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La Verne’s 36-Year-Old Rookie Has Breakthrough NBA Season

August 14, 2010
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J.T. Orr goes eye to eye and chest with Kobe Bryant.

J.T. Orr goes eye to eye and chest with Kobe Bryant.

Unless you’re a hard core fan you probably missed it, but on Dec. 8, 2009, a 36-year-old rookie stepped on the floor and saw his first action in an NBA game. LeBron James and his supporting cast of Cleveland Cavaliers were in town to play the Memphis Grizzlies. Naturally, it was a sell-out.

The aging rookie was La Verne’s J.T. Orr, a name that rings more of hockey than of the NBA.

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“Mike Brown, head coach of the Cavaliers, walked over to me and patted me on the back before the jump ball and said, ‘Hey, congratulations, welcome to the NBA,’” Orr said. “Then guys like LeBron and Shaquille O’ Neal and Mo Williams introduced themselves.

“It was amazing, I couldn’t believe the level of professionalism.”

Their cordial courtside manner was even more astounding when you consider Orr was playing for the other team, not the Grizzlies, mind you, but that other team, known as the officiating crew or the “third team” in referee circles.

Since he was 19, Orr has refereed hundreds, even thousands of games, going back to City “C” Division rec games in the old University of La Verne gym where the floor was so slick and dusty that it was impossible not to travel the last few feet before every shot attempt. Around town, you saw his striped shirt at Bonita, Damien and La Verne Lutheran games. He eventually graduated to the college ranks and for the last four seasons he has been working NBA Development League games, which are tantamount to the minor leagues in Major League Baseball.

But this was the Show! Where King James resides. Despite LeBron pouring in 43 points that memorable night, the Grizzlies won in overtime, 111-109.  And Orr was on the floor for every raucous, heart-pounding moment.

“For that to be my first regular season game, in a sold-out arena, with 17,000 to 18,000 screaming fans, it was just phenomenal.“ Orr said.

It wasn’t just the level of professionalism that impressed him that first game. The off-the-charts level of talent also blew him away – the kind of magic that not even HD TV can capture.

“You can’t believe how athletic and quick these guys are until you stand next to them and watch them perform,” Orr said. “Early in the Memphis game, Cleveland stole the ball and LeBron takes off. He ran right by me, and I can’t believe how fast and how strong he is and he takes off to dunk the ball, and I swear he jumped from 40 feet away from the rim.

“That’s what if felt like. It felt like he was literally flying through the air like an airplane, he’s just soaring across the court. And he dunks the ball, and you just stop and think to yourself, ‘That’s amazing that someone can have that kind of physicality, and can jump that high and run that fast.’”

At 6-foot-3, and with his lean, lithe frame, Orr looks like he could be a player, or, at least a reserve, but the truth is Orr, played a year of JV ball back at Bonita before hanging up his sneakers.

“I wasn’t very good,” Orr admitted quietly in the comfort of his La Verne living room. “I was average at best.”

But he was smart enough to hang around a game he loved. Not long after high school, he started working games for La Verne’s rec leagues.

“Refereeing never feels like work,” Orr said. “The fact you get paid to run up and down the court, and get exercise and be around kids and be around the game is still amazing to me.”

In those early years, officiating was just a hobby. For a dozen years, he worked with foster kids at McKinley Children’s Center in San Dimas and the LeRoy Haynes Center in La Verne. In his early 30s, he earned his real estate license. All the while, however, he kept refereeing games. His excellence and professional demeanor on the court paved the way to his officiating games at the college level, where again he excelled.

Everybody in the league knows No. 24. Orr prefers to keep his No. 80 as anonymous as possible.

Everybody in the league knows No. 24. Orr prefers to keep his number as anonymous as possible.

Five years ago, the NBA Development League also took notice.

“It was really exciting to get that phone call and be told that you’re viewed as a potential candidate for the NBA as opposed to just being an applicant,” Orr said. “It was a reward for all of the hard work and dedication you put into this craft. It was a big boost to my confidence and self-esteem. I guess with any job, if you work hard and close in on the goal, it’s a good feeling.”

