Sports

Who Referees the Referees? On TV, He Does.

SECAUCUS, N.J. — “They think they know refereeing,” Steve Javie muttered to no one in particular, wearing a wry smile. “It’s even hard in slow motion.”

The “they” could be anyone, from enraged fans to confused television broadcasters — and, sometimes, even Javie, who was an N.B.A. official for 25 years. He was sitting in a corner of a darkened control room in the league’s replay center, flanked by three monitors showing what seemed to be every conceivable angle of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks. A large flat-screen monitor loomed above, and a key light was stationed over his shoulder.

The space had the distinct air of the bridge of the starship Enterprise, except with only a couple of staffers and Javie aboard. Since the 2012 N.B.A. finals, it has been Javie’s job to help viewers on ESPN and ABC broadcasts understand the rationale behind officiating decisions and to explain whether he agrees. He called the control room, from which he shares his views, the “biggest sports bar without a bar.”

Steve Javie watches Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Boston Celtics.Credit…Brian Fraser for The New York Times

“Block/charge is always tough,” Javie, 67, said into his microphone following a charge call on Boston’s Jayson Tatum, connecting him with ESPN’s broadcast team of Mike Breen, the play-by-play announcer, and the analysts Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson.

Javie had the steady voice of a no-nonsense-but-congenial army general.

He grew up and lives outside Philadelphia. His father, Stan Javie, was an N.F.L. official, and his godfather, John Stevens, was an umpire in Major League Baseball. Javie was chosen to officiate 15 N.B.A. finals, an assignment typically reserved for referees with the highest grades for accuracy during the regular season and playoffs. He worked in the N.B.A. until 2011, when knee issues forced his retirement. Since then, he has provided on-air officiating insights for ESPN and ABC. When he started, it was still seen as an unusual innovation for sports broadcasts. A friend of Javie’s, the former N.F.L. referee Mike Pereira, had begun the practice for network broadcasts by doing N.F.L. games the year before and had received positive reviews.

“I never dreamed of something like this,” Javie said, crediting Pereira for opening the door for him. Joe Borgia, who retired from the N.B.A.’s referee operations department in 2020, also does commentary for Turner Sports.

In the first half of Javie’s career, he was known to have a hot temper. Javie described his style early in his career as “aggressive.” He ejected Hoops, the Washington Bullets mascot, in 1991 for, from his perspective, inciting the crowd. The game included several other ejections and Hoops was the last to go after the mascot raised its arms and invited the crowd to jeer the referees.

“He had a reputation when he first came into the league of being a young official who gave out a lot of technicals,” Breen said. “And normally when officials first start, they work their way in before they start handing out technicals left and right. But it just shows you how confident and fearless he was when he started.”

Javie with Sacramento’s Vlade Divac during Game 3 of the 2002 Western Conference finals between the Kings and the Los Angeles Lakers.Credit…Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

About a decade or so into his career, Javie mellowed, at least from his telling. One formative interaction he recalled was with the former guard Brian Shaw, who was playing for the Orlando Magic in the mid-1990s. Javie had assessed several technicals to players and was in an — ahem — foul mood.

“Brian Shaw is walking by me and I just hit another guy with a technical foul,” Javie said. “And I go, ‘You know what, it must be a full moon tonight.’ He looked at me. He goes, ‘Yeah, you’re the werewolf.’ Well, I had to give him a technical foul, too, but it was a good line.”

Monty McCutchen, the senior vice president of referee training for the N.B.A. and a former longtime colleague of Javie’s, disputed the perception that Javie had a temper. The mark of a temper is losing control of one’s emotions, he said.

“I never saw Steve out of control,” McCutchen said.

Javie’s ESPN career began with some “SportsCenter” hits. He said he didn’t have any media training. At first, he was nervous about commenting on his former co-workers.

These are his friends and his colleagues that he worked with for years, that now maybe he had to second-guess a call or two,” Breen said. “That’s a difficult thing for a guy to do.”

