Inside the world of the NBA’s referee whispererson April 25, 2022 at 1:51 pm

With 53 seconds left in the fourth quarter and his Atlanta Hawks on the brink of elimination, Onyeka Okongwu makes a game-saving defensive play against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

After helping his team erase a 10-point halftime deficit while filling in for injured starter Clint Capela, Okongwu is assigned to Cavs center Jarrett Allen, who is playing off the ball as Caris LeVert runs a pick-and-roll with Evan Mobley. Allen slides along the baseline to clear the lane for Mobley’s roll. Okongwu reads the play, leaving Allen just as LeVert releases a lob to Mobley, who’s well past his man and in position for the alley-oop — until Okongwu flies into the frame.

With perfect verticality and no illegal contact, Okongwu turns a sure-thing dunk into a Hawks possession. That single play from Okongwu increased Atlanta’s win probability from 75% (a likely win) all the way to 93.2% (a near-certain win), per the website Inpredictable.

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Onyeka Okongwu elevates for the block and comes down with the ball.

Okongwu, who admits to struggling with foul trouble as a rookie, may not have been capable of such a physical play like this a year ago. He might have struggled to go up vertically, or made contact with Mobley’s body via his momentum; he may not have been disciplined enough to keep his arms straight up, avoiding any risk of a foul.

He’s clearly capable now, and he says there’s a major reason why: He’s working with Don Vaden, a consultant from Third Side Coaching, and a referee whisperer of sorts.

Okongwu has decreased his per-possession foul rate by just under 10% in his second season while working with Vaden. His ability to stay on the floor was big for Atlanta in their play-in victory over the Cavs. He logged nearly 29 minutes (a top-five figure for him this year), and the Hawks outscored Cleveland by 21 points with him on the court. With Capela sidelined, Okongwu’s ability to stay out of foul trouble is paramount as he plays a larger role against the Miami Heat.

Major corporations hire former hackers for insights on cybersecurity; NBA teams hire Third Side Coaching to learn more about referees. They help players and coaches see the game through the eyes of a referee: angles and mechanics, how to minimize foul risks, and on-court applications of that study. They also teach clients how to maintain a respectful dialogue, avoid technical fouls and build positive relationships.

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The Hawks have been among Third Side’s clients throughout the 2021-22 season. Vaden was introduced to players and staff early in the year, quickly building rapport within the organization. He consults with the coaching staff on everything from challenge usage to effective communication with refs.

His work with Hawks players has perhaps been even more notable, spanning from stars like Trae Young and John Collins on down the roster. Many around the team point to his work with bigs like Collins and Okongwu for its direct impact on their development. Okongwu spent hours with Vaden and assistant coach Matt Hill on the court this season working on his physicality, positioning and how to avoid foul trouble while on the court.

“Sometimes I do all this playing with my hands, trying to body guys,” Okongwu told ESPN. “After practice, when I’m working with Hill, [Don] will come on the court sometimes and show me what I can do with my hands, what I should do with my hands, and what the referees see.”

The Hawks are just one name on a growing list of Third Side Coaching clients, a Rolodex that includes NBA stars like Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell and Jaren Jackson Jr.; championship-winning coaches like Nick Nurse; and even some of the game’s most famous broadcasters and media members.

DON VADEN SPENT NEARLY 15 YEARS as an NBA referee, then another 15 years in the officiating departments of both the NBA and WNBA. Vaden had already met Shelley Russi, the eventual founder of Third Side, while he was still an active official; Russi, just 30 at the time, impressed him with her court presence while officiating alongside future NBA referees at a summer ref camp in 2000, then enjoyed a 20-year career as an NCAA women’s referee. Vaden would eventually help hire Russi into a position with the WNBA when he transitioned there in 2015.

Both leagues have come a long way from a refereeing standpoint in the last decade in areas like training, development and ref analysis; Vaden and Russi deserve at least some share of the credit here. Kiki VanDeWeghe, the NBA’s former executive VP of basketball operations, says they “spent a lot of time talking about themes of consistency, transparency and simple, repeatable procedures that everybody could understand” and that Shelly made an impact on referee training, especially on the WNBA side.

Don Vaden walks away after calling a foul on Dennis Rodman on April 11, 1999. Mike Nelson/AFP/Getty Images

Vaden left the WNBA in 2017 to start his own consulting business, and when Russi departed a year later, Third Side Coaching was born.

