Leroy Richardson got caught up in a bit of basketball politics when he was in the U.S. Navy. He had just transferred off the USS Yellowstone to a shore facility in Virginia, was looking to play for one of the intramural teams there and eventually got told that all the available spots had been taken by members of another command.
So he decided to start refereeing.
Almost 30 years later, he’s still in the NBA.
Veterans Day — which was observed Sunday in the U.S. though federal agencies will be closed Monday — carries obvious additional significance for people like Richardson and fellow NBA refs Rodney Mott and Matt Boland. All three served their country in the military; Richardson was a Navy man for 12 years, Mott for three years and Boland was in the Connecticut National Guard from 1987 through 1995.
Richardson knows how lucky he is. If he was picked for that intramural team, he probably wouldn’t have started officiating. If he hadn’t started, he wouldn’t be in the NBA.
“Everything was sort of preordained,” Richardson said.
Mott feels the same way. He had a chance to accept a basketball scholarship in his hometown of Buffalo, New York, but decided to pursue a military career first. He went to San Diego State after leaving the Navy in 1979, got a degree in aeronautical engineering, landed a job at McDonnell Douglas and stayed in the game through a bit of coaching.
Someone approached him and said he’d make a good referee. Before long, Mott — who spent a lot of time in Southern California playing with NBA guys like Michael Cage and Randy Smith and eventual Baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn (who was an excellent point guard before turning his energy toward baseball) — was learning the ref trade in a camp run by then-NBA ref Hue Hollins.
“The rest is history,” Mott said. “I’m happy with the choice that I made. Very happy. Refereeing has been very good. It’s kept me close to the game. I could play, but I’m a better referee than I was a player.”
Richardson and Mott have heard “The Star-Spangled Banner” countless times before games over the years.
It never gets old. To them, the anthem still resonates.
“It’s special,” Richardson said. “I’m proud, not to be recognized but to have represented. When I hear that anthem, you realize that you were part of something that’s held in reverence. I look around the arenas, there’s a lot of times where they recognize all veterans and ask them to stand, and I’m proud to be standing as well.”
Jimmy Butler going to Philadelphia, a deal that becomes official on Monday, means the 76ers might have three All-Stars in the same season — something they haven’t had in more than 30 years.
Butler, fellow returning All-Star Joel Embiid and probable All-Star Ben Simmons should be headed to Charlotte this February for the league’s midseason showcase. The last time Philly sent three to an All-Star Game was when Julius Erving, Charles Barkley and Maurice Cheeks went in 1987.
A little bit has changed since then.
— That game was in Seattle, which no longer is in the NBA.
— The league had 23 teams, as opposed to the 30 it has now.
— That was also the last season where every NBA team averaged at least 100 points per game. This season, the league is on pace for that to happen again.
It’s not fair to anoint someone rookie of the year less than a month into the season, though Dallas’ Luka Doncic certainly looks the part.
Only three other rookies whose first NBA games came as teenagers — LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant — finished their debut seasons averaging at least 20 points. Doncic, the Mavericks‘ 19-year-old budding star, might have a shot to join that very exclusive club.
So far, he’s averaging 20.3 points, along with 6.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists. The only three players who finished their rookie seasons with those averages in all three categories are Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Oscar Robertson.
“My opinion is that he doesn’t have a limit,” Mavs forward Maxi Kleber said. “Luka can do whatever. You can already tell now because of the way he plays and how efficient he is. You can tell that he’s a very special talent.”
Doncic is fully aware that he’s already in top-rookie conversations. He’s trying not to listen.
“Yeah, of course it would be special, but for me it’s always for the team,” Doncic said. “Of course I want to enter the playoffs first. That’s my goal, and later the individual stuff.”
THE WEEK AHEAD
Something to watch for every day of the coming week …
— Magic at Wizards, Monday: Washington has way, way too much talent to be off to a 3-9 start.
— Hornets at Cavaliers, Tuesday: Charlotte already has a 32-point win over Cleveland this season.
— Pistons at Raptors, Wednesday: Toronto fans will do the right thing and warmly greet Dwane Casey.
— Warriors at Rockets, Thursday: The clubs’ first meeting since the 2018 Western Conference finals.
— Kings at Grizzlies, Friday: Too early to know if either team is for real, but they’ve started off well.
— Jazz at Celtics, Saturday: Gordon Hayward won’t be subjected to boos during warm-ups in this one.
— Lakers at Heat, Sunday: LeBron James makes his lone 2018-19 trip to Miami, where he won two titles.