With the ‘Godfather of NBA officials’ as his father, Ron Garretson learned from one of the best in the business. Then he made a name for himself and built a career in the industry with his abilities.
It’s May 20, 2000, at Staples Center in Los Angeles. The Lakers are hosting the Portland Trail Blazers in the first game of the NBA Western Conference Finals. Rasheed Wallace is losing it. Nothing new there. Ron Garretson isn’t having it. Nothing new there, either.
Wallace, the Trail Blazers’ high-maintenance forward, draws his second technical foul after glaring at Garretson in the third quarter, setting off the high-strung veteran official. “Whack! Get out!” Garretson shouts at the 6-foot-10 Wallace, who stands more than a foot taller than him. The Trail Blazers’ Steve Smith approaches Garretson to plead Wallace’s case and is instantly rebuffed. “Get away from me, Steve! Get away from me, Steve!” Garretson shouts. “I asked him three times to stop trying to intimidate me. I’m done! He’s gone!” Case closed.
This is just another night at the office for Garretson, who has a low tolerance level for taking crap from anyone. Just go out and play the damn game, like Charles Barkley, Steve Nash and Kyrie Irving, three of Garretson’s favorites. Garretson never backed down from anyone who didn’t.
And now it’s over. All the commotion Garretson routinely handled for 32 years as an undersized enforcer who demanded respect has quieted down with his 2019 retirement, and he is digging the solitude of the Gilbert, Ariz., home he shares with his wife, Julie. As he patiently answers questions for this story with his typically succinct style, the sound of barking dogs can occasionally be heard over the phone. Their names are Barkley, Nash and Kyrie. “On the court, they were decent guys,” Garretson said when asked why those names were chosen for his dogs. Yes, Garretson does place a premium on players he respected.
Life has become a joy for the 62-year-old Garretson during these sun-kissed Arizona days. There is so much contentment to be found simply by tuning in daily to “The Herd with Colin Cowherd.” And it just doesn’t get better than when 2-year-old granddaughter Beverly Rose wraps Grandpa Ron around her fingers during frequent visits. She might be the only one who has ever dared to try that. “She’s sassy, she’s smart and she’s just a joy,” Garretson said. “She’s just the neatest thing — to have her in our lives.”
What a pleasant departure his life has become. Through more than 1,900 career games in NBA arenas, which included more than 200 playoff games and 11 Finals assignments, Garretson walked with a swagger despite the enormous shadow of his famous late father, Darell, who is remembered by so many as the “Godfather of NBA officials.” And like his father, Ron helped cultivate officiating excellence for years to come with his Coast to Coast Referee School. His career came to an end soon after a 2019 DUI incident in Arizona, but Garretson said he’d had enough by that point. His body was barking at him and it was time to leave behind what he did so well for such a long time.
Whether Garretson eventually decides he has more to offer with his unique ability to instruct remains to be seen, but until further notice, let Barkley, Nash and Kyrie bark. Let Cowherd babble. And let Beverly Rose bounce gleefully on grandpa’s knee. After 32 years of airports, hotels and arenas, life has slowed from a gush to a trickle for Garretson, and that’s just fine with him. “I’m going to hang with my dogs in my house,” he answers when asked what his plans were for this day. And why not? This man has earned that leisure time.
“I had a great career,” Garretson said. “To be able to do something that you loved for so long and do it at a very, very high level for as long as I did, I’m extremely proud of that. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
This man has earned this legacy, not that he’s surprised. Hell, he expected this. One day while Garretson was working his way toward becoming an NBA official in the 1980s, he made a bold proclamation to his already esteemed father. “I told him point blank, ‘I want to be better than you.’ I’ll never forget. He looked at me — this is a guy who’s in the Hall of Fame — and he said, ‘Well, I’m pretty good.’” No arguments there.
But Ron developed an edge from an early age after never backing down from challenges against his older, taller and athletically superior brother, Rick, while growing up in Westminster, Calif. Dealing with everything his brother dished out during competition back in the 1960s, the 5-foot-8 Ron became an exceptional athlete himself at state power Servite High School, an all-boys private school of about 800 students in Anaheim, Calif. After attending San Diego State, Ron went on to operate two Second Sole Athletic Shoes franchises with Darell and Rick in Arizona from 1981 until 1986. Ron broke into the NBA in 1987, married Julie and helped raise two children — daughter Nicole, 31, and son Jason, 29.
