The best officials in any game, as the saying goes, are those who make you forget they’re even there.
Right or wrong, no will ever accuse Dick Bavetta of having blended into the background.
On Tuesday it was announced that Bavetta is retiring as an NBA referee, and it’s notable if only because the man was as omnipresent a figure in recent league history as the embroidered silhouette of Jerry West.
Bavetta, 74, who broke into the league in 1974, officiated a record 2,635 consecutive NBA games, never missing an assignment. He worked hundreds of playoffs games, dozens of Finals games and the first Olympics that featured NBA players. He wasn’t universally loved among players or fellow referees, and criticism of his work (especially in later years) and allegations of game fixing (albeit from admitted game fixer, convicted felon and disgraced former referee Tim Donaghy) somewhat complicate Bavetta’s denouement.
For most of us who enjoy hoops, though, that’s all kind of besides the point. Bavetta approached his craft with a joie de vivre that was magnetic, never missing an opportunity to mug for a red-lit camera, break off a pregame shimmy for the crowd or channel his inner thespian in a bit with a team mascot. The collective ache for recognition and hyper-self-awareness of Idol-addled Americans is now fully realized, and today we’re numb to it, but Bavetta’s act appeared natural and heartfelt — no act at all. That was a big part of his appeal.
For my money, Bavetta’s finest hour came at the 2007 All-Star shindig, where the then-67-year-old ref accepted a challenge to face Charles Barkley — a Hall of Famer who, at 44, was only seven years removed from his playing career — in a footrace for charity.
Just watch the clip above and try picking your favorite moment. Can’t be done. It’s a giddy mix of high comedy, genuine competition and generation-spanning bro love, a work of art whose whole far exceeds the sum of its parts.
Check out Bavetta’s stone-faced expression throughout his introduction, the visage of a man about to take on The Undertaker at Wrestlemania. Watch him casually alpha-jog to his pre-race interview position, planting an utterly unself-conscious ass pat on emcee Ernie Johnson along the way.
Hear Johnson’s expertly doctored nickname for Barkley: “Sir Cumference.” Listen to Bavetta’s humble — or was it tongue-in-cheek? — thank you to Barkley for “the opportunity to be here tonight.” And then there’s this magnificent exchange between (now-longtime TNT studio co-hosts) Ernie and Charles, after Barkley is asked his thoughts on racing a near-septuagenerian:
“I’ve got nothing against old people,” Charles says. “I wanna be one one day.”
And Ernie’s pitch-perfect, deadpan response: “Then maybe you shouldn’t do this tonight.”
Even if you know the outcome (almost certainly) or have seen the footage at some point (likely), chances are the details are foggier than you remember. Screen the clip and you’ll find a few gems you’d forgotten.
Makes me wistful and a little sad that one of the league’s fixtures for nearly four decades — a metronomic presence that NBA fans my age grew up with — is pocketing his whistle for good. But that’s just the stubborn tug of nostalgia. No reason to lament Bavetta, who operated at the top of his profession for as long as many of us work during our entire lives — and did so with nary a sick day in between.
Hell, he was having too much fun to miss a moment. We should all be so lucky.