The pregame buzz had a special rhythm to it, suggesting that this was more than just another regular-season encounter between one of the NBA’s best teams and one of its worst.
This just felt different.
And sure enough, it was.
“We got a female referee tonight,” the security guard blurted, while escorting Golden State center Erick Dampier down a hallway before Tuesday’s game against the Seattle SuperSonics.
“Yeah?” Dampier replied. “Which one?”
“Dee Kantner,” the guard answered.
While it is the soft-spoken Violet Palmer who hails from Hollywood, Kantner is the rookie ref with the strut, the one who likes to chat, the one the camera loves. Even when she attempts to blend in, she stands out. At 5-foot-9 and a tight 142 pounds, and with wavy brown hair tugged sharply into a ponytail, she cuts a dynamic figure. The gait is unique, too, more prance than conventional stride.
In truth, there is nothing conventional about Kantner, who along with Palmer was hired to break down the gender barrier in officiating and, in a sense, within the NBA itself.
While the women’s pro leagues and college ranks offer abundant opportunities for both men and women, the NBA remains an exclusive men’s club. There are no female trainers, assistant coaches, scouts or even video coordinators among the 29 teams. Even Washington Wizards president Susan O’Malley deals exclusively with business and marketing matters and defers all basketball issues to vice president Wes Unseld.
Not surprisingly, the hiring of female referees has been met with considerable resistance. Coalitions are forming, with players often reflecting the attitudes of their coaches.
“There is still an uneasiness when they’re on the court,” said Sonics coach George Karl, choosing his words carefully. “I don’t think the guys are saying they don’t deserve to be out there, but I can’t deny that it’s not natural yet.”
Others seem similarly cool to the idea. New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy hastily changed the subject when asked during the preseason about female refs. And Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson, who criticized Palmer’s performance early in the season, was overheard sarcastically baiting Kantner in a preseason game.
“Don’t you have some Jewish thing to go to tonight?” Jackson cracked as the referee ran past.
“No, but don’t you have some Zen thing to go to?” retorted Kantner, who is not Jewish.
Kantner’s bold banter and quick wit have assisted on other occasions. Atlanta Hawks coach Lenny Wilkens recalls an exchange the two had several weeks ago.
“Dee, that was a BLEEPING travel,” Wilkens screamed.
During the next dead-ball situation, Kantner positioned herself near Wilkens, awaiting his opinion. “Dee, that was a travel,” the coach repeated.
“No, Lenny, that was a BLEEPING travel,” she responded. “I just missed it.”
Wilkens erupted in laughter and later praised Kantner for both her officiating and people skills. “Hey, Dee is a good young referee,” he said. “She makes mistakes, but even the veterans do. The thing I really like, though, is that you can talk to her. She’s willing to listen and learn.”
In her Northern California debut Tuesday, Kantner confronted a similar situation. Questionable call. Crucial time. Angry coach. But soon she was standing alongside Warriors coach P.J. Carlesimo, nodding, offering a few words, but mostly listening.
While the detractors of Kantner and Palmer continue to carp about a lack of assertiveness and consistency, the list of supporters is weighty, too: Wilkens, Carlesimo, Larry Brown, Rick Pitino, Mike Fratello, Bernie Bickerstaff, Jerry Sloan and Rudy Tomjanovich, to name a few. And as none other than Charles Barkley says, “I may not like the concept, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the job or that they’re not good referees.”
Coping with an anti-female sentiment was virtually part of the job description, and one reason Kantner, like Palmer, was carefully chosen and painstakingly groomed.
A native of Reading, Pa., she was a standout in several sports, track in particular. But with professional sports opportunities for women severely limited 20 years ago, Kantner, 37, officiated games as a hobby while pursuing an engineering degree at the University of Pittsburgh.
For extra cash, she flirted with bodybuilding.
Her mother, Jan Vroman, recalls walking into her daughter’s apartment one day and turning green. “Dee was orange from all the vitamins and supplements she was taking,” Vroman said. “I told her: ‘I will support you in whatever you do. But Mother does not approve.’ I was very happy when that phase ended.”
As for the officiating, that kind of stuck. That got under her skin. Kantner became so good and in such demand in the East and Southeast that her hobby became her obsession. While living in Charlotte, N.C., she routinely adjusted her schedule as an engineering sales rep to accommodate requests from the Atlantic Coast Conference, Southeastern Conference and NCAA Tournament.
Then the NBA called.
“I never thought about becoming a trailblazer,” she said before the season, before the league precluded its female refs from granting interviews. “That’s not why I went into this. I merely wanted to pursue officiating at the highest level, and that’s the NBA. But it means a lot to me to be one of the first two women to do anything, especially something you love. I hope people can tell how much fun I’m having.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.