For Javie, professional empathy for officials is a must for a former referee on television, since crowds, coaches and players rarely provide any.

Workstations in N.B.A.s replay center in Secaucus, N.J. Officials here help decide calls when teams or on-site officials ask for reviews.Credit…Brian Fraser for The New York Times

“They think they can do it: ‘Look how they missed that one. How do you mess up?’” Javie said. “I told my producer: I’m always going to be an official, and I’ll speak as an official. I know what it’s like to have a big game. I know what it’s like to be in bad position. I know what it’s like to blow calls at the end of the game. You can’t sleep at night.”

Now, Javie said: “I feel a little more comfortable being able to say why I disagree. And I think that’s what ESPN wants. They want my opinion.”

Each year, Javie does about 40 games, including playoffs and the N.B.A. finals. Throughout the Bucks’ game with the Celtics, Javie scribbled notes on a lined notepad in front of him. They’re reminders about the rules. Notes like “no clear path” and “criteria for flagrant foul” in barely intelligible handwriting fill the pages. Other times, Javie would use a machine in front of him to scroll the game back and forth to watch replays.

And then there were the moments when Javie would be needed. He’d hear a voice call out, “They might go to Javie here” — and he would immediately sit up straight, swivel in his chair to face the light behind him and look directly into the camera.

This postseason has seen its share of public complaining from players, coaches and executives about perceived unfairness in officiating and flopping being rewarded. Milwaukee General Manager Jon Horst made a fuss about the lack of calls for the Bucks against Boston, while Celtics Coach Ime Udoka grumbled for the opposite reason.

This, in sports parlance, is known as working the refs — an attempt to persuade referees to make more friendly calls in the next game. It’s a fool’s errand, Javie said.

“They think it’s going to help them or something like that,” Javie said. “But any official worth their weight doesn’t give a darn what this guy says.”

Away from the control room, Javie doesn’t spend any time watching basketball. He’s not a fan of the sport — it’s just business. His energy is spent mostly on spiritual endeavors and time with his wife, Mary-ellen Javie. He recently became an ordained minister, the latest step in his relationship with Catholicism, which began to evolve when he met Mary-ellen in the late-1980s at an airport counter.

“I started getting back in my faith while we were dating,” Steve said.

The journey “never ends,” he added. “And now we go through it together, which is really kind of cool.”

Faith helped Javie get through a moment that threatened not just his livelihood, but his freedom. In 1999, Javie faced a federal prison sentence after he and several other referees were charged with tax evasion. The officials were accused of flying coach when the N.B.A. had purchased first-class tickets and then not reporting the difference in prices as income. The N.B.A. rules allowed for the downgrading of tickets and accepting the cash surplus, but the prosecutors said the officials were obligated to pay taxes on that money. Javie was the only official to fight the charges.

Javie isn’t a basketball fan, but he does like the Philadelphia Eagles.Credit…Brian Fraser for The New York Times

“In my faith journey, that was momentous,” Javie said, adding: “I don’t wish a federal trial on anybody. Two weeks in federal court, not knowing what the consequences could be, weighed very heavily on me. And I just couldn’t handle it.”

He began to attend mass daily instead of just on Sundays. And he leaned on the closest person to him.

“I said, ‘Mary-ellen, what’s going to happen if I’m found guilty and I’m convicted and I go to jail?’ She goes, ‘Well, then when you get out, we pick up the pieces and we move on,’” Steve said.

He was acquitted by a jury in Philadelphia. Decades later, life is simpler now for Javie. He spends his summer weekends at the Jersey Shore with his wife, in an area where his former colleagues also spend summers. He’s a Philadelphia Eagles fan. But as far as broadcasting goes, Javie said that he saw himself as more of an “exception” in terms of post-career options for officials. In fact, Javie said no younger official has ever approached him for advice on breaking into the field.

“Actually, I’m kind of looking for someone to take my spot when I go,” Javie said, adding, “I’ll do it as long as they want me.”

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