The work Third Side does varies based on the client’s needs. Some teams, like the Hawks, opt for the full package: Both Vaden and Russi make regular visits and stay in touch with coaches and players alike throughout the season, working with them on everything from how refs make certain calls to the best ways to communicate with officials on the floor.

For Collins, Atlanta’s star big man, verticality has been a major point of emphasis with Vaden through much of this season. In on-court sessions with Vaden and Hawks assistant coach Chris Jent, they honed the details of a vital area for many of the league’s biggest players. “The natural tendencies that referees are going to look for when they make the call,” Collins said. “We’ve been able to do a great job of allowing me to use my athleticism and play vertically without fouling.”

Opponents shot 62.6% against Collins as the primary rim defender during the 2020-21 regular season, per tracking data — not a great number for a guy his size (6-foot-9 and 235 pounds). That’s down to 59.8% over this past regular season, minor progress. But in his four playoff appearances this postseason, it’s down to an excellent 50% (on an admittedly small sample).

Swingman Bogdan Bogdanovic raves about the way Vaden has helped him build relationships with referees. When Bogdanovic entered the NBA as a top EuroLeague player, he struggled to adjust to a new league’s officials — something Third Side has worked with him closely on.

“I knew [the referees] didn’t know me, but I wanted respect that I didn’t deserve yet,” Bogdanovic said. “I was probably complaining too much at the beginning, just a habit maybe… [Don worked with me on] relationships with referees. Trying to talk to them, not getting too emotional.”

Sharpshooter Kevin Huerter, meanwhile, raves about his work with the consultants. Typically one of the last Hawks players on the floor during practice, Huerter looks to Russi and Vaden for help with the nuances of several officiating-related areas. “Shelley, in a lot of ways, she works with the tactile,” Huerter said. “How to draw fouls, things you can look for within the play of the game.”

Huerter, like Bogdanovic, also credits Vaden with improving the way he interacts with officials on the court. “In a lot of ways, [it’s] just bridging the gap between player and ref,” Huerter said. “If you disagree on a call, how to approach them about it. Knowing the rules about it so you can argue something and use facts behind your argument.”

DAMIAN LILLARD IS one of the game’s premier pick-and-roll maestros. The last thing Russi or Vaden would ever do is take even an ounce of credit here, but they might deserve just a little.

Lillard formed a bond with Vaden in 2018 when he began working with the Trail Blazers, one of his first clients. Initial conversations about things like communication and referee dialogue rapidly progressed to on-court work, where Lillard is quick to point to some of the nuances Vaden was instrumental in instructing him on.

“I shoot a lot of threes on pick-and-rolls, and guys are grabbing around my waist, guys are reaching out and hitting my arm and stuff like that,” Lillard said. The issue: Those things weren’t always visible to the officials. “Don would show me literally the angles that referees stand at. Referees have their spots on the floor where they’re supposed to be as opposed to their partners. He would show me angles — what [refs] can see, what they can’t see.”

Per Second Spectrum tracking data, the Blazers scored 1.03 points per chance on all Lillard pick-and-rolls ending in a shot, foul, or turnover in the 2017-18 season, his last before working with Vaden. That’s a middling number at best, especially for a star of Dame’s stature.

By the 2019-20 season, after working with Vaden for a couple of years, that number rose to 1.13 points per chance, and Lillard’s rate of fouls drawn on such plays rose significantly. That gap may not seem huge, but it’s the difference between an elite pick-and-roll ball handler (83rd percentile) and a slightly below-average one (33rd percentile).

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Hassan Whiteside fouls his former teammate Damian Lillard at the rim.

Lillard is best known for his offensive exploits but also credits Vaden with helping him on the other side of the ball — primarily in those same pick-and-roll alignments.

“How can I get into their body to get over a screen without getting [a foul]? What position can I be in that a screener can’t screen me before it becomes an illegal screen?… That really helped me become a better pick-and-roll defender, and also made me more aware of things on the offensive end when I was navigating pick-and-roll,” Lillard says.

A comfort level developed quickly. Vaden and Lillard would talk constantly during those first couple of years. Vaden’s simple accessibility was a huge factor for Lillard, a gym rat like many other stars. “Before practice starts, [I’d] come onto the court and see Don and ask him a question — and before I know it we’ll be standing on the block and walking through stuff,” Lillard says.

