Whenever a player called him “ref” or “sir,” Monty McCutchen asked them to try again — he wanted to be called by his name.
McCutchen grew up in a small town in Texas. Making it to the NBA as a professional referee from his humble beginnings felt like achieving the dream of a lifetime. Quickly into his career, he realized that every NBA job — player, coach, scout, manager and more — required a certain level of work, self-pride and dedication to reach.
So he had a deal: He would respect players and coaches by learning all of their first names. And he expected the same in return.
“For me the foundation of that desire that we all use first names is that we honor each other by building good relationships,” McCutchen told The Salt Lake Tribune. “You can’t do that if you’re using monikers or a large portion of formality. It helps us move toward authenticity, and we all deserve our respect of getting down to authentic work.”
What McCutchen, now working in the league office in a new position over referee training and development, is referring to is healthy relationships between officials and NBA players — relationships that, if recent headlines are to be believed, have frayed recently. There’s been high-profile incidents with Shaun Livingston, Draymond Green and other players this season sounding off against refs that have given a little added jolt to an always-wary relationship.
McCutchen said the NBA tracked technical fouls and ejections this season close to the number of previous seasons, so the officiating “crisis” may be a slightly overblown narrative. But the NBA is still taking special efforts to foster respect and empathy between players and referees through a “Respect For The Game” initiative that McCutchen is personally presenting to all 30 teams individually.
He met with the Jazz on Wednesday in Indianapolis, with discussions focused on improving communication between two parties who naturally butt heads on the court. But he also has been taking questions from players and helping illuminated exactly all the work officials do to improve how they call the game.
Jazz coach Quin Snyder said he appreciated the opportunity for his players to learn a little more about the referees they chirp with.
“I think sometimes people don’t understand the pressure that the referees are under,” Snyder said. “Those guys are scrutinized. They watch film. I don’t know if the average fan, or even some of the players, know how hard these guys work at their job. It’s important that gets communicated.”
McCutchen said he’s not putting it all on the players to make things better: Referees are being trained more than ever on communication and listening. In every game, officials are taught to wipe the slate clean — they aim not to bring any past history with players or coaches into that night’s play.
So Snyder’s ejection Monday night against the Magic? It didn’t come up much at the Wednesday meeting.
“A clean slate is the basis of integrity,” McCutchen said.
He stressed that officiating will never be perfect, but it can reach an high standard. And far from the criticism referees receive from fans or players, they’re often hardest on themselves.
“Referees play a big part in a small service to the game, and we take it very seriously and sacredly in some ways,” he said. “No one’s claiming that we don’t make plenty of errors. We’re constantly trying to reduce those and become very proficient in the rules and calling what we can see and reach a level of excellence. We work really, really hard.”
Snyder said he thought his players did take away some added respect for what officials do from their meeting with McCutchen, and that he appreciated the league trying to make strides in an area where it has received scrutiny. The Jazz do their own work in trying to educate their players on how to talk to officials respectfully.
“We talk about that to our guys all the time,” he said. “We show our guys film to talk about when’s the best time to talk to a referee. How do you speak to them? What’s your body language like? So those are all things, I think, that you get affirmation that it’s important.”