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Ex-NBA referee Jess Thompson shares his stories about the 80s

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Star treatment for Julius Erving (2:24)

Former NBA referee Jess Thompson talks about the time he got reprimanded for whistling Julius Erving for a traveling violation early in his officiating career. (2:24)

Michael Jordan's Friday night NBA debut October 26, 1984 was a historical moment that heralded the beginning of his journey to being the greatest player of all-time. For referee Jess Thompson, it was supposed to be a day off.

"It was a punishment," he recalled with a laugh on An Eternity of Basketball with ESPN5.com's Charlie Cuna, Sid Ventura and Noel Zarate.

Booked for an officiating job for the Pacers' first game of the season against the Washington Bullets on a Saturday, Thompson, after a prior work night, decided to make his way to his brother's residence in Indiana to stay the night and avoid the unpredictability of weather -- which, given how the regular NBA calendar is played in winter, was a pretty common occurrence.

"I had a brother that lived in Indianapolis, Indiana. I had a game in Indiana on [Saturday] night," he recounted. "I decided, 'Okay, I'm going to stay here with my brother and his family overnight.' [Friday] morning, I got up to 10 inches of snow. No transportation -- everything. Couldn't get nothing."

The inclement weather didn't prove to be nearly enough of a problem for a reposing Thompson until the phone call from the NBA office came ringing. Flights had been canceled and the designated referees for the Bulls-Bullets season-opener in Chicago couldn't fly in, so they needed Thompson to officiate.

"I wasn't in Chicago. I was supposed to be in Chicago, but I [didn't] tell them. We were supposed to call after every game, right? Their assumption was that I was in Chicago, but I wasn't," he said.

"God is good, guys. God takes care of old people and fools," laughed Thompson.

Thompson, four hours away from Chicago, moved fast. With no flights available due to the sudden snowfall, the referee rented a car and sped to Illinois as fast as he could.

Not a good idea. Way before he was able to leave the state borders, Thompson said an Indianapolis state policeman flagged him for speeding.

"I pulled over. He comes and he says, 'What is your problem?' I said, 'Officer please, may I just show you something?' He says, 'Yeah, okay, fine.' So I get out of the car, open the trunk and my NBA uniform's laying in the back in the trunk. I said, 'I got a call. I've got an NBA game in Chicago and I gotta get to Chicago,'" he explained.

Luckily, Thompson was able to strike a bargain with the officer, who was coincidentally also an NBA fan.

"He said, 'Let me tell you something: for four tickets, I'll take you to Chicago.' I said, 'You got it!'" Thompson cracked. "For three hours, I was behind that guy all the way from Indianapolis, Indiana, to the city limits of Chicago."

When he reached the Chicago Stadium, Thompson acted like a man who didn't rush his way from over a hundred miles away.

"[Jordan] had it. And the thing about him -- and I say it to this day -- was that he had a look in his eyes. It was a killer instinct." Jess Thompson on seeing Michael Jordan for the first time

"I go down in the referees' room, and Michael Jordan's dad is there. And we were sitting there playing cards and I said, 'You know what? I better call the NBA office,'" he said.

"So I call this guy," he continued. "I say, 'Hey... didn't you say I got the Bulls game?' And he said 'Yeah, but we were looking all over you. Where are you?' I said, 'I'm in [the] Chicago [Stadium]. Take this number and call me back.'"

All's well that ends well.

"I lied. I wasn't supposed to be there," he said. "I got that game on a fluke. I wasn't supposed to have it."

The stadium was buzzing with a crowd of under 14,000 anticipating the Bulls debut of the rookie guard from North Carolina who had the expectations of an entire city suddenly placed on his lanky shoulders. Ultimately, Jordan didn't disappoint, but he didn't exactly have a debut that was up to par with his eventual standards.

"Everybody was expecting great things, but he wasn't the highest scorer in that game," said Thompson. "In that particular game, he showed flashes of greatness. But he wasn't the high scorer in that game. Quintin Dailey was the kid that put it away."

Chicago carved out an impressive 109-93 win behind forward Orlando Woolridge, who paced the Bulls with 28 points on 13-for-19 shooting and nine rebounds, and Dailey, who scored 12 of his 25 points in the final quarter.