Lillard’s connection with Third Side was a personal one in some ways. He’s stayed in touch with Vaden to this day; he’ll regularly send him plays after a game, then spend time on the phone breaking them down. Lillard hasn’t worked as closely with Russi on the court but is familiar with some of the nonprofit, equality and officiating programs she’s promoted in his hometown of Oakland (including a partnership with the Women’s Premier Basketball Association, which is played in Oakland). “We stay connected,” he says.

“[Don’s] character really shined through to me, because he didn’t always agree with me,” Lillard said. NBA superstars like Lillard are often surrounded by yes-men; Dame appreciated someone who shot him straight. “That told me that story right away.”

WHEN HE WAS HEAD COACH of the Orlando Magic, Steve Clifford brought in Third Side to give his team a preseason refresher on officiating in 2019 and 2020.

“It would start with new rules, areas of emphasis, which take place every year,” said Clifford, currently a consultant with the Brooklyn Nets. “[Don] would come in and spend time with our group and go over, first, those things.”

One year, Vaden helped the Magic focus on traveling calls. He set up stations on the practice court, each manned by a different assistant coach who went over a specific footwork theme or call example from the prior season, with the goal of familiarizing players with what referees would be looking for. “I think he helped me a lot in that way,” Clifford said.

Clifford didn’t know much about Vaden before hiring him, but he came highly recommended by fellow head coaches Terry Stotts and Dwane Casey. Vaden spent time with Clifford, many of his assistants and his players. If a player had a regular issue with a particular type of foul or play, Don would sit down with them to go over film, then apply it on the court.

“I just think the information they give is priceless, really,” said Alvin Gentry, who hired Third Side to consult with the Sacramento Kings for the 2021-22 season. “A call here, a non-call there can end up winning a game for you. Just the way they explain things and the time they spend preparing film and clips for the players as well as the coaches, I think it’s just invaluable.”

With Gentry and the Kings, Third Side’s involvement was even more direct: Vaden and Russi (who still lives in northern California) would actually get on the court during practice and officiate team scrimmages, often stopping mid-game to point out or correct a particular infraction and, just as vitally, explain the reasoning behind it.

“There’s an old saying that the eye in the sky doesn’t lie, referring to film,” said Kings forward Harrison Barnes. “Having someone like Don and Shelley who are able to take that film and break it down to you in terms of what’s happening — but also, how do you improve on that? That’s what makes it special. That’s what I got a lot out of this season.”

A COMMON KEY TASK FOR THIRD SIDE is simply helping players accept the reality of their own fouling tendencies. Every NBA fan has seen a player on their team convinced they committed no foul while arguing with a ref — despite replay showing an obvious, clear-as-day infraction. People in the throes of high-level athletic competition aren’t always the most reliable self-narrators, it turns out.

Third Side often fills that role. They brand themselves as “truth-tellers” who aren’t going to sugarcoat things for any of their clients; if you’re fouling too much, they won’t baby you — they’ll show you exactly how, and how to change it.

As a two-person group, both Russi and Vaden specialize in distinct areas. Both are naturally experts on call adjudication and simple “right or wrong” distinctions — Don typically takes the lead here. His game notes for teams like the Hawks will include any close call in either direction, which he’ll later review in detail so he can provide coaches and players with accurate information during the next day’s practice. Third Side wants their players to know when a call against them was correct so they can adjust the behavior; they also want them to know when a call was incorrect, so the player won’t mistakenly try to fix an issue that isn’t even present.

Shelley’s role is a bit more wide-ranging. It will certainly include major on-court work for many clients, especially those groups like the Hawks who bring Third Side in on a full-scale basis. Russi also touches on themes like mindfulness, communication and staying in the moment. She dives into player mindsets and helps them break through harmful patterns that might be impacting their performance.

Shelley Russi officiates a basketball game between Arizona State and UCLA on February 5, 2016 in Tempe. Rick Scuteri/AP Photo

“The benefit was how Don was able to not only break [things down], but with Shelley, they would ask questions that helped me get there on my own,” said Jaren Jackson Jr., star fourth-year big man for the Memphis Grizzlies, who worked with them from 2019 to 2021 in an effort to curb some over-aggression that was leading to foul trouble. “It helped me correct a lot of things. I learned the mental and strategic side of the game that I needed very badly.”

Russi and Vaden are clear about one major facet of their work: This is not about “gaming” or manipulating referees, but rather about helping their clients understand things from an official’s perspective. “We never teach flopping, we never teach embellishment — we teach about exposing the illegal defender,” Vaden says.

