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NBA's only female ref 'doesn't back down'

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LOS ANGELES -- Back in 1997, when she became the first woman to officiate a National Basketball Association game -- and the first woman to officiate a major men's sport at the top professional level -- Violet Palmer's presence on the court prompted a lot of questions from players.

Will she be able to keep up physically with the speed of the men's game? Will we be able to curse around her? Will we be able to pat her on the butt after a great play? Where will she change into and out of her uniform?

But now, as she enters her ninth season as an NBA referee, Palmer, 41, the only woman among the league's 62-member officiating staff, is a fixture in the game. Players have become so comfortable around her there's really only one question she says she's repeatedly asked: Damn, you smell good. What's that perfume you're wearing?

"When I started my fourth season, I could kind of see the heads not turn anymore," Palmer says. "I could see players come up to me and just talk.

"At first it was one of those arm's-distance kind of things. (They seemed to be thinking) 'She has this strength, she reminds me of my mother, but I'm not sure how to deal with her.' As time went on, it became, 'Wow, she's just cool. She's just as cool as the guys.'"

Breaking the glass ceiling in her profession and carrying the banner for women in a traditionally all-male arena never have been, and never will be, on Palmer's to-do list. But breaking the mold, by refusing to back down from challenges, definitely is.

Growing up in Compton, Calif., the second oldest of James and Gussie Palmer's four children, she was taught there are no barriers in life, that dreams can come true if you're disciplined, dedicated and determined enough to chase them.

Today, the 5-foot-8 Palmer, who is single and lives in Los Angeles, works 10 or 11 NBA games a month, or 55 to 70 games a season -- a typical schedule for NBA referees.

Last spring she reached another milestone: She was the first female "alternate" for the first round of the NBA playoffs, meaning she was waiting in the wings at five different games in case of an injury to one of the three officials on the court.

Postseason referees are selected by Ronnie Nunn, the NBA's director of officials, and Stu Jackson, the league's senior vice president for basketball operations. Their selections are based on regular-season performance and experience level.

Nunn says Palmer is "at the doorstep" of another first -- participating in the postseason.

Her peers admire her tireless work ethic.

"I see her getting better and better and better every year," says James Capers, in his 11th season as an NBA official. "She's a student of her own game. She's able to get in better position on the court to see the plays. It's obvious she's doing film work. She's mastering her own profession."

NBA official Ted Bernhardt, in his 18th season, says: "She has never been involved in, 'I'm a girl.' Her passion is refereeing. She'll do whatever it takes to get better."

Players appreciate her ability to blend in on the floor.

"Of course, it's not like we're disrespectful to the male referees when we walk out there, but we're a lot more respectful to her," San Antonio Spurs 6-11 forward Tim Duncan says. "However, once you're in the heat of battle, you don't notice her gender.

"Her strengths are she doesn't stick out. ... She's a solid official."

Spurs 6-10 forward Robert Horry adds: "She's good. At first a lot of guys challenged her on calls, like 'Come on,' but she stood up for herself. That says a lot about her. Guys respect her. ... She doesn't back down from anybody."

Blazing her own trail

Since there were no road maps for her to follow, Palmer says she never set out to accomplish any of this. She broke into the NBA as one of two female referees. (The NBA fired the other, Dee Kantner, for substandard performance in 2002; she is the supervisor of officials for the Women's National Basketball Association.) Currently 19 other female officials who have gone through the NBA's referee training program are working under the league's umbrella -- three in the NBA Development League, 16 in the WNBA.

When Palmer finally made it to the big time, she wasn't just well schooled in basketball and officiating, she practically had her Ph.D.

She grew up in a closely knit, sports-minded family, which she describes as "Compton's version of Little House on the Prairie." Her parents have been married for 56 years -- they've lived in the same house for 49 of them, raising all of their children there -- and she credits her stable, loving family for making her feel confident and secure.

"We're so close that even to this day we still go to my mother's house for Sunday dinner," she says.

James, 79, a retired furnace operator, played college basketball. Gussie, a homemaker, was a high school basketball player. Palmer's only brother, Rod, 38, is the basketball coach at Centennial High School in Compton. Her nephew, Wun Versher, 35, played for the Harlem Globetrotters and is a spokesman for the team.