Life out of a suitcase

As much as he loves traveling up and down the court refereeing Development League games, Orr has never been a fan of living out of a suitcase and traveling from city to city. It’s not that Orr has anything against places like Sioux Falls, S.D., Erie, Pa., Fort Wayne, Ind., and Des Moines, Ia. It’s just that it’s not home. It’s not La Verne.

“I absolutely hate it,” Orr said. “It’s one of the reasons I initially didn’t want to have anything to do with pro basketball. I didn’t want to be away from home.”

Despite traveling in the dicey winter and spring months, he’s never missed a game on account of inclement weather.

About the same time, he decided to cast his lot with the NBA Development League, he also married his wife Tanya, the parks and recreation coordinator for San Dimas. This October will be their fifth wedding anniversary.

“She’s my biggest fan and supporter,” Orr said. That means a lot considering he’s on the road 20 to 25 days a month from October through March. Last season, he officiated 14 NBA pre-season and regular-season NBA games, another 40 Development League games and about 30 college games.

Knowing the personal strain his travel puts on their relationship, he is the perfect off-season house husband.

“The days that I’m home, it’s very important that I devote all my time to her,” said Orr, who well understands the rules and responsibilities of maintaining a strong marriage. “Every day we meet for lunch, and every day I try to be here when she gets home. I try to get up every morning and make her breakfast.

“I’m trying to build up as many credits as I possibly can in the off-season because I know that when the season starts, I’m hardly going to see her for six or seven months.”

She can thank Orr’s high school friend Chad Petersen, the recreation coordinator for La Verne, for setting them up almost nine years ago. While she fell for the guy, she had a harder time falling for his crazy travel schedule.

“All my success in officiating is because of Tanya,” Orr said. “She gets all the credit. If she weren’t supportive of me and my schedule, it would never happen.”

Little leisure time

While Tanya watched her husband officiate two Lakers games and a Clippers game in Los Angeles, tagging along with him to other cities, especially in the small-market Development League towns, just wouldn’t be practical. There’s too little downtime. Her husband and his fellow refs are working far more than just the two hours fans see them on the court.

On game day, Orr and the other two members of his officiating crew will meet before lunch to discuss any new rules or recent plays that the league has sent out. They also review the rosters of the two teams playing that night.

It appears that xxxxxxx isn't going to get the call.

It appears that Goran Dragic isn't going to get the call.

“We’ll go over the rosters and talk about the matchups,” Orr said. “There are certain players who may try to fool us on plays, so we’ll go over their styles. We look at the kind of offenses the teams run and how they pressure the ball on defense. We’re basically preparing for the game the way the teams would.”

When they get to the arena about any hour before tip-off, the three-person officiating crew holds a second meeting. “We’ll go over all of our procedures and how we plan to work together and cover the floor,” Orr said.

During the game, NBA refs are doing a lot more than meets the eye. Orr wears an electronic pack the size of a garage remote on his belt from which a wire extends under his shirt and attaches to his Fox 40 whistle. When he blows the whistle, the clock automatically stops.

“So we are physically operating the clock,” Orr explained. “We are stopping it and starting it ourselves.” Someone at the scorer’s table is also watching the clock as a back-up should one of the officials on the floor forget to restart the game clock.

The only time the clock will stop without a whistle is the last minute of the first, second and third quarters and the last two minutes of the fourth. During those final critical moments of each quarter, a sideline official stops and starts the clock after a basket is made.

Accuracy is everything

Managing the clock is second nature to seasoned officials; making accurate calls consistently is much tougher and challenging.

“We’re judged strictly on call accuracy,” Orr said, turning serious.

So, there’s no truth that refs lay off their whistles the last minute of a close game and just let the two teams play?

“The time and the score and how many fouls might be on a particular player are irrelevant,” Orr said. “All that matters is getting the play called correctly. That’s the standard. To take into account the score or the time or any other situation that doesn’t pertain to the play would almost be a form of cheating.”

Surprisingly, Orr said differentiating between a blocking foul (called on the defender) and a charge (called on the offensive player) is routine. “That’s an easy play to call,” Orr said. “We have very clear guidelines that describe what’s a charge and what’s a block.

