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Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2007
Referees making most of chance to call bj-league games
By ED ODEVEN
Twenty guys comprise the most important team in the bj-league, but you'll only see three of them on the same court at the same time.
They don't take any shots, and they have no interest in boxing out.
Yet their eyes are glued to the action on the court at all times.
Collectively, they are the third-year league's officiating crew, six of which joined the fold this season along with two new teams, the Rizing Fukuoka and the Ryukyu Golden Kings.
As the league's popularity increases, the ambition of its officials to raise their skill level continues to rise as well.
In July, three of the league's officials — Tim Greene, Atsuhiro Ueda and Norihito "Gonzo" Okawara — participated in pro hoop camps in the United States, earning invitations based on stellar recommendations from American officials.
Greene and Ueda spent three days on the court in Las Vegas for NBA Summer League games; 30 refs, including several from the NBA, participated in the games.
Okawara, a 28-year-old from Isehara, Kanagawa Prefecture, participated in the 38th annual Southern California Summer League.
"It's been eight years since I started dreaming about the NBA," the 29-year-old Ueda said in a recent interview. "And when I went there the environment was totally different, so that gave me so much experience."
For Ueda, a Shizuoka native, that experience came from refereeing the Cavaliers-Suns game on July 9, Team China vs. the Knicks a day later and a Lakers-Trail Blazers contest on July 11.
"Yes, I was very proud of myself," Ueda admits, "but also I was very proud of my family and friends from the NBA who are my mentors and guys from the bj-league. They are always supportive of me and for my success in life."
Greene, a 37-year old Philadelphia native, took the court to work the SuperSonics-Mavericks clash on July 6, followed by Warriors-Hornets and Lakers-Bucks the next two days.
Not surprisingly, it was an exhilarating experience, both fellows told me.
"I've been officiating for four years," says Greene, "and to be able to reach that summit of officiating that fast is something that's unbelievable for me."
Naturally, Kunio Kurata, the chief officer of the bj-league's officiating department, encourages his referees to have these overseas experiences.
"To improve the skills of the referees," Kurata says, "we want them to have experience in the (United) States and cultivate their skills and then come back here and show on the court what they've learned in the States.
"Then other referees will start to learn from them and then overall we can up the level for the league," he adds.
Ueda, who attended Michigan State University, became a high school referee about 10 years ago in Michigan. He also gained experience as an NCAA Division II referee.
He gained practical knowledge on the court and by studying countless hours of videos.
"I still remember the first time I saw my DVD, well it was VHS still, but when I watched my game for the first time, I didn't really know how ugly I was on the court," Ueda says. "But I wanted to get better in presentation and everything, so I kept watching myself and I wanted to improve my presentation and how I look to the coaches and the players. And that gives us more credibility on the court."
So how has Ueda improved his on-court presentation?
"After we watch the DVD, we practice in the mirror," Ueda reveals.
Young, aspiring actors, singers and comedians have been known to do the same thing, perfecting their craft and driving their parents crazy at the same time.
But it's worked to help Ueda master the basics.
"To me, basketball is a communication stage on the court. Players, coaches and the (other referees) are my partners," he says. "We always talk and we always communicate.
"We want to listen to the coach (and) players . . . and once we understand how or why they are asking the question, or how they see the different play, that's how we figure out the reason why they are asking the question — between player and ref, between player and coach."
Greene, an 18-year U.S. Navy veteran, including the past six in Japan, gave a different perspective on what it takes to be a successful official.
"You've got to remember that officiating is like selling a used car somewhat," says Greene, the recipient of the league's top official award the past two seasons. "Some plays could be close plays and go either way, but the difference is: How do you present yourself on the court?
"I can make the same call another official makes, but the way I present myself, the way I carry myself throughout the game (is key). Do I look like I mean business out there? Do I look like I know what I'm doing?"
Greene played point guard in high school and earned distinction on Navy All-Star teams in 1994-95 in contests against other U.S. military squads.
His future ambition is to land a full-time job on the hardwood — the NBA, that is.
"I have about two years to retire from the Navy, so those are the options that I am looking at," says Greene.
The present time, however, offers Greene, Ueda, Okawara and their officiating colleagues a sizable challenge: to raise the benchmark for officiating in a league with a history book that's only slightly thicker than a chopstick.
They embrace that challenge.
"The teams are getting better every year," Greene concludes. "The players are getting better every year. As a group of officials, we are getting better every year."