As far as career milestones go, it’s going to be hard for David Guthrie to top Game 2 of the NBA Finals last year, when he became one of only 14 active NBA referees to get that assignment. On a strictly personal level, officiating Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte will come close, because Guthrie’s ties to the state and the area run deep.
Guthrie, 44, who played baseball at N.C. State and married a Wolfpack tennis player from Charlotte, the former Laura Cowman, is also a once and future Charlotte resident. They are living in Hilton Head now but plan to move back after the season, which makes this essentially a home game for him.
“I was very excited about that, being close to family and friends,” Guthrie said. “All our family’s there. It’s going to be a real neat weekend. I have three kids, 13, 11 and 8, and they will be ripping and running, having a good time, running around, doing what kids do at sporting events. That’ll be fun for them. It should be a great weekend. It’s just an honor to work it and be a part of it.”
Guthrie’s path to becoming a full-time NBA official took plenty of detours, but always seemed to point in this direction. His late father was the basketball coach at Georgia before becoming head of basketball officiating for the SEC, and while Guthrie’s athletic future appeared to be in baseball, he was a basketball player as well in high school.
He played one year of baseball at N.C. State in 1995 after two years at a junior college in his native Alabama, a smooth-fielding, switch-hitting shortstop. After being drafted in the 26th round by the Cincinnati Reds, Guthrie played parts of five seasons in the Reds’ organization, making it as far as Double-A before realizing his future lay elsewhere.
He had been officiating basketball games in the winter, and by the time his baseball prospects were dwindling, his basketball prospects were improving. Guthrie took a job selling class rings for Herff Jones and officiated both minor-league and college basketball games, including the NCAA tournament.
“His dad was our supervisor, so we came up going to camps together and starting out in junior college, Division II, small Division I,” said college official Tim Clougherty, who broke into officiating with Guthrie. “Because we lived in Raleigh, his dad would send David and me out for 7-10 days at a time and we’d work six or eight games in that time period, what his dad used to call ‘swings.’ We’d hit UNC-Pembroke on the way down to Florida or Georgia and then on back.”
Clougherty said even then, while they worked their way up, Guthrie’s focus was entirely on the NBA. That was Guthrie’s dream even before he attended a camp run by two NBA officials that only honed his interest in the pro game. When he got the chance to work more minor-league games, he took it.
“The NBA is constantly scouting, looking for prospects, people they feel like they can put into their minor-league system and work with and develop, potentially become NBA referees,” Guthrie said. “It’s a long process. When I first went to that camp and was exposed to some of that teaching, breaking down video, being around some of the guys who were NBA referees, it really sparked my interest, amazingly.”
After four years in the CBA and what was then known as the D-League, Guthrie was hired onto the full-time NBA staff of 70 officials in 2005. For friends at N.C. State who knew him as a baseball player, Guthrie’s current visibility is a little surreal.
“It is unique to see somebody out there you know so well, dealing with all those frustrations of guys in an NBA game yell at him,” said Kevin Creech, an N.C. State classmate who still plays golf with Guthrie regularly. “You spend so much time with someone and hang out, and then they’re on TV.”
Last May, Guthrie received the usual email from NBA supervisor Monty McCutchen, listing the 12 officials selected to work the first four games of the finals based on their performance throughout the playoffs. After 13 years in the league, his name was on it. Under Game 2, the three names listed: Mike Callahan, David Guthrie, Derrick Stafford. Guthrie was the only first-timer on the crew, with Callahan and Stafford having worked a combined 26 finals games.
“It’s what we work for,” Guthrie said. “All the games, all the hours you put in, to reach that level.”
A finals game is different than anything else, even the conference finals. The commissioner comes in to say hello. It’s a special occasion and a special responsibility for the officials. And there was even more pressure than usual after some late-game controversy in Game 1.
Golden State won, at home, 122-103, in a game notable for only one minor officiating kerfuffle, a technical foul on Cleveland coach Ty Lue after an apparent trip on LeBron James went uncalled. After it was over, McCutchen came into their locker room: “Great game, now you’re done,” he joked.
Guthrie did get a coveted finals ring at the preseason banquet for officials this fall, and he did get the call for the next All-Star Game. Guthrie worked the Saturday night events at the All-Star Game in Dallas in 2010, but this is a higher honor. And a home game.