“The tough plays are the ones that involve basket interference or goal tending (a shot attempt on a downward arc toward the basket can’t be interfered with). They happen very fast and above the rim, so sometimes it’s very difficult to see if the ball is starting to come down or if it’s touched the backboard or not,” Orr said.

Keeping his distance from the players is also an occupational hazard.

“We work very hard to stay out of the way,” Orr said, “but occasionally things happen and plays find us. I’m a pretty big guy and I can take a hit, unless it’s a 6-foot-7, 6-foot-8, 280-pound, 300-pound guy. Those are the guys who are going to knock me down.”

While Orr has yet to eject a player from an NBA game, he’s tossed several from the Development League, college and high school ranks. He once issued current Damien coach Matt Dunn a technical, and Dunn maintains it’s still the only technical he’s ever received.

“We’re there to run and manage the game, and that means we have to enforce penalties, which include ejections sometimes,” Orr said. “It’s a very emotional game.”

How many buttons can a player or coach push before an official tosses a player?

“There are a couple of magic words that will get you thrown out,” he said, warming to the question. “Questioning authority, throwing a punch, anything implying cheating, bumping an official, a flagrant foul that is so far in excess of what’s allowable. Two technical fouls could be an ejection.

“Fortunately, it doesn’t happen very offen.”

After the game, an NBA officiating supervisor may tap Orr or one of his crew mates on the shoulder and offer them constructive criticism. “They give us immediate feedback on things we can improve on,” Orr said.

But even after surviving that scrutiny, Orr’s night is not over. Also, immediately after the game, he’s handed a DVD of his performance, which he’ll take back to his hotel and begin to break down with his other crew officials. If there’s no time, he’ll view it on the plane on his way to the next city.

Orr is an equal opportunity foul caller, as Denver's Oran found out.

Orr is an equal opportunity foul caller, as Denver's Nene found out.

Up in his room, he’ll view the DVD again. “I go over all the plays and watch myself and look at things I can do better,” he said.

Furthermore, he logs onto several league sites that daily post new plays for refs to review and respond to. He is also tested on the rules every week.

“At this level, everybody in my position is self-motivated,” he said.

A disciplined life

Maintaining self-discipline off the court is just as important as it is when the cameras are rolling. He watches what he eats and works out regularly to stay in shape. Officials undergo routine physical and drug-testing, as well.

Nor will you find Orr making a $2 bet at a local race track or doubling down at a casino.

“No gambling is allowed,” Orr said. “I don’t even think I’m allowed to go into a casino. There’s no association with gambling of any kind. Obviously, that’s not a productive or positive image for somebody in my profession. NBA officials are constantly critiqued. We’re often referred to as the most scrutinized group of employees in the world.”

For his background check, Orr said he had to complete a packet an inch thick.

“They cover everything, from the places you worked, to where you lived, to the real estate you own, to any lawsuits you’ve been involved in. It’s a very, very extensive background check. The NBA only wants the highest quality people.”

In other words, you want find Orr’s profile on Facebook.

“You will absolutely not find me on Facebook,” Orr said. “I’m very conscious about social networking and media and the things I say. I was having lunch at Victoria Gardens recently, and some guy came up to me and said he saw me on TV reffing the Laker game. So even though I’m not a full-time NBA ref, obviously I still represent the NBA to some people.

“People putting things on social networking sites is information being broadcast to the world, and I don’t want anything to do with it. I prefer to be as anonymous as possible and as inconspicuous as possible. I want to go to the grocery store and have nobody know who I am.”

That may be difficult. He won’t fraternize with players or coaches, but sometimes it can’t be helped. Last season, he bumped into Ronnie Turiaf, formerly with the Lakers and most recently with Golden State, at the Oakland airport.

“He recognized me and said hello,” Orr recalled. “Everybody was starting to see and notice him, so I quickly made an exit. I said, ‘It’s nice to see you, have a nice day.’ I didn’t want people to see me with him and make any associations that aren’t there. You know, somebody snaps a photo, and the next thing you know, it’s on Facebook, and I’m working a Golden State game and the first tough call that goes against the team playing Golden State, their coach is going to say I made it because I’m friends with Turiaf. Coaches are very superstitious.”

So if Kobe invites Orr over for a backyard barbecue in the off-season, it’s a good bet he will be politely declining the invitation.