Both players lasted only one more season with Chicago as the franchise decided to go all-in on Jordan, who wound up with 16 points on 5-for-16 shooting but made it up with all-around numbers of seven assists, six rebounds, four blocks and two steals. "Michael did some things. If you look at the video tape, he got some rebounds and blocked some shots and did some stuff," observed Thompson. "He had it. And the thing about him -- and I say it to this day -- was that he had a look in his eyes. It was a killer instinct - 'You think you're going to beat me? You're crazy. You're not going to.'"

Thompson had the privilege of officiating more of His Airness' games before retiring in 1992 and was even on the sidelines in one scuffle between the Bulls and the Detroit Pistons, which saw Jordan get roughhoused by Rick Mahorn.

"Michael had the ball, and he fakes Joe Dumars. Joe Dumars goes up, and Michael goes around. He goes up to dunk it, and Rick Mahorn catches him right in mid-air and throws him under the Chicagoo Bulls bench. Off come all of the Chicago Bulls, off come all the Detroit Pistons," recalled Thompson. "And Rick Mahorn beat up everybody that came near. He beat up everybody except Charles Oakley. Nobody wanted to fight Mahorn except Oakley."

But as the ruckus went on, Thompson said he saw Jordan compose himself and return to the bench, calm and unbothered.

"He got up, he wasn't hurt, and he went over and sat down on the bench," he said, "Superstars, they can take care of themselves."

Early on, Jordan, as Thompson believed, belonged in the class of the league's great players.

"Michael Jordan, he fits into the category of a great player there. What's the difference between a good player and a great player? A good player can score 50 or 60 points, a great player can score 50 or 60 points but you can't score 50 or 60 points on him," he said. "You can't stop him, but he can stop you on both ends of the court. Good and great. He won't let you."

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Ex-NBA referee Jess Thompson on Michael Jordan's first NBA game

Ex-NBA referee Jess Thompson officiated Michael Jordan's first NBA game, and even then he saw something special in the rookie.

Officiating superstars

In his first few years in the league, Thompson absorbed all that he could and mainly took his cues from veteran referees -- particularly from the late Earl Strom, a famed official who was posthumously elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

"For the first three years, I was in Earl Strom's back pocket," he said. "I saw things that were going on and things that were happening, but mostly I was keeping my mouth shut and learning how to referee pro basketball."

Thompson denied the existence of "superstar calls", but admitted to a time when he had to forget what he knew about travelling to properly adjust for a certain Philadelphia 76ers superstar named Julius Erving.

"If you take a basketball and have both feet parallel, you don't have a pivot foot. But if you take one step with one foot, then you've established a pivot foot. So if you got both feet parallel together with the ball in your hand and you haven't taken a dribble yet, you don't have a pivot foot," he explained. "Dr. J., when he'd get on the baseline, he would take the ball and step into his defender. As soon as he stepped into a defender, you had a pivot foot. And what he would do is take that pivot foot and raise it up and go around the guy. He'd beat him. He'd take a step and beat him, and take that little twirl and shoot that shot underneath and make the basket. He did it all the time. Well, the first time I saw it, I called it a travel."

"Wrong thing to do," Thompson chuckled.

At halftime, Thompson said he got an earful from Strom, who was the lead referee during that game.

"Earl had gone into the dressing room and I was walking behind him. And he was standing in the dressing room door with his hands on his hips. He said, 'How long have you been in the league? I said, 'This is my first year'. He said, 'How long have I been in the league?' I said, 'I don't know.' He said, 'My 18th year. You schmuck! That's Doc's move! You don't call that!'"

Thompson said he never made the mistake of blowing his whistle on Erving when he maneuvered like that ever again.

"You had to referee pro basketball, and you had to learn who was who and what was what," he said. "When I was in college basketball and I saw that move, I called a travel. That was fine. But this is pro basketball, and pro basketball's business. People came to watch Doc make that move."

"I never called that travel again."

But aside from that particular case, Thompson said he never really had any problems with NBA superstars throughout his 12-year refereeing career.

"They didn't need an edge," he said of superstars. "If you played them straight-up basketball and you beat them or they beat you, that's fine. But if somebody was doing something to them, they would tell the referee, 'Hey, you're going to take care of this. If you don't take care of it, I'll take care of it.' And they would.