All of this was enough to impress Darell, a tough, stern, taciturn perfectionist, who handed out compliments seemingly with the frequency of Halley’s Comet being visible from Earth. The magnitude of any compliment from this man was enhanced by how infrequently one came along, but one day in 1998, when he retired as the NBA’s head of officials, Darell sat down and penned a letter to his son that Ron cherishes to this day.
“It was a letter telling me how proud he is not just of my refereeing, but me as a husband and father,” said Garretson, who declined to reveal that letter’s exact contents. “That meant all the world to me. It was your dad taking the time to write you a letter and it reinforced that you were doing something right, something positive.”
There are so many more who fortify Darell’s thoughts about his son.
“When I was first starting out, (Ron) was an individual I picked out and I imitated everything he did,” NBA official Billy Kennedy said. “He was a major influence on me becoming an NBA referee. He had an influence and his father had an influence on my career. With that being said, he is probably one of the most underrated individuals as far as teaching is concerned. Most of the referees in the NBA at some point in time came through the Coast to Coast Referee School.
“When he established that school, it gave an opportunity for individuals to learn how to referee. And it didn’t matter what level they were at. He was willing to teach from a person who had never blown a whistle before to guys who were working Division I and Division II in college and aspiring NBA referees who wanted to further their careers. He has touched, I would say, probably between three and four thousand referees at some point in their careers.”
One of those officials is Andy Nagy, who is in his first season as a full-time NBA staff official. At 17, Nagy was too young to rent a car or a hotel room when he attended his first Coast to Coast camp in Las Vegas in 2008, so he was joined by family friends to make it happen. His youth didn’t matter to Garretson, who was just as attentive to Nagy as he was with the far more experienced officials in the camp.
“I loved everything about that camp and I loved the way Ron taught me,” Nagy said. “There was so much information that was thrown at me and it was a little overwhelming at times. Ron is a teacher at heart. He was very tough, but his heart is always in the right place. I knew it was tough love. It was very, very necessary at times. It was never, ‘Hey, you’ll get the next play. It’s OK.’ No. It was, ‘Hey, you need to do this, this is why and this is how you’re going to do it. Now, let’s fix it.’ Ron was huge on mechanics.”
Jason Garretson, a Division II official who works in the Big South, Colonial and Ohio Valley conferences, has a strong sense of his father’s presence while officiating.
“I always hear him in the back of my head saying, ‘Referee the defense, call the obvious, don’t guess, trust your partners, trust the system.’” Jason said. “That’s what he taught me and those things translate to any level — YMCA, high school, college and NBA.”
Ron Garretson was born July 1, 1958, in Compton, Calif., two years after Rick was born in nearby Long Beach. Darell and Jeanne Garretson raised their two boys in a single-level home at 10351 Nottingham Ave., in Westminster. Jeanne, who died in 2011, three years after her husband, was an assertive stay-at-home mom who kept her house in order during Darell’s extended absences while officiating. By night, Rick and Ron slept in a bunk bed before each boy got his own room when Darell and Jeanne built on to their house. By day, the two boys were constantly trying to get the best of each other in whatever sport was in season. Rick, who was the catcher on the Bolsa Little League team of Santa Ana that placed third in the 1968 Little League World Series and who started at wide receiver for San Diego State as a senior in 1978, always had the upper hand against Ron. “He never beat me,” Rick said.
Meanwhile, staying on the good side of their father was a shared goal between the brothers, who were certain to catch hell, and possibly some leather, if they strayed from the straight and narrow.
“He didn’t have a lot of patience, he was very disciplined, very strong-willed,” Ron said. “He was a terrific man, but if you did something and he called you out on it, you’d better come clean. He didn’t deal with BS very well or deal with people who beat around the bush. He was very succinct to your face and whatever he had to say, he said it and then he moved on. He was a boss the same way he was a parent.”
Of course, boys will be boys and that was the case one day when a basketball sailed through the sliding door of the new addition on the Garretsons’ house during a showdown between the two boys.
“I was playing with my brother in the back yard and there was a heated argument,” Ron said. “He threw the ball at me and I ducked and it went through the sliding glass window. My dad was on the road at the time, so it was the proverbial, ‘Wait until your father gets home!’ Those were the worst words you could hear back then. The times I thought I was going to get into the most trouble, the waiting period was the worst time until you had to deal with him face to face.