“Absolutely,” Orr said, ready to throw the interviewer a “T” for even suggesting it.

As for the off-season, there’s seems to be less of it. He works out daily, he studies the rules, he practices the 30 or so referee signals in the mirror. “We work very hard to figure out what we look like and how we’re going to look like on film,” he said.

He also works diligently on how he sounds and how he comes across verbally. During the season, he and his colleagues regularly practice verbal responses that could help defuse potentially explosive situations on the basketball court.

“You need to constantly practice and get experience in those situations,” he said. “You have to practice those verbal exchanges because you’ll fumble your words if you’re not prepared. You have to be prepared to use certain words and avoid words that could be a flashpoint and make things worse.”

So far, this role-playing with other officials — their voices elevated to simulate a heated on-court, in-your-face exchange — hasn’t gotten them thrown out of any hotels.

A tight-knit fraternity

Asked if he had his choice on being a player or official, Orr chose the latter.

“Of course, I was never that good to have to make that choice, but there’s a special bond and fraternity among officials,” Orr said. “There are very deep relationships that you build with these guys that you’re out on the road with all the time. “You’re put in these situations where it’s basically two or three of you against the world in a hostile environment, so you become very trusting of these individuals, and they become your close personal friends regardless of where they live in the country. They end up being like family. We meet in the off-season. We know each other’s kids. They’re very, very close to you.”

He also feels a bond for officials making the tough calls in other sports.

“I completely understand and empathize and sympathize with Jim Joyce (His wrong call at first base cost Detroit pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game). We’re a very tight fraternity. I know what it’s like to make a call that’s wrong, and I know what it’s like to take criticism from the media and the fans and players and coaches. We understand what it’s like to be in those shoes. I can guarantee you that Jim Joyce didn’t sleep well, and he’s probably still not sleeping well.

“Calls stick with you, especially ones that decide the outcome of a ballgame. Even if the call you made was right, it sticks with you, it eats at you. I still remember calls I made in high school.”

The NBA knows its refs are only human. Over the summer, Orr attended a workshop on mental training and preparation and how to turn the page when an adverse event takes place, not unlike a pitcher who loses focus after surrendering a home run or a batter who struck out his last at bat. In the workshop, he learned “reset” techniques to help him stay in the present and not dwell on past plays.

“We care very deeply about what we do,” Orr said. “We get paid to get calls right and when we don’t them right, it affects us tremendously. I think a lot of people think that after a game is over, we just walk away from it and forget it. We don’t. We very much care about what we do and have a deep passion and desire to get the plays right.”

Come the playoffs in any sport, blown calls are magnified and bring outcries for more use of instant replay.

“Every year it’s being expanded, and I think it’s a good thing,” he said. “I think I speak for most officials when I say we’re in support of the limited use of replay and in complete support of getting calls right. My ego is not so big that I’m not going to be embarrassed if the video shows I got a play wrong. We all get plays wrong every single game. That’s’ not the issue. We just want the plays called correctly.”

He understands that league officials have to balance the corroborative use of replay against the tendency of games to drag on interminably. “Fans have to be entertained,” Orr said. “We can’t drag out games four or five hours to make sure every call is right.

“There are always going to be mistakes,” he added. “Players make mistakes, coaches make mistakes and we make mistakes. We just hope they don’t happen at critical points of the game where they decide the outcome.”

For a guy who didn’t like to travel, he’s learned to adapt. The NBA game turned him around.

“The players are the best athletes in the world, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “It’s a privilege to stand next to them and watch them perform.”

Yet for such a fan of the NBA game, he has no player favorites, not even LeBron or Kobe soaring through the air. While he’s an Angels fan in baseball and a Chicago Bears fan in football, he plays no favorites in basketball.

“When you first pick up a whistle — and this goes all the way back to rec ball — you start detaching yourself from having a favorite player or team. I don’t care who wins or how many points a particular player has. Rather, I appreciate the two teams coming together. I appreciate the athletes and I appreciate the game. I love it when the game goes down to the wire, when it comes down to the last shot, but in terms of who actually wins the game, it’s completely irrelevant.

“I just like exciting games.”

Spoken like a true fan and a great up-and-coming NBA referee.

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