SKAUCHUS, NJ — When Jason Tatum hit a wooden floor in Boston Monday night, the small staff running the NBA’s Replay Center sprang into action. They watched the Celtics All-Star forward bounce a shot past slumping Philadelphia defenders, and found Malcolm Brogdon on a wide open throw with 5:05 remaining in the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Then, Tatum collapsed to the floor, sliding past the baseline in agony. And within a moment, the men and women running this NBA watchtower turned all the players around who noticed Tatum was hit on the deck by Sixers forward BJ Tucker.
There are no windows, but more than 94 HD screens are installed across this basketball refereeing hideout, where an outer ring of 17 workstations allows the replay operator of each game to mark certain sequences: such as whether the crossover is within a three-point arc or Behind it is a line, or whether a possible hostile action occurred between two Atlantic adversaries.
Stacey Townsend, the daytime head coach of Division III Rutgers-Newark women’s basketball, is in her sixth season at this running back position and was Monday’s first line defense as the “RO” for the Sixers-Celtics. Townsend was quick to point out that this Tucker-Tatum game required a closer look — especially after Celtics guard Marcus Smart collided with Tobias Harris on his way to help Tatum to the ground, sparking an even bigger brawl between the two sides.
All equipped with approximately a dozen camera angles, various members within the Replay Center began dissecting the film. Behind Townsend, in midspace, Tyler Ford served as the de facto fourth referee in this Boston-Philly showdown, having officiated Game 1 between New York and Miami on Sunday afternoon, then made the short trip to North Jersey. And while Ford discussed the sequence with Townsend, as well as Pete Williams, the lead for replays in his ninth season, Monty McCutcheon put forth his view on the proceedings from across the room in his corner.
They all spin the control on their black wheel, like a joystick from a video game console meets a spinning phone, allowing each replay employee to rewind and accelerate all angles of footage on their corresponding screens with a single finger. The Sixers also called a timeout, which allowed Boston game officials to consult the outfield observer as well.
“Tucker was crying out for someone to get back on defense,” declared McCutcheon, the league’s vice president and head of referee development and coaching. Ford and the other soldiers had already come to the same conclusion. There on the giant screens, Tucker appeared to be swinging his arm in frustration at teammate Therese Maxie for letting Brogdon slip through the back door, not someone trying to get a cheap shot. “Unless he has eyes in the back of his head…” Someone declared above the discussion. “How did he see Tatum?”
By the time crew chief David Guthrie got to the scorers’ table inside TD Garden, speaking with Ford via headset, the Replay Center had analyzed seven or eight different angles of the play, fast forward and roll, fast forward and return. It’s up to Guthrie to make final decisions on glaring and clear-cut fouls, as well as player scuffles and restricted area calls, but the Replay Center can reduce the crew chief’s decision-making, in search of clear, conclusive evidence, to sending two or better three camera angles on the monitor screen in within seconds. The goal is simple: keep the spectators in the stands and the fans at home waiting as little as possible.
You can hear Guthrie’s muffled voice bleed through Ford’s headphones. After a brief conference, their conversation ended, the message reached the scorers’ table, and McCutcheon was already spinning in his chair, staring at a 4K camera under a bright spotlight, joining a TNT broadcast of the league’s explanation for their quick review.
“I think it was unintentional and not an illegal act,” McCutcheon tells his patriotic audience with the rest of Replay Center with a hushed hush. “Secondly, once it times out, we can’t use a ‘hostile action’ to see a previous play. Play should have continued live to use a replay, if we thought something had happened there.”
Steve Jaffe, an NBA official of 25 years, first brought the referee’s lens to postseason television when he joined ESPN and ABC’s coverage of the 2012 NBA Finals. As Jaffe predicts and critiques replay scores and coach challenges, McCutchen is assigned to serve as a ringleader. Connect between the Replay Center and the crowd, when he or Ken Fitzgerald, Vice President of Referee Operations and Director of the Replay Center, joins Turner Sports. Programming.
“I’m not going to get into right and wrong. It’s not my role,” McCutchen told Yahoo Sports. “I’m not going to give an opinion. I will explain how they came to a decision.”