“We were brought up in the days where, when we did something really bad, there was a belt. Rick always had to go first and I had to watch him get whatever we were going to get. If it was bad enough where he had to step in, it was bare butt and belt. We probably got the belt for that because they had to go to the expense of replacing the sliding glass door.”
It wasn’t always pleasant being Ron as the underdog to Rick as he grew up. But in retrospect, those years helped shape him into who he would become because Ron was slowly developing the fiery disposition that defined him as a standout athlete at Servite and as an official who made his father proud.
“All we did was play against one another,” Garretson said. “We went from sport to sport. (Rick) was such a good athlete and I was the pesky little brother playing with him and his friends. We played baseball out in the front, basketball out in the back, football … that’s all we did. What ended up happening is when I ended up playing against kids my own age, it was easy because I was used to playing against someone like him, who was so talented. My competitiveness came from being up against him my whole life.”
By the time Garretson was a freshman at Servite in 1973, he had developed a commanding presence in the image of his father. Factoring into that is Darell and Jeanne held back Ron when he was in the sixth grade to give him another year to develop. “I was always older than the other kids, so it helped me a lot,” he said about his high school years. The dynamic had changed. Ron had grown up taking his whippings during competition from Rick and his friends, but he was suddenly the one in charge at Servite. He was no bully, but to question Garretson’s authority or talk trash to him at Servite was to risk instantly getting chewed up and spit out. No one got in the last word against Garretson.
“He wasn’t a cheerleader type, he was a mouthy type,” said Larry Toner, Garretson’s freshman football and basketball coach at Servite. “If you were an opposing player and said something to him, he would (figuratively) cut the legs out from underneath you. He was very clever with his mouth. If you got out of line, you heard it from Ron. He wouldn’t physically do anything to you, but he would just destroy you verbally. You didn’t want to get him amped. If you came in as an altar boy, that was your best bet against him. The minute you left that altar, you were in trouble.”
While Garretson was no Rick as an athlete, he was exceptional in his own way. Toner was asked by the varsity football coach at Servite to play someone else at quarterback because he favored a taller player at that position. But Toner still snuck the heady Garretson behind center when he could and recalls that Servite scored an average of once every seven snaps with him at quarterback. As a guard in basketball, Garretson was an assured ballhandler and scorer on a star-studded team. His teammates during the 1976-77 season — when Garretson was a senior — included Mike Witt, who went on to become the 11th player in major league history to pitch a perfect game while with the California Angels in 1984; Steve Buechele, an infielder in the major leagues from 1985-95; and Jon Weiglin, who was named Servite’s co-athlete of the year with Garretson in 1977.
“He was very much a leader,” said Witt, a junior center when Garretson was a senior. “He had the ball 99 percent of the time because he was the point guard and our whole philosophy was to get the rebound, get it in his hands and then he took charge. It was three-on-two, for the most part, the whole game. He knew how to dish and he could take a guy one-on-one, too. It was kind of his show my junior year and he did really well.”
Weiglin might have been Garretson’s equal in terms of athletic ability, but he did not hesitate to defer to the fiery point guard, who wore No. 12 (he wanted the No. 10 his father wore in officiating, but it wasn’t available) and loved to wear sweatbands.
“We were all Type A personalities and we just basically let Ron run the show,” Weiglin said. “Sometimes we all laughed about how Ron was just so demanding, but we all got along great. The games I remember most were against the basketball powerhouse Mater Dei (about 12 miles from Servite in Santa Ana). They’re a terrific basketball program and our senior year, we never lost to Mater Dei and Ron was the driving force between those two games, really. He would guide the team with his vocal ability and tell us what to do.
He would light it up, he would shoot, he would pass, he would just direct. We just deferred to him and for us to do that was pretty amazing.”
The officiating bug didn’t bite Garretson until he was out of college and working with Darell and Rick in the shoe business in Arizona. Darell had never pushed Ron to follow in his footsteps, but he was a driving force once his son expressed an interest.
“That’s when my dad started working with me,” Garretson said. “You find out very, very shortly whether you enjoy it or not because it’s such a negative profession with people screaming at you and telling you that you suck and you have to be able to deal with it. My brother couldn’t deal with it. He went a different way. He went into coaching.
“My dad worked with me for a year before I got seen by anybody. We would go down to the Salvation Army gym and he would tell me the things I needed to do to get better. And then in the summer of ’84, the Olympics was in L.A., they moved the summer training to San Diego State and that’s the first time I got in a camp. He brought me there as a non-staff guy, but I worked two games there and I sat in on meetings. That’s when I really, really got the bug.”
