Bernie Fryer, a rookie official in the NBA, was working a game in the Portland Memorial Coliseum early this season when a heckler yelled, "Hey, Fryer, you were a better player than you are a referee." Fryer ignored the remark, but it did not escape Earl Strom, the veteran official with whom he was paired. In their dressing room after the game, Strom said. "Did you hear that guy, Bernie? I guess he never saw you play."
In truth, Bernie Fryer wasn't the second coming of Jerry West in his three seasons as a pro. But as a referee he is a genuine rarity—the only former NBA player among the league's 26 full-time officials. For Portland in 1973-74, New Orleans the next season and then St. Louis in the ABA's last year. Fryer was a marginal player, the kind who averages six points a game during his career. A star at Brigham Young, he earned slightly-more than the minimum NBA salary, or about $30,000—which is $10,000 more than he makes as an official. In return for freely giving up the ball to his wealthier teammates, Fryer got to see the principal cities of America and to spend time on the benches in their ultramodern arenas. He met plenty of fans, too, usually when he landed in the third row in the process of drawing a charging foul against the likes of Walt Bellamy.
Fryer did have one moment of glory with Portland, a team he made as a walk-on and played for with such abandon that CBS-TV did a halftime feature on him during the final playoff game in 1974. And one of his better offensive displays was telecast nationally, a game in which he scored 22 points against Houston on 9-of-11 shooting. "Sure, I remember Bernie Fryer," says Cleveland Coach Bill Fitch. "He was supposed to be a defensive specialist and wasn't supposed to score 22 points. Every coach in the NBA ripped up his scouting report. Fryer was the guy you would assign to stop a hot scorer you couldn't put cuffs on."
Midway through the 1974-75 season, while Fryer was with New Orleans, he decided to put his extensive bench time to good use. "I watched the movements of the refs," he says. "It occurred to me then that I would never become the best player but I might become the best official if I put in the effort and the years." A Trail Blazer executive remembers one trait Fryer possessed as a player: "He had the guts of a burglar, which should put him in good shape as an official."
Fryer first worked as a professional official in 1976 in the Los Angeles Summer Pro League, where the NBA tests prospective referees. At the time the league was considering a three-official system, and Fryer would have been hired had it been approved. It was not and he returned to Port Angeles, on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, to help his father run his general insurance agency. Last March he received a call asking if he was still interested in becoming an NBA referee. A referee strike was in the offing and the upcoming playoffs were what the NBA needed him for; that bothered Fryer. "I wanted a chance," he says, "but I did not want to be a strikebreaker. It was my impression, however, that if I refused this opportunity I might not get another." So he said he would be available and hoped the strike wouldn't come off.
But the officials walked out and Fryer was in the big time. He was assigned to two games in the Golden State-Detroit series and then to one in the Los Angeles-Golden State playoff. His most trying moment came when, after calling a tough foul and then breaking up an incipient fight' between a Warrior and a Piston, a Golden State fan came onto the court and punched Detroit's M.L. Carr. Players from both sides hustled off the intruder. Says Fryer, "My attitude in those playoffs was best expressed by another referee who said, 'I hope I have the ability to see the correct calls and the guts to make them.' " Fryer refereed in the L.A. league again last summer before signing as one of the four rookie officials hired this season.
"I don't feel like a rookie, because working those three playoff games was enough to take the rookie out of anyone," says Fryer.
Shortly before his 28th birthday, Fryer came East for a two-game swing, teaming with Don Murphy in a Celtics-Knicks game before 17,416 in Madison Square Garden and the next night officiating a Spurs-Nets game in Piscataway before only 2,637. For Fryer, the two games were as different as the disparity in the crowds. The first went into overtime and, with the exception of a technical foul Murphy called on Earl Monroe for protesting too long and too loudly after Fryer whistled him for charging, it was a well-controlled game. The second, which Fryer worked with Ed Rush, had a rough third quarter. Bernard King of New Jersey and Mark Olberding of San Antonio bumped as they turned upcourt following a Spur basket. In an instant they squared off, fists up. Fryer, working the baseline, had to step in and keep them apart, assessing King a technical foul for launching a punch, at which point Net Coach Kevin Loughery protested the game.
