Any NBA referee will likely tell you that the most hostile arena in the league is the Vivnt Smart Home Arena (formerly the Delta Center) of the Utah Jazz. Not that it stops them from doing their job fairly and honestly, but there seems to be universal agreement that it’s not the most pleasant place to officiate.
The Jazz fans were once again in the news the past week after an altercation in which Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook claimed that a Utah fan made racial taunts – and in return the OKC star made it clear exactly what he would do to the fan and his wife. Westbrook was ultimately fined $25,000 and the fan was banned for life. And a few days later, another Jazz fan was banned for life after a video turned up in which he directed a racial slur toward Westbrook during the 2018 playoffs.
Good basketball referees block out the noise
Top level referees are normally so concentrated on the game that the crowd is just ambient noise that they long ago learned to block out so they can focus on the business at hand. Nonetheless, when you have fans that are courtside as they are in the NBA and so many other gyms/arenas around the world, it’s hard not to hear some of the pithier comments.
Personally, if I did hear something particularly “creative”, I always either chuckled to myself or just ignored the comments, though I did once throw out a fan back in the 80’s at a game in Ramat Gan for calling me a “Nazi”. I didn’t think that I had to put up with that in a basketball game – especially in Israel. I also had zero tolerance for announcers who abused their microphones, like for instance the time that I called an unsportsmanlike foul in a league game in Hapoel Holon and the announcer yelled over the public address system, “NOOOOOO”. He was quickly ejected.
What’s Utah got to do with Tuzla?
Since I am reminiscing, one incident stands out in particular from a European women’s game about 1987 in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina (then still one of the republics that made up ex-Yugoslavia) against arch-rival Primigi of Italy, when I ejected the Tuzla star (and future FIBA Hall of Famer) Razija (Raza) Mujanovic after she drilled an opponent in the face with an elbow. Raza was for good reason virtually a national hero in women’s basketball and ejecting her was akin to throwing Michael Jordan out in the United Center in a playoff game against Detroit – and maybe even worse!
It was not, as you might imagine, a popular move with the 7,000 spectators jammed into the gym, including those sitting right next to the base line (I can still remember the Tuzla coach, a good guy named Miki Vukovic, yelling at me, “No! You can’t do that” – well, sorry Miki, I just did). When we finally got things settled down and the game restarted (fans were throwing items and the Primigi team had temporarily escaped to the locker room and had to be dragged back onto the floor), the Tuzla fans chanted every time I reached the base line, “PLO, PLO, PLO” – the well-known abbreviation for the Palestine Liberation Organization. Diplomatic relations with Israel had been severed by Yugoslavia after the Six-Day War in 1967 and apparently the government’s antipathy to Israel extended to me as well!
The scariest part didn’t come until after the game when we drove in the densest fog I ever saw – because a snow storm had closed all airports – the 84 kilometers (52 miles) to Vinkovci (now in eastern Croatia): I literally had to keep the passenger window open and an eye on the side of the old two-lane road so we wouldn’t fall into a ditch. From there I took a night train to Budapest, Hungary and somehow caught a flight home. The life of a referee!