After 25 years in office, McCutcheon also appeared on camera wearing a stark contrast to the proverbial zebra stripes of his old trade. On Monday, the chief executive officer, a Baron of Pro Hoops Ordinance, wore a cool orange and green checkered jacket. “It’s basketball season, you have to wear a little basketball color every now and then,” McCutcheon said. An eggshell jacket sewed to his torso, as a green and white tie hugged his neck. He’s been making his own for three years now, after McCutcheon and his wife bought him a sewing machine as a Christmas gift.
He cuts the fabric himself, and has completed over 40 ties to date. Maybe sometime in June, once this nightly round of playoffs is over, McCutcheon will be back inventing more. “You spend the whole day painting and stitching them, and you do them in big waves of different skill sets,” McCutcheon told Yahoo Sports.
He finds texture everywhere. In San Francisco, the retired official visits Britex, a city landmark since 1952, with its sprawling collection of ribbons, buttons, and ornaments. “Any Joann’s fabric and crafts, if she’s old enough, she’ll have some neat stuff,” McCutcheon said. “Just walk around and see what’s available.” He found that cotton was the easiest material to work with. Silk manipulation remains a challenge. During his traveling days as a referee, McCutcheon began hand-sewn quilts for his children, packing quilts into used DVD cases, and bundling all the quilts on cross-country flights and in hotels.
McCutcheon is a man of many interests, has long practiced the trumpet, and has a desire to spend more time making goat cheese after being relieved of his duties at the league office.
For now, though, as players and coaches speak of their gratitude for the game that pays their bills, McCutcheon sees the NBA’s role as an act of service to the sport that once captured his heart.
Dwyane Wade once felt McCutcheon showed little sympathy, and asked if Miami wanted to ask a time-out while the All-Star guard suffered an injury. But there are tight-lipped officials, balancing various conflicting responsibilities.
“It just kind of hit me,” McCutcheon told Yahoo Sports. “How do you serve Dwayne in that moment, but also serve the opposing team looking to see if special catering is served or not. How do you balance all of those pieces to get to the right judgment of the actual rule?”
McCutcheon best explains his answer with reference to a short story by Mark Twain, “Two Ways to See a River,” in which the writer lost his sense of wonder about water after becoming a pilot on a steamship. “That lovely whirlpool over there, when I love the river, is just such a lovely thing, that maybe one end of it dangles in it,” McCutcheon explained. “But as a riverboat captain I must make sure to stay out of it or I will put my people in harm’s way.” When gazing into the forest, you can miss the trees. When watching game plays, officials can miss mechanisms that fall outside the rules.
There were less than 10 re-officers in the building on Monday night. The playoffs, especially the fourth quarter, add an extra level of responsibility. During the regular season, however, the quiet Watchtower transforms with an entirely different energy. “With 12 or 13 games, that’s a roaring hive,” said McCutcheon, this being the eighth season of the Replay Center. There’s a chipotle outside stocked with chips, rice and salsa in the back room. A bowl of candy sits on a wooden table at the entrance. Game 7 that night between the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers is being played silently inside this basketball world. A miniature hoop is attached to the center post of the space, and a rubber ball is wedged between the rim and backboard between PIG halftime games.
The restart center comes to life with 1:37 left in Game 1 Boston, when Maxie goes over the paint and goes off the glass. Guthrie called the play a blocking foul on Smart, but another official, Courtney Kirkland, saw in the sequence an offensive foul on the Sixers guard, which would have been his sixth foul and disqualification from a contest in which Philadelphia was already the MVP. Joel Embiid due to a knee injury. The administrators decided to check it out on their screens.
Secaucus staffs ready, noticing Smart’s upper-body move, and leaning into Maxey’s path, on the first rewatch of the possession in question. Ford and Williams are fully engaged in arguing over which angle will provide the best view of this crucial decision. For a staggering majority of foul calls, the best view comes from the robo-cam above the backboard, providing an all-encompassing view of flipping feet and hands—where no human official could stand.
When Boston native Guthrie calls Replay to start his check from TD Garden, Ford is quick and excited to share that he’s found a “great angle” showing the call order, and Guthrie figures his instincts were right. Smart did not make a legally defensive decision, and Maxie’s tight-time basket would count and he would also be allowed to stay in the game, helping seal Philadelphia’s narrow 119-115 win over the Celtics.