"Superstars weren't a problem. They never were a problem. And if they if they needed to make an adjustment on something we thought they were doing and we told them, they would make the adjustment."

Thompson named Los Angeles Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Boston Celtics Hall of Famer Larry Bird as some of the stars who would actually keep their teammates in check.

"The Lakers had a guy named Larry Spriggs. Larry was a top complainer. I'd say, 'Hey Cap (Abdul-Jabbar), you need Larry?' and he'd say, 'I got it, I got Larry," he recalled.

With Bird and the Celtics, he had a similar encounter: "I love Danny (Ainge), but Danny was a pain in the butt. And I would go and say, 'Hey Larry, you guys need him? I'm getting ready to [throw him out]' and he'd say, 'I got him Jess. Don't worry about him. I got him.' That's the way I interacted with the superstars. They never gave me any hard time."

Even coaches didn't get on his case during games, though he did recall a time when former San Antonio Spurs coach Cotton Fitzsimmons pretended to get riled up over Thompson in a certain game.

"The Spurs were playing terrible in this game," he says, "and Cotton comes out on the floor and he comes up to me and he says to me real quick, 'Jess, you gotta throw me out'. And he backed up and he says, 'What did you say?' He backs up off me and starts calling me SOB and a bunch of bad names. He was trying to motivate his team.

"Coaches for the most part, for me, they didn't bother me. I think a lot of them knew I had been in the military. And I didn't bother them and they didn't bother me. I didn't really have a hard time with any coach," he added.

But if Thompson had any gripe with anyone, it may have probably been with the Pistons' Bad Boys.

"Isiah Thomas is the dirtiest point guard ever. But anyway, that's just my opinion," he laughed. "Now again I keep emphasizing this is me, but Isiah Thomas and The Bad Boys were bad boys. Isiah would start one problem and run behind Bill Laimbeer, who would get socked in the mouth by somebody after he started it."

'Friendship' with Larry Bird

For some reason he says he still cannot fully understand up to today, Bird had a high level of respect for Thompson as a referee.

"I'm from Ohio, but I had a lot of family in Indiana. I think Larry thought I was from Indiana. I'm not sure. But somehow, he liked me," he remarked.

Thompson also expressed his fondness for Bird after his days as an official, saying the Hall of Famer was "way ahead of his time" and was "the most intelligent player" he had ever come across in professional basketball.

"How are you going to argue with somebody who's going to quote you rules that you go by? He would read a rule book. I'd say, 'Larry you know what, I'll check that out. And I'll tell you the next time I see you, I'll let you know,'" he shared. "And two or three games later in shootaround before the game, he'd go, 'Did you check it out?' And I'd say, 'Yeah', and he'd say, 'Okay, fine.'"

The two might have even become good friends if not for a rule that bars referees and players from socializing to protect the sport, though Thompson said he and Bird found a workaround in airports to share their love for reading.

"The NBA didn't allow any fraternization between players and referees. If I walked into an airport and there was an NBA team -- at that time, they didn't have their own plane, they flew commercial -- and if they were getting on an airplane that I was getting on, I would take another flight," he said.

"I'm a great reader. I always liked to read. And Larry and I would read a lot," he bared. "It was like a cloak-and-dagger [operation], he'd give me a book, then I'd give him a book, then we'd keep walking. We wouldn't talk."

Bird's respect for Thompson extended to the action on the floor, where Bird would often restrain teammates and coaches from venting their ire on the referee on numerous occasions.

"I remember one time, Kevin McHale didn't like something I had called on him. And he started coming after me. I looked on the corner of my eye, he was coming after me and Larry just intercepted. I know he thinks I didn't see this to this day," opened Thompson. "[In another instance,] Don Nelson called me the 'little s-' word. and Larry would say, 'Sshh.'"

"Somehow, I was Larry Bird's guy. Nobody messed with me. I don't know why. I didn't pay him no money," he laughed.

Journey to South Korea, advice to budding referees

Thompson, 84, is a retired helicopter pilot and colonel who had a 22-year US Army career and ended up refereeing after being convinced by Willis Reed -- who was, at this point, a coach for the same New York Knicks he pushed to their only two titles in 1970 and 1973 -- during one of the team's training camps in one of their stations.