“It’s not about tricking the referee,” Collins says. “It’s about being savvy, being crafty. It’s about understanding what’s legal, what’s not legal… Where can I gain an advantage legally?”

Time is spent not just on missed calls, but on why they were missed and how to react. What’s the referee’s angle? Could the player have done something different to exploit an opponent’s infraction? Can the player approach the official respectfully to learn more about why a given call was made? A common recommendation made to players is to wait until a subsequent timeout to raise a grievance, allowing both player and official some space from the actual call.

“There [are] a lot of nuances — I don’t think all of us understand the training process that goes into being an official,” said Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder; Third Side worked with both Snyder and stars Mitchell and Rudy Gobert in 2021. “As you learn more about what someone’s doing, you develop a greater understanding. You develop a level of empathy for a certain situation or a certain call. You can see certain things your guys are doing that they can adjust easily to help them.”

When Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was arranging training camp for the Canadian National Team, which he coached in the summer of 2021 during Olympic qualifiers, he called up Third Side Coaching. Nurse had been introduced to Vaden years earlier while still an assistant in Toronto under Casey and had worked with him on a one-off basis the prior season with the Raptors.

What he needed for the national team group, though, was entirely different.

“Shelley especially had a lot of FIBA experience,” Nurse recounts. “We were trying to almost put on a seminar for our NBA players who were now playing in FIBA rules for Canada. The challenges, the differences, the similarities.

“For our guys, that was a film session and then we had some scrimmages they helped ref, and all those things to help give our guys a short, three-day minicamp on the difference in the rules and getting used to playing those different rules. It was really outstanding.”

Nurse has incorporated elements of Third Side’s approach into his coaching with the Raptors, as well. Their work in certain spatial areas has been particularly notable.

“They talk a lot about angles and positioning, things like that,” Nurse said. “Why [a play] can be seen one way depending on the angle I have versus the angle the referee had.”

IF YOU’RE A FAN who consumes NBA basketball or its resulting analysis, chances are you’ve learned a thing or two from Vaden and Russi — even if you never knew it.

Some of the game’s best and most well-known broadcasters regularly lean on them as resources. Mike Breen, a longtime play-by-play analyst and a regular in the NBA Finals, met Vaden while he was an on-court official, and they developed a relationship based on Vaden’s desire to keep all parties in the basketball world informed.

“He was always really good about telling us why this happened, or why this was called, or explaining a rule,” said Breen. “He just had a great, simplistic way of explaining it where you can understand it.”

Breen and Vaden remain close to this day. Breen often calls him after a broadcast that contains a unique or unusual call, just to get insights and ensure he’s prepared for the next time.

Bob Rathbun, TV voice of the Hawks for over 25 years, counts Vaden as a friend and the best officiating tool he has access to. Lamar Hurd, the color commentator for the Portland Trail Blazers, drew Vaden’s eye with his rules knowledge when Vaden consulted with the Blazers a few years ago, and the two still talk regularly.

“I think that they have given me a deeper understanding of just how much thought and care goes into the job of every single official,” said Ryan Ruocco, broadcaster across the NBA and WNBA. “They all have to be Yoda while a burning inferno of Sith are rising around them, if we want to get really deep into a Star Wars analogy. They have to be Zen, right? They have to be so technically sound, and they have to do it with the best athletes in the world in a split second.”

Ruocco first became familiar with Russi and Vaden while both were still with the WNBA, as part of their efforts to improve media outreach. His passion for getting it right on the broadcast is such that he’ll sometimes text one or the other during a commercial break for a game he’s calling, just to ensure he can speak accurately about a call.

Assisting broadcasters isn’t a lucrative gig for Russi and Vaden. It’s a way to build the brand, sure, but it’s more than that. They’re always looking for methods to increase everyone’s knowledge about refereeing — one of basketball’s most important but least talked-about areas.

Third Side Coaching has also become involved in NASCAR, a sport Vaden has deep roots in. He’s spent time as a spotter and team manager for various teams over the years. In coordination with Russi’s nonprofit, Blast Equality Collab (aimed at fostering diversity and inclusion in officiating and sports), Third Side sponsors a NASCAR pit crew made up of a diverse staff of up-and-comers..

Russi’s message is simple: The themes they teach in officiating apply in many other places. “Refereeing can be a training for your life,” she says.

For both, the simple concept of paying it forward is a guiding principle. “I was so fortunate to have the opportunities I had,” Vaden says. “To be able now to give back to people, that’s really a goal of mine.”

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