Within a year, Garretson was working in the Continental Basketball Association and then it was on to the NBA. It was a rapid ascent, but then Garretson had something other up-and-comers didn’t: the ultimate mentor.
Darell Garretson’s impact as an NBA official and supervisor earned him enshrinement in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. He was instrumental in starting the first union for NBA referees, developing the concept of “refereeing the defense,” implementing the three-person officiating crew and training new referees.
“I had the best teacher in the world,” Ron said. “There was nobody like him. If I had a game and I had let’s say 50 calls, he would go to the five that either I got wrong or I didn’t handle in the right way. That’s what we talked about. He was trying to fine-tune and tell me what I needed to do to improve.”
A 32-year legacy of his own followed, during which Ron Garretson developed a presence similar to his father both as an official and an instructor. There were numerous highs, such as all the Finals games, and there were the inevitable lows. One of his toughest nights was working “The Malice at the Palace,” on Nov. 19, 2004, at The Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich. A shoving match between the Detroit Pistons’ Ben Wallace and the Indiana Pacers’ Ron Artest escalated into a brawl that included fans.
“That was a black eye for the league,” Garretson said. “Whenever you have a fight, it’s always the referee’s fault. It’s always been that way. And this was a game that was basically over. Back then, we didn’t have replay and I was on the other side of the floor when the foul took place. It was actually scary because all hell had broken loose, I called the game and said it was over because there was basically a riot taking place on the floor.
“Would I have done anything differently? I probably could have been more aggressive in separation. Hindsight is always 20-20, but I probably could have done something different in that sense.”
Did that night cost Garretson in the long run? He doesn’t rule that out.
“I had been in the Finals for years by then,” he said. “I worked in the Finals that year, but after that year, I never worked the Finals again. To say that had something to do with it, I don’t know. There’s a lot of things that go your way and certain things that don’t go your way. You just have to accept it and say you did your best. And sometimes, your best isn’t good enough.”
Garretson continued through the 2018-19 season, but by then, more than 30 seasons of running up and down hardwood floors had taken a toll on his body. He was dealing with neck and back pain and was using special pillows in hotels to deal with his discomfort. A brilliant career was drawing to a close. There was also that DUI incident, when Garretson crashed his Jeep Wrangler into a tree. He had a blood alcohol content of 0.19, more than twice the legal limit. “I just had enough,” he said. “My body was breaking down. It had been a good run. I had had an off-the-court incident that I don’t really want to go into, but I had a DUI during that offseason and it got a lot of publicity in a short term. But I was ready to come off the floor. I had just had enough.”
His legacy had long been secure at that point, as so many officials who worked with him can attest.
“At the very beginning, I think he probably refereed me,” said Leon Wood, a longtime NBA official who also had played in the NBA. “For a guy who didn’t have great size for a referee, he had a commanding presence about him. He was in great shape, he was very articulate and he was a hell of a player. He was a person who knew the game, having a referee for a father.”
NBA official Bill Spooner offered a twist. He admires Garretson for succeeding so much in the shadow of his legendary father.
“It’s a difficult position to be the son of a very dynamic, strong man who was the boss, also,” he said. “He was one of the guys, but he couldn’t exactly be one of the guys because his dad was the boss. But I always thought Ron handled it as well as it could be handled. There was no better teacher and no better judge of talent than his dad, Darell. Ron paid attention along the way — quite well.”
Said former NBA official Joe DeRosa: “Ron probably helped me as much as anybody, especially when I first started out, to guide me in the right direction and to be successful as an NBA referee. He had a great mentor in his father, which was obvious, but overall, Ron was always professional, he was always honest, he was always critical of himself and he was always striving to be the best he could possibly be.”
By the way, what would Darell think of his youngest son now that he has put away his whistle for good? Rick, who has led the Chandler High School football team in Arizona to the last two Division 1 state championships, didn’t hesitate to respond.
“He would be beside himself,” Rick said. “Refereeing All-Star games, refereeing Finals, being a true pro in how he handled himself throughout his career and of having camps and teaching referees, he had a tremendous ability like my dad did. I used to say that when my dad passed away, I got to watch him on NBA Classics. You know you’re starting to get old when, all of a sudden, Ron is on the NBA Classics! It’s a unique line and he would definitely be proud of how his kid developed in that profession. Going 32 years, that’s a lot of games, man.”
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