"Willis asked me what I was going to do when I got out of the army. I said, 'Well I don't know, I'm gonna look to be a corporate helicopter pilot for some corporation. He said, 'You're refereeing our games, why don't you try to get into the NBA?' I said, 'How much money do they make?' When he told me what the starting salary was, my eyes just went bad. I couldn't pass the flight physical anymore," he laughed.

He began working basketball up in the famed Rucker Park and officiated games there from 1977 to 1980. An opportunity cropped up with the NBA, which he said was on the lookout for more minority referees, and Thompson started his new job in September 1980 - two months after he hung up his uniform and called it a career in the army.

"I have been observed by Lee Jones and Jimmy Capers (in Rucker Park and in the Pro-Am leagues). They came to the Philippines to referee some of (Sonny) Jaworski's games. Jimmy Capers' son is one of the top referees in the NBA right now. Those guys observed me," he said.

Sometime in the '80s, Thompson drew praises -- and the NBA's ire -- for helping a nervous seven-year-old girl named Nathalie Roth gather herself and finish singing the national anthem during one of the Lakers' games at The Forum.

"The little girl, she was on the floor and Lee (Jones) and I were standing by the table. And as she walked up to us, I said, 'Lee, I'm going to help here.' He said, 'You better not. Don't do that.' I said, 'We're not gonna get the game started, Lee,'" he recalled. "She looked for her mother and she looked around, and she looked right at me. And I said, 'Do you want me to help you?' And that's what we did."

The gesture, while commendable, earned him a fine from the league office and some jabs from Laker players for the rest of the season.

"I got fined for that. I got fined for appearing on television without permission from the NBA. That was a rule," he said. "I didn't think I was gonna get fined, but I did. But I got my money back."

He added: "For the rest of the season, every time I saw the Lakers, some of them would say, 'You can't referee. You got another career in singing, but you can't referee.' They were joking and I never lived that down for the rest of the season."

Thompson unceremoniously retired in 1992 after a freak injury during one of the Lakers' games against the Denver Nuggets prevented him from ever officiating an NBA game ever again.

"I was the lead referee under the basket. There was a shot, Magic (Johnson) rebounded it, kicked it out to Michael Cooper on a fast break and I turned to catch him, and I ruptured my right Achilles. Just, boom," he said. "I couldn't get back to NBA condition. I could still referee amateur basketball, I could run to them but I couldn't run with the NBA players."

(Cooper retired in 1990 and Johnson for the first time in 1991, so it's possible Thompson was referring to different Lakers.)

Around the same time, the NBA, who still paid Thompson as he rehabilitated, collaborated with some visitors who wanted to start their own professional basketball league and referred the referee to be one of their chief trainers.

"The Koreans wanted to start a pro basketball league. They approached the NBA about forming a league," he said.

"Then the Koreans said, 'Oh, we don't have anybody to train our referees.' And the NBA said, 'We got just a guy for you.' They didn't want to pay me anymore," he joked.

Thompson became the Korean Basketball League's (KBL) supervisor from 1997 to 2004 and was hired by the PBA in 2005 to be a technical consultant for one season. After that stint, he stayed in the Philippines until 2008 until an offer to return to the KBL was fielded. Thompson has stayed in Korea ever since.

The retired official offered some advice for men and women who wanted to be referees one day and said they had to take on the career "for the right reasons."

"You're running up and down the floor with those guys making 60 or 70 million a year, and you better be in shape. You have to be in shape. There's no two ways about it," he said. "Drinking, smoking and all that stuff -- if you're going to be a pro basketball referee, forget it. You're not going to be around long."

"If you want to be liked, if you're a person that wants to be liked and you want people to like you, this is not a profession for you," he continued. "If your goal is to move up to the highest level that you can, be humble and don't say, '$10? I'm not gonna referee for $10.' Are you doing it for the money? Then you're doing it for the wrong reasons, in my opinion.

"And the big thing and the last thing is pay attention to the veterans. If you consider becoming a referee, find someone that has done it. Seek those guys out, pick their brains and listen to what they have to tell you, because they have a good message for you. And lastly, have fun. Do it for the right reasons."