Monty McCutchen started the 2017-18 NBA season at the top his craft – one of the best referees in the league and a regular fixture in playoff games, an assignment given to the best of the best.
He has reffed at least one Finals game every year since 2008, and in 2016, McCutchen officiated three of the seven Finals games between Golden State and Cleveland.
But a third of the way into this season, McCutchen hung up his whistle for an executive job as the NBA's vice president of referee training and development.
“I grew up in a teacher's household, and my first job out of college was as a teacher,” McCutchen told USA TODAY Sports. “I found a pathway to refereeing and I love the craft of refereeing, but there's a core value of teaching that I enjoy. … Being able to interact with people on that level was deeply appealing and led me to the decision to take this opportunity.”
He will oversee day-to-day management and on-court performance of the league's officiating staff and will report to senior vice president of referee operations Michelle D. Johnson, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who was hired in October.
“We were looking for someone who was an expert at craft, which Monte is,” NBA president of league operations Byron Spruell said. “Also, we like the way he carries himself on the court and off the court using his communication skills and people skills. His whole persona was what we were looking for.”
It is unusual to ask one of the NBA's best refs to come off the floor for a VP role.
But with one-time execs Bob Delaney, a former referee, and Mike Bantom, a former player, moved out of executive roles within the officiating office, the league needed a person respected among officials to have a prominent role.
With relations between the league office and refs and players and refs tense, McCutchen's and Johnson's hires were due in part to help smooth those issues, a person familiar with the move told USA TODAY Sports. The person requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the situation.
Spruell praised league officials for their patience while the league revamped its leadership in referee operations.
“I give our officials credit for sticking with us in the process, and we couldn't have found a better fit,” Spruell said.
Spruell took notice of McCutchen at an officiating advisory council meeting.
The council is comprised of power players and big names: Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, former coach Doug Collins and former player Kenny Smith.
At the September meeting, an active player, coach, assistant coach, referee and team play-by-play announcer all participated.
McCutchen and Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry recalled a situation in a game last season when McCutchen called Lowry for a blocking foul instead of whistling the offensive player for a charge.
Lowry asked why and McCutchen said Lowry didn't get there quick enough.
Lowry was furious that a ref implied he wasn't quick enough.
McCutchen immediately recognized he didn't choose the right words, and at the next stop in play, McCutchen apologized and acknowledged he should've told Lowry he didn't get there in time.
Lowry appreciated McCutchen's follow-up.
