SALT LAKE CITY — For Jazz fans who were at the Delta Center on June 14, 1998, the name Dick Bavetta still makes their blood run cold. He, as much as Michael Jordan, haunts their dreams.
But at last he’ll be out of their faces.
After 39 years as an NBA referee, Bavetta announced this week he’ll be retiring at age 74. Jazz fans will need to find someone else to upbraid. But they’ll never forget him. He’s the referee that waved off Jazz guard Howard Eisley’s 3-point basket in Game 6 of the NBA Finals against Chicago, ruling it was after the shot clock had expired. He later allowed Bulls’ guard Ron Harper’s 2-point basket to count, though that time the shot clock had expired in the fourth quarter of a tie game.
Bavetta was also on the court when Michael Jordan bumped Bryon Russell before scoring the game-winning basket.
Conspiracy wonks have been analyzing it ever since.
So naturally you would think Jerry Sloan would be doing cartwheels. His officiating nemesis is history.
“I thought he was a good ref,” the former Jazz coach said this week. “Anybody who can stay with something that long has to be good at what they do; those guys are hard to come by. He stood the test of time; it’s not an easy job.”
Take Sloan off the list of people wanting Bavetta indicted.
“I think everybody has a chance of missing calls; nobody bats a thousand in this league, in coaching as well. But I think his interest was in doing the best he could for the league and everyone involved,” Sloan said. “I never felt anything malicious about the calls. After the game was over and you see what’s going on, they do a pretty darn good job.”
As much as Jazz fans dislike the slim, even-tempered Bavetta, few know he was one of the most respected officials in the league. While Sloan had problems with certain officials over the years (hello, Steve Javie, Courtney Kirkland), he seldom ranted at Bavetta. What set Bavetta apart was the sense he was listening. He would stand close to a complaining Sloan and nod before explaining the call, rather than walking away or going all Joey Crawford and stealing the stage. He could sometimes be seen with an arm on the back of a player.
The catcalls were never personal to Bavetta, though Jazz fans wanted them to be. Sloan said he didn’t think Bavetta’s calls/no-calls in 1998 were driven by an agenda and he doesn’t dwell on it.
“I think you’ve got to put it behind you and go about your business. To be so concerned about something like that — you have no control over it whatsoever — so you just have to hope your team gets the benefit of the doubt,” Sloan said.
Bavetta showed a humorous side when he accepted a challenge to meet Charles Barkley in a footrace in 2007. Though Barkley won, Bavetta — who jogged up to eight miles a day — claimed he was favored.
“I’ve learned as an official in all my years, I never take myself too seriously,” Bavetta said afterward.
A lot of other people sure did.
For them, Sloan has an answer: calm down.
In the game’s most famous play, Michael Jordan swept back Bryon Russell to clear space for the game-winning shot.
“I think everybody does it now. I think that’s how guys play the game and I think it’s a call they don’t often make,” Sloan said, wryly adding, “Then again, Miss America gets what she wants.”
Sloan, who still lives in Utah, recently had back surgery, but was taking his daily walk on Wednesday. Clearly he has recused himself in the case of The People vs. Dick Bavetta. Asked if the longtime ref did miss key calls in 1998, Sloan only reiterated that nobody’s perfect.
“I thought the officials got a lot better,” he deadpanned, “when I quit coaching.”
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