Mentor, Motivator, Rules Expert and Veteran NBA Referee
James Capers gives an inside look into the referee training process, toughest calls to make, mechanics of an officiating crew and more
Rising in the ranks from rookie NBA ref to influential veteran NBRA member with more than 22 years of experience is something only a few can say they have accomplished. And while accomplishing this feat, James Capers has made his mark as a rules expert — and particularly adept at explaining the nuances of the rules to those who aren’t on the court each game.
We talked to Capers for the latest in our referee profiles (see Tyler Ford’s previously):
NBRA: Where did you begin your career in officiating and what did you you do before becoming a referee?
James Capers: I was a salesmen for 10 years before I got to the NBA with Xerox. While I was working there, I started refereeing high school basketball in the Chicago area at the influence of my father. He refereed in the NBA for 24 years. He said, ‘you’ve always loved the game and you’ve always played the game, why don’t you start refereeing and making little extra money on the side?’ So, I started refereeing high school and have loved it since the beginning. Ten years later, I entered the NBA after a six year stint in the minor leagues.
NBRA: What is the NBA referee training process like and how does that continue throughout your career as an official?
JC: The NBA training process is a very detailed process. They begin looking for prospects in what they call the grassroots program. Then the league starts making determinations on whether or not they would like to include you into the NBA development program. That’s when they put you into the minor leagues, which when I was going through was called the CBA but is now called the D-League. Once you’re in the D-League, you are closely monitored at a professional level by several members of NBA management. The primary goal is that you will be able to enter the summer leagues where you can perform in front of members of management like Bob Delaney (Vice President / Director of Officials) and Mike Bantom (Executive Vice President Referee Operations), who know how many spots are available and how many openings there are. Once you’re hired into the NBA, you get assigned to a manager who oversees your progression as you’re coming up through the league. You also have the monitoring and direction of Bob Delaney. The crew chiefs are also involved in on the floor training and tape room training with the young refs.
NBRA: What is the difference between ‘academic’ officiating and ‘game-flow’ officiating and how do you apply both when officiating?
JC: You can do all the studying you want in the rule book, the case book and the manual to learn the black and white principles of officiating at the NBA level. But once you’re able to train your eye to the speed, height and physicality of our game, and then being able to apply those things from the book to the game, is when you’re able to achieve success on the floor.
NBRA: How do the dynamics of a three referee crew work? What different responsibilities do the three roles have and how do they work together?
JC: We try to have a partnership and work as a cohesive unit on the floor. Ultimately when certain decisions are made, it’s the crew chief’s job to take the information from the others and then make the final decision. The official that is up under the basket in a half court setting is called the lead, the official who is in the center is called the slot official, and then the official furthest away from the basket is the trail official. Our goal on every possession is to have two sets of eyes on the same side as the ball. Obviously we have to rotate in order to accomplish that. The whole rotation is dictated by the lead official. So they have to know what side of the floor the ball is coming up, or, in a half court set, being able to look through his peripherals to see when the ball is thrown to the other side of the floor so we can try our best to maintain that type of position prior to any shot being attempted.
NBRA: What goes into making a travel call? What do fans not understand about the difficulty of making a call like that?
JC: First, over the last three or four years, because of the point of emphasis that is put on us regarding that play, we have gotten tremendously better at calling it. The challenge is that we have a philosophy of refereeing the defender, where as 90% of the people who watch the game just watch the ball or the offensive player. The logic of officiating is to referee the defender because if you have your eye on the defender, any infraction that is committed, whether it be by the defender or an offensive foul by the offensive player, can be determined by referring the defender because he has to have set position on the floor to enable him to take an offensive foul. We are also able to see when he reaches, stops, when he impedes or when he dislodges by looking at those types of plays. So the defender is the key to refereeing philosophy, which can sometimes make it challenging to call a travel. Because we have to be focused on the defender, we may miss the start of a sprint travel on the perimeter or maybe an extra step on a drive to the basket, but I think overall we are getting better because we are now changing our focus when there is not defensive pressure to focus on the offensive player first. I think people will see huge strides in how were are able to officiate traveling in the NBA.
NBRA: What do you consider one of the most difficult infractions to call?
JC: One of the most difficult calls in the game is out of bounds. A lot of times the ball bounces off multiple players, and trying to determine who was the last player to touch the ball as quickly as the ball is moving with multiple players with their hands in there, it can sometimes be one of the most challenging plays to call. Thankfully in the last two minutes of games we are able to go to the replay monitors to look at out-of-bounds. I think that’s also when you see the most partnering on the floor. A lot of times we will go to our crew and ask for help in an effort to find out who saw which player touch the ball last.
NBRA: What’s the best thing about being an official in the NBA?
JC: For me, it’s that it allows me to be as close to the game as possible without playing. I was just like every other kid, I dreamed of playing in the NBA one day. Obviously being from Chicago, I played against a lot of great players growing up like Isaiah Thomas, Doc Rivers, Mark Aguirre, Eddie Johnson — I could go on and on. I played against all those guys and saw how good potential pro players could be. I wasn’t able to reach that level, but I’ve been able to grow and reach that level in the NBA that I am at now and that is rewarding for me. I love my job so I feel like I’ve never worked a day in my life.
NBRA: As a veteran referee, how do you engage with newer referees and guide their development?
JC: I am very happy with where our staff is going and growing and the young people that are joining. As a veteran, I see so much promise in the young people that are coming up. It’s rewarding to know that when I do some of the summer training and try to be a motivator and mentor for these young people, that they are growing the way that they are. That has been the second chapter of my career, where I look at what I am leaving behind to the game. I hope that the day that I retire that there are not one or two people, but a lot of people on this staff that will say, ‘he helped me on the court, on the board serving our union to help negotiate contracts, influencing change, and has changed my life for the better.’
Most memorable moments as a referee in the NBA: “The first is my first game after I got hired. I was refereeing Washington at Detroit and just the fact that I had finally made it after so much hard work climbing through the ranks and grinding my way up was rewarding. Second was my first Finals game six years ago, OKC at Miami.”
One secret about being a ref that most people wouldn’t know: “I would say how good we are. Everybody thinks they can do our job, but very few can. Referees in the NBA are very good at what they do.”
One way your get through the grueling scheduling: “Looking forward to the summer with four months off.”
If you weren’t a referee what would you be: “I would be a salesman. I was successful at that and I would hope that if I weren’t in the NBA, that by now I would be a high ranking sales manager at some Fortune 500 company.”