SECAUCUS, N.J. — As Jayson Tatum crashed onto the parquet floor in Boston on Monday night, the small staff operating the NBA’s office park Replay Center sprung into action. They’d watched the Celtics’ All-Star forward bounce a bullet pass through Philadelphia’s retreating defenders, finding Malcolm Brogdon for a wide-open layup with 5:05 remaining in the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Then, Tatum crumbled to the ground, sliding past the baseline in agony. And within an instant, the men and woman operating this NBA control tower of officiating all noticed Tatum had hit the deck at the hands of Sixers forward P.J. Tucker.
There are no windows, but over 94 HD monitors mounted across this bunker of basketball arbitration, where an outer ring of 17 work stations allows each game’s replay operator to flag certain sequences: like whether a jumper was inside the 3-point arc or behind the line, or whether a potential hostile act took place between two Atlantic Division rivals.
Stacey Townsend, the Division III head coach of Rutgers-Newark women’s basketball by day, is in her sixth season at this replay post and was Monday’s first line of defense as the “RO” for Sixers-Celtics. Townsend quickly pointed out this Tucker-Tatum play required a closer eye — particularly after Celtics guard Marcus Smart bumped into Tobias Harris en route to helping Tatum off the floor, sparking a larger scuffle among the two sides.
All equipped with roughly a dozen camera angles, different members inside the Replay Center began to dissect the film. Behind Townsend, at the center of the space, Tyler Ford served as the de facto fourth official for this clash between Boston and Philly, having refereed Game 1 between New York and Miami on Sunday afternoon, then making the short trip into northern Jersey. And as Ford discussed the sequence with Townsend, plus Pete Williams, the lead of replay operations in his ninth season, Monty McCutchen called out his viewpoint on the proceedings from across the room at his corner perch.
They’re all spinning their own black-wheel control, like a joystick from a video-game console meets a rotary phone, allowing each replay staffer to rewind and fast-forward all angles of footage on their corresponding screens with a single finger. The Sixers also called timeout, allowing the game officials in Boston to consult their courtside monitor, as well.
“Tucker was screaming for someone to go back on defense,” proclaimed McCutchen, the league’s senior vice president, head of referee development and training. Ford and the other replay soldiers were already coming to that same conclusion. There on the giant screens, Tucker appeared to be swinging his arm in frustration with teammate Tyrese Maxey for letting Brogdon sneak backdoor, not someone trying to land a cheap shot. “Unless he has eyes in the back of his head …” someone proclaimed above the discussion. “How could he have seen Tatum?”
By the time crew chief David Guthrie reached 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-forwarding and rewinding and fast-forwarding and rewinding. It’s up to Guthrie to make final decisions on flagrant and clear-path fouls, plus player altercations and restricted-area calls, but the Replay Center can whittle down the crew chief’s decision-making, in search of clear and conclusive evidence, to beam two or three best camera angles onto that in-arena screen in a matter of seconds. The goal is simple: Leave spectators in the stands and fans at home waiting as little as possible.
You can hear Guthrie’s muffled voice bleeding through Ford’s headphones. After a brief conference, their chat is over, the message is delivered to the scorers’ table, and McCutchen is already spinning in his chair, staring into the 4K camera underneath a bright floodlight, joining TNT’s broadcast for the league’s explanation of their rapid review.
“I do think it’s unintentional and is not an illegal act,” McCutchen tells his national audience with the rest of the Replay Center in a hushed quiet. “Secondarily, once you have the timeout, we can’t then use ‘hostile act’ to see a previous play. Play would have had to have been continued in a live manner to then use replay, if we thought something occurred there.”
Steve Javie, an NBA official for 25 years, first brought a referee’s lens to postseason television when he joined ESPN and ABC’s coverage of the 2012 NBA Finals. While Javie predicts and critiques the outcomes of replay and coach’s challenges, McCutchen is tasked as more of a liaison between the Replay Center and the public, whenever he or Kane Fitzgerald, vice president of referee operations and replay center principal, join in Turner Sports’ programming.
“I’m not going to get into right and wrong. That’s not my role,” McCutchen told Yahoo Sports. “I’m not gonna give an opinion. I’m going to explain how they came to a decision.”
