In every single professional basketball game ever played, one team on the floor goes full bore the whole time the clock is running, yet is invisible. In fact, the team that plays this way best serves the fans by remaining absolute unknowns and making as little perceptible impact on the match as possible. We’re talking here about that third team involved in a game of hoops, of course: The referees.
Basketball referees have simply got to be some of the game’s biggest devotees out there. After all, the members of this team are in literally a no-win situation: With little personal individual glory, referees are typically only remembered by a losing team’s fans made indignant with the seething hatred brought on by a questionable call. And the guys and gals in stripes do it all for the good of the game.
Near the tops in his field, Romualdas Brazauskas reckons he’s been a referee for 36 of his 49 years, though he “only” became a FIBA referee in 1987 at the age of 27. Since then, Brazauskas has been acknowledged as a master among those in-the-know and he was one of 11 men nominated for Euroleague “50 Greatest Contributors of All-Time” honors in the refereeing category.
Nowadays, Brazauskas can be seen (if you look for him) in most of the world’s highest levels of competition. A glance at his recent résumé shows that, among others, he called games in the FIBA Oceania Championship 2007, both men’s and women’s competition of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Euroleague Final Four games in 2008 and 2009 (the ninth and tenth time he’d called games in this round), and the just-finished Eurobasket 2009.
In preparation for regular-season games, he worked the first Maroussi-Aris game in the Euroleague preliminary round.
Off the court, he has held positions with the Lithuanian basketball federation and the Lithuanian basketball association executive committee; Brazauskas was named Baltic Basketball League director in 2007.
Mr. Brazauskas recently took ten minutes to talk with Ball in Europe about his job, keeping in shape and why friendly games are the most difficult for the referee corps.
How/why does one choose to enter the refereeing business as opposed to coaching, for example?
I cannot comment on why other people chose a referee’s career as opposed to one of a coach. It would be interesting if somebody did research on that topic and found reasons behind such choices. In my case, it wasn’t me who chose refereeing but refereeing instead “chose” me. In high school, a teacher gave me, a 13-year-old, a whistle and told me to officiate. I was not scared of such responsibility; I even liked it because I felt like an important part of the game. And here I am, having not parted with my whistle for 36 years.
In your opinion, what makes a good referee?
Firstly, I think it is essential to have played basketball yourself, i.e. to have done basketball training for at least a few years. When officiating, it helps to feel the game, which you cannot learn by reading a textbook.
Secondly, it is important to really love basketball, or to be “a fanatic,” if you can say so. This is because you have to give up a lot of your free time which you could have spent with family or friends. However, on the other hand, you find new friends on basketball court and learn to manage your time.
Do referees have idols or models, like the players? Are veteran referees held up as examples for the younger ones?
I haven’t had one model to follow. I have observed the work done by experienced referees and tried to adopt those officiating details that I liked, for example the way they show signals, their posture on the court, the style of communication with players or coaches.
After the game (in the locker room or during dinner), we analyze game situations for a long time, and everybody has the right to speak up, be it a young or an experienced referee. In my opinion, these kinds of discussions help the young referees improve.
Who is the best referee you’ve ever seen and why?
There are many good referees; I would not like to single out one. I have had the honour to meet and officiate with many famous referees of the world. Each of them has their own refereeing style, but still the best referee is the one who is almost unnoticeable on the court.
As a referee, you are doing as much running as the players themselves; how do you keep in shape for this work?
Good physical condition is a must. It is very important that the referee is not tired at the end of the game, because one mistake can determine the result of the game. Referees run two hours without substitution, therefore it is critical to train your endurance. That’s why, when the officiating season is over, I start preparing for the next one: I run, play basketball, tennis. During the season, I only maintain my physical shape.
What sort of pre-game preparation do you do? Do you have any personal pre-game rituals or superstitions?
Usually pre-game preparation includes a friendly talk with co-officials: We discuss the main points that we will pay attention to during the game. Then we warm up and stretch. I don’t have any personal rituals, as I am not superstitious, however … I always put on my referee uniform in the same order.
Is any game or competition more difficult to call than any of the others?
For me, it is more difficult to officiate friendly pre-season games and those with a big score difference. Those so-called friendly games are usually not so “friendly,” because the players are just back from physical preparation, they have a lot of energy, and they want to show off. In these games, there is a lot of rough play, as the players don’t care about getting a technical or an unsportsmanlike foul. For them, it is most important to perform well and to gain the coach’s trust. In the games with a big score difference, it’s difficult to concentrate, as the score makes you drowsy.
I am at my best in officiating important games. I can concentrate and focus my attention during the whole game.
What’s the best part of your job?
Traveling over the world. I meet a lot of interesting and charismatic persons – players, coaches, referees, and all of them share a passion for basketball.
Also I feel very good when after the game, the coach of the losing team sincerely thanks me for a job well done.
When you’re calling a game, do you ever sense that the game might one day be considered a classic?
I never think about that; I just try to do my job honestly and responsibly. Each game is very important to the teams because it cannot be repeated.
Does stuff like “The Jordan Rules” really exist? In other words, do veteran superstars “get the calls” in a game, or even just the benefit of the doubt?
On the court I forget who is who. That’s why, when I called a traveling violation on Michael Jordan in the McDonald’s Open in Paris in ’97, the audience did not understand me.
A couple of years ago, the NBA was rocked by the Mike Donaghy scandal. Could this happen in Europe? What is to stop something like this happening in European basketball?
One of the most important qualities of a human, as well as a referee, is honesty. It is not possible to put a policeman next to each person.
Finally, often after a foul, we see all the referees congregate on the court talking very excitedly. What exactly is being discussed in this situation?
During the game on the court there are not two teams, as everybody thinks, but three. The third one is the referees’ team. Usually we congregate during timeouts. We try to support each other – sometimes encouraging, sometimes helping calm down. We also discuss recent situations and focus on further work.