"My brother and I were like two peas in a pod," Palmer says. "I started playing sports with the boys when I was 5 or 6, and I was always in the streets playing baseball and basketball. My mother would go to the door and yell, 'Vi, come on in,' and what she really meant was, 'It's time for you to come inside and be a girl.'"

Says Gussie, 75: "I always knew she had a lot of spunk, because when girls play with boys they've got that go power. She was never afraid. She always knew how to communicate. And everybody just loved her."

As the star point guard and three-year captain of the Cal Poly-Pomona women's basketball team, Palmer led the Broncos to NCAA Division II championships in 1985 and 1986. There she got her first tastes of officiating.

Not only was officiating required for her recreation major, but her late coach, Darlene May, also worked as a basketball referee. At the 1984 Olympics, May became the first female ref for an Olympic women's basketball game. "She was a big influence in my becoming a referee," Palmer says.

After graduating in 1987, Palmer worked as a recreation director for the city of Los Angeles, and in her spare time she began officiating basketball games. She worked her way up through the ranks -- high school girls, men's city recreation league, junior college women's and NCAA Divisions I, II and III and finally the Women's Final Four -- all while keeping her day job.

Despite all her experience, Palmer didn't feel completely prepared for the call she got in 1995 from the late Aaron Wade, then chief of staff for the Continental Basketball Association officials and someone who worked closely with the NBA to develop refs. He asked if she'd like to enter the NBA's training program.

"I never really thought about it," Palmer replied, unenthusiastically. She figured the call was from a friend playing a prank.

Wade laughed. "Violet," he said, "when I tell people who I am and why I'm calling, they scream into the phone, 'Oh, my God. I don't believe it! It's Aaron Wade!'"

Explains Palmer: "The NBA was never my goal because I thought it was unattainable. I was a college referee. I was the No.3 referee in the world for women's basketball. I had everything. The Final Four. Big TV games. All the limelight I wanted. But my personality is if you give me a challenge, I'm going to take it. In the back of my mind, I said, 'It doesn't cost me anything. I can just try it. If nothing happens, the training will be good.'"

However, when she stepped onto the court in the fall of 1995 to work her first NBA exhibition game, Palmer had a revelation.

"I said, 'Hey, wait a minute. Oh, no, no, no, no. This I am going to do,'" she recalls. "I said, 'I'm going to work my butt off. I'm going to be just as good as every single man here. I'm going to get hired. No question.'"

Gender worked for her

On Oct.31, 1997, she made history, taking the floor in Vancouver, British Columbia, as the Vancouver Grizzlies met the Dallas Mavericks.

Afterward she said: "I will never, ever forget the moment I put that jacket on and walked onto that floor. It was like, 'Wow, you're telling me I'm going to do this every single night?' It was more than nervous; I was going to pee in my pants."

Looking back on it now, she says, "When I first got hired, there was so much talk and so much attention drawn to the whole dynamics of women refereeing a male professional sport. I was like, 'Oh, my God. Is this going to go away?' knowing that it probably never will. But I was just hoping that as the years go, my ability to referee would stand out more than my just being a woman, because that's what's most important to me, to know players just respect me to do my job."

In hindsight, Palmer says, her gender worked to her advantage in gaining acceptance.

"For every single referee that comes in, it's the same process," she says. "It wasn't special for me -- it was shorter. The reason being I'm so recognizable. Instantly, from the first time I walked on the floor, almost every single player in the league knew my name."

Palmer has more than answered the questions that initially surrounded her.

Will she be able to keep up physically with the speed of the men's game? She works out year-round, at least five days a week. She also does extensive game-tape study to be able to put herself in the best position to call plays.

Will we be able to curse around her? "I grew up in the inner city," she says. "I've heard a lot worse."

Will we be able to pat her on the butt after a great play? "What's the big deal?" she says. "It's an emotional game."

Where will she change in to and out of her uniform? She has her own locker room at every NBA arena. "That's the league's only concession for Violet," Nunn says.

And, oh yes, she wears Marc Jacobs or Michael Kors perfume -- with her NBA referee shirt and slacks (league-issued) and men's Nike basketball shoes (her choice).

Today she commands respect on the floor -- and to the players, she's simply, "Vi" or "V."

What's next on her to-do list? Officiating the NBA playoffs.

"I'm almost there," Palmer says. "I'm going to get there. I'm working my way, big time. It has nothing to do with gender. You've got to pay your dues. ... When the opportunity knocks, you've got to be ready, and I'm ready."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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