After 25 years officiating in his own right, McCutchen also appears on camera wearing quite a contrast to the proverbial zebra stripes of his old trade. On Monday, the senior executive, a baron of pro hoops decree, donned a splendid orange-and-green checkered blazer. “It’s basketball season, you gotta wear a little basketball color every now and then,” McCutchen said. An eggshell vest stitched up his torso, where a green-and-white bow tie hugged his neck. He has been making his own ties for the better part of three years now, after McCutchen and his wife procured a sewing machine as a Christmas gift.
He cuts the fabric himself, completing upward of 40 bow ties so far. Perhaps sometime in June, once this nightly burst of playoff games winds to a conclusion, McCutchen will get back to creating more. “You spend a whole day chalking them up and sewing, you do them in big waves of different skill sets,” McCutchen told Yahoo Sports.
He finds fabric from all over. In San Francisco, the retired official visits Britex, a city landmark since 1952, with a sprawling collection of ribbons, buttons and trims. “Any Joann’s [Fabric and Crafts], if it’s big enough, will have some neat stuff,” McCutchen said. “Just roam around and see what’s available.” Cotton, he’s found, is the easiest material to work with. Manipulating silk still presents a challenge. During his days traveling as a referee, McCutchen started hand-stitching quilts for his children, packing small sections into used DVD cases, piecing together all the small squares on cross-country flights and at hotels.
McCutchen is a man of many interests, having long practiced playing the trumpet, and with a desire to one day, when relieved of his duties at the league office, spend more time on more acres dabbling in making goat cheese.
For now, though, where players and coaches speak of holding gratitude for the game that pays their bills, McCutchen views NBA officiating as an act of service to the sport that once captured his heart.
Dwyane Wade once felt McCutchen exhibited little empathy, asking whether Miami wanted to call for a timeout while their All-Star guard had suffered an injury. But there is a tight rope officials walk, balancing along various conflicting responsibilities.
“It sort of hit me,” McCutchen told Yahoo Sports. “How do you serve Dwyane in that moment, but also serve the opposing team that’s looking to see whether special catering is taking place. How do you balance all those pieces to get to the right adjudication of the actual rule?”
McCutchen best explains his answer with reference to a short story by Mark Twain, “Two Ways of Seeing a River,” in which the writer has lost his sense of wonder at the water after becoming a steamboat pilot. “That beautiful eddy over there, when I love the river, is just this beautiful thing, where a tree limb is maybe hanging down in it,” McCutchen explained. “But as a riverboat captain, I gotta make sure I steer clear of that or I’m going to put my people in harm’s way.” Staring at the forest, you can miss the trees. Watching the theatrics of a game, officials can miss the mechanics that fall outside the rules.
There are fewer than 10 replay officials in the building this Monday night. The playoffs, especially the fourth quarter, bring an added level of responsibility. But during the regular season, the quiet watchtower transforms with a different energy entirely. “With 12 or 13 games, this is a buzzing beehive,” McCutchen said, this being the eighth season of the Replay Center. There is a Chipotle takeout spread full of chips and rice and sauces in the back room. A bowl of candy sits on a wooden table by the entrance, where that night’s Game 7 between the NHL’s New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers plays silently inside this basketball realm. A miniature hoop is mounted to a center pillar of the space, and the rubber ball gets wedged between the rim and backboard in between halftime games of P-I-G.
The replay center whirs back to life with 1:37 left in Game 1 from Boston, when Maxey skips into the paint and scoops a high-arching layup off the glass. Guthrie whistled the play as a blocking foul on Smart, but another official, Courtney Kirkland, saw the sequence as an offensive foul on the Sixers guard, which would have been his sixth and disqualifying foul from the contest in which Philadelphia was already down MVP favorite Joel Embiid because of a knee injury. The officials decided to check it on their monitor.
The Secaucus staffers are ready, noticing Smart’s upper-body movement, tilting into Maxey’s path, on their first rewatch of the possession in question. Ford and Williams are fully engaged in debate over which angle will provide the best sightline for this critical decision. For a striking majority of foul calls, the best view comes from a robo-camera on top of the backboard, providing a bird’s-eye view of shuffling feet and swiping hands — where no human official could possibly be standing.
When Guthrie, from Boston, dials into the Replay Center to begin their scrutinization from TD Garden, Ford is quick and excited to share they’ve found a “great angle” that shows the order of contact, and Guthrie sees his instincts were correct. Smart didn’t make a legal defensive decision, Maxey’s crunch-time basket would count and he’d also be allowed to stay in the game, helping seal Philadelphia’s 119-115 upset victory over the Celtics.