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Professional Basketball: Pitt grad Kantner first woman referee to be fired by NBA

Thursday, July 18, 2002

By Paul Zeise, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

When the NBA hired Dee Kantner and Violet Palmer as referees in 1997, the two women made history as the first to officiate regular-season games in an all-male major professional sports league.

NBA referee Dee Kantner makes a call during a 1999 Washington Wizards-Cleveland Cavaliers game at the MCI Center in Washington. (Doug Mills, Associated Press)

Last week, Kantner, a 1982 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and a former Panthers field hockey player, made history again when she became the first female official to be fired by the league.

"I had my Andy Warhol 15 minutes of fame five years ago, and I guess I got 15 more minutes this week, so I should be happy because I got a total of 30," she joked yesterday from her home in Charlotte, N.C. "It has been a tough few days for me because in many ways this is all still surreal to me. I just never knew my job was in jeopardy. And since I was fired, nobody has come to me and said, 'God, Dee, you were horrible.' And, in fact, the feedback I have gotten has been just the opposite.

"And a lot of people have asked me whether or not there is anything sensational or anything behind the scenes that may have contributed to this, and the honest answer is no. I mean, it is not like I ran across the court naked at a Chicago Bulls game or anything. There really is nothing behind the scenes that happened."

Stu Jackson, the league's senior vice president of operations, fired Kanter a week ago because she failed to progress sufficiently over five seasons. Each year, the league reviews its officials twice, once at midseason and again at season's end, using a ranking system. The evaluations are done by a committee that includes Jackson and Ed T. Rush, the supervisor of officials, and also includes input from the league's coaches and general managers.

According to published reports, Kantner was the lowest-ranked official by the coaches and general managers and wasn't highly regarded by Jackson and Rush. Kantner, however, wasn't hired by the two. Rod Thorn was the league's vice president for operations and Darrell Garretson was the supervisor of officials in '97.

Although Kanter received a written evaluation at the end of the 2000-01 season that said she "needed to show improvement," there was nothing in any of her evaluations that suggested she was in danger of being fired, she said.

"I would expect that an official at the end of his or her fourth season would need to improve because you're not a seasoned NBA veteran and, really, even seasoned veterans need to improve," Kantner said. "At no time did I ever feel as if things were dire, but maybe I was just oblivious to it. I would like to think that I am pretty perceptive, but maybe I am wrong."

Kanter was not the only official fired; Jim Kinsey also was let go.

Jackson declined to comment, but spokesman Tim Frank said the league's grading system is complex, very specific and objective.

"This was completely a performance-based decision," Frank said. "And it is not rare that officials get let go. For obvious reasons, this one has gotten a lot of publicity. ... Officials are graded on things from whether or not they make the proper calls to what their interaction with players and coaches is like.

"And referees are told where they stand at each of their evaluations, so for one to say they had no idea they were in trouble is not an accurate statement."

Frank said the NBA typically carries 60 officials on its roster but is down to 57. He said that the league will look to fill the positions from places like the the NBA's developmental league, the WNBA and college basketball.

"If we feel a woman is one of the most qualified and best candidates, we'll hire her, but we aren't necessarily looking to hire a woman just because she's a woman," he said.

Kantner hasn't ruled out pursuing legal action but said she is trying to put this behind her and move forward. She currently serves as the supervisor of officials for women's basketball in the Southeastern Conference and hasn't ruled out returning to her roots as a college women's basketball official.

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