Dick Bavetta started his career as an NBA referee when there were just 18 teams in the NBA. The Kings were in Kansas City, the Jazz were in New Orleans, and there was still a team in Buffalo. Just one current NBA player—Steve Nash—had been born, and just two current arenas—Madison Square Garden and Oracle Arena (then known as Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena)—were in use. The ABA was still going, and the NBA didn’t have a three-point line yet. It was a long time ago, is what I’m getting at.
Bavetta’s very first NBA game was on December 2nd, 1975. The Knicks hosted the Celtics and lost 103-100, the game iced by a pair of free throws from journeyman Celtics center Jim Ard. The Celtics went on to win their 13th championship, the Knicks went on to miss the playoffs, and Bavetta went on to ref 2,635 straight regular-season games before announcing his retirement this week.
He was the NBA’s cadaverous constant, preceding and outlasting Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and David Stern. Bavetta started when there were just two officials assigned to work each game, which became a problem in a November 9, 1985 matchup between the undefeated Celtics and Sixers when his partner, Jack Madden, left the game with an injury and Larry Bird and Dr. J wound up trying to kill each other (Bavetta ejected them both—Bird with 43 points in 30 minutes, Doc with 6 in 23—and the Celtics won by 11). At least he didn’t get hurt in that particular melée—that didn’t happen until late March of 1999 when a Jalen Rose punch intended for Patrick Ewing broke his nose. He had surgery the following morning, and worked the Nets/Hawks game at the Meadowlands two nights later.
Bavetta was the NBA’s cadaverous constant, preceding and outlasting Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and David Stern.
He never missed a game he was assigned to work, not once in 39 years, including 270 playoff games (27 in the Finals) and three All-Star games, in 1989, 1995 and 2006. He broke Cal Ripken’s consecutive-games streak just last season, and while it seems a little unfair to compare a major-league infielder with a basketball referee, it’s worth remembering that Ripken was 41 at the end of his streak while Bavetta was eight days shy of 36 at the start of his, and that the NBA season is half as long as the MLB one. He retires at 74, having spent over half his life in the NBA.
It’s a pretty safe bet that Bavetta will be the 15th referee inducted into the Hall of Fame—maybe he should get the same consideration David Stern received in skipping the standard five-year waiting period—and just the third who spent a majority of his career in the post-merger NBA. He won’t find much support from Sacramento Kings fans, who still haven’t forgiven him for 2002’s Game Six against the Lakers where the Lakers took 45 FTs to the Kings’ 30. Or from anyone who sneeringly referred to him as “Knick” Bavetta, a nickname he got from then-Heat guard Tim Hardaway, which he especially seemed to earn after the deciding Game Six of the ‘99 Eastern Conference Finals (the Knicks took 33 FTs to the Pacers’ 9). Disgraced former ref Tim Donaghy once claimed that Bavetta tailored his officiating to make blowouts closer, a claim that did not hold up under closer scrutiny. Then again, anyone who works a job like his as long as he did will make some enemies.
If his 39-year career could be measured in miles run, both in-game and training, the number would be absurd—without counting his infamous race against Charles Barkley during halftime of the 2007 All-Star game. He ran eight miles every morning, even on game days, staying in better shape than some of the players less than half his age. If he watches NBA games in retirement one would assume he’d have to watch from a treadmill, although perhaps he could forego his standard five pairs of socks and go back to his normal shoe size.
The end of the Bavetta era marks the end of an entire style of refereeing, one that had something of a human element. Bavetta interacted with mascots, fans, and players alike, all while never becoming a spectacle himself (unlike a certain bald peer). He was never an automaton, yet always seemed to have the respect of the players he officiated. He remained tolerant to opposing views even when they were essentially legislated out of the game. From his first game to his last, Bavetta knew the most important part of his job was showing up, not showing up the players. So that’s exactly what he did—every single day.
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