soon after physical fatigue sets in, and mental alertness is directly related to physical fitness.
On the Early Stages of Film Study
When I started, we actually only learned by sitting around listening to veteran officials. And then the era of tape came in with Blockbuster.
[NBA officials] were able to get VHS tapes after games, but we didn’t have any equipment to play them on. So we figured out a gimmick where we’d go to Blockbuster in the afternoon and if you rented three movies, they’d give you a VCR (laughs).
So you had the VCR in the hotel room so when you came back from working your ball game and we were able to watch the VHS tape of the game from the TV feed and learn from it and critique each other.
The entire crew would go back and do that.
But the key was getting the movies and the VCR players back to Blockbuster in time because we were flying out the next day. We would give the bellman at the hotel an extra 20 bucks to run it back to Blockbuster for us.
On Tricks of the Trade
B/R: Is it true that you’d actually sometimes watch game tapes in fast forward to train your eye and speed up your reaction time?
Delaney: (Laughs) Yeah, I started that years ago.
If you’re refereeing at the high school level, you’ll want to go watch college games because it’s a faster-paced game. And when you see faster-paced games and then come back to the level of ball that you’re officiating, it will seem slower to you because your eyes adjust.
Now, that works at every level until you get to the NBA because that's the highest level you're going to work. So i started watching game tape on fast forward and I would click it one click faster each time to see how fast I could get it going and still be able to see what was going on on the floor while I was watching tape.
Then, when I went back on the floor, it seemed slower to me when the players were playing in real time, which gave me more opportunity to see the beginning, middle and end of a play. Thus, allowing me to hopefully make better decisions because I was seeing the entire play.