Losing coaches are not apt to be charitable about officiating in any circumstances, but Fryer (and his two partners) earned what amounts to a split for the two games. "I thought they did a good job and told them so," said Tommy Heinsohn, then Boston's coach. "I compliment them occasionally—I'm not an ogre, you know." Heinsohn gave Fryer only one of his infamous stares and yelled at him another time. "That's not bad for a rookie," he said, "but it's still early in the season." Loughery did not witness all of his team's loss because Fryer hit him with a pair of technicals a few minutes after the King-Olberding incident and Loughery had to leave the court. Rather than risk an additional fine for publicly airing his displeasure, the Net coach took the "no comment" route.
Houston Guard Mike Newlin played against Fryer in the Western Athletic Conference and had some carefully measured praise for his old adversary after a game that the rookie called and the Rockets lost. "He let the players be the center of attraction and didn't attempt to dominate the game himself," said Newlin. "But he was authoritative, and his calls seemed like the right ones. He could become a good referee."
Fryer has put old friendships and rivalries behind him. "I'm on a different plane now." he says. "I'm not in awe of any of these athletes, because I once played on the same level. It is toughest to put aside the friendships, but I believe I have."
Norm Drucker, the NBA's supervisor of officials, thinks that Fryer's background as a player should be an asset to him. "It is not based on scientific data but is something I have observed over the years," Drucker says. "The middle- or lower-rung player seems the type who becomes a good referee." The star, Drucker believes, is so accustomed to accolades and pats on the back that he does not have the "loner" temperament a referee needs to reassure himself that the decision he has just made is correct and that one entire team and 18,000 screaming fans are wrong.
Fryer's background as a player fits the Drucker "loner" theory. He loves to read, watch movies and follow soap operas on motel television sets, on which the color can seldom be properly adjusted. He is divorced and the father of two children. "I can be perfectly content just sitting at a table by myself drinking my beer," he says. "If someone wants to come over and talk, O.K. Otherwise I sit alone and it doesn't bother me a bit."
A month's worth of assignments show up in his mailbox on the 15th of every month, and one of the problems he encounters hopping from city to city is adjusting to the different times All My Children and One Life To Live are on the air. Once he's been around the league a couple of times, he expects to have the TV scheduling whipped.
When Fryer goes to New York he heads for league headquarters and watches films of his work, a part of a continuing review that all officials undergo, particularly in the areas of judgment. If Drucker or one of his staff spots a flaw on film or at a game, he lets the official know about it. "When you do something wrong, you hear from them," says Fryer. "Otherwise, no news is good news."
One of the refereeing maxims that figuratively hang over Fryer's head is that it means little to do a good job in the first 47½ minutes of a game if you blow a call in the final 30 seconds. Fryer also has discovered that no matter how hard or how conscientiously he works, someone in the stands will surely shout, "What game are you watching, ref?" Every coach and fan wants the referee to "call 'em both ways," he says, as long as the crucial last call does not go against his team.
Fryer has the temperament to handle that as well as the divide-and-conquer strategy to which rookie officials are subjected. In the Boston-New York game, for instance, the Celtic bench kept telling Fryer to keep an eye on his partner because "Murph's getting too old to call this game." At the other end of the court, the Knick brain trust was advising Murphy to "make sure that rookie makes some calls."
Two players race downcourt, one with the basketball, the other a defender. A whistle blows, a foul is called, a temper is lost and an especially profane word is directed at the referee. Technical foul. Fryer recalls such an incident, the only technical he received in his NBA career. Tommy Nunez, then a rookie referee and now one of his friends, nailed him. "Tommy was right on the call and correct in hitting me with the T," says Fryer. "The ball had been stolen from me, and I took out my frustration on him." He smiles. "Now that I'm a ref, I wonder if they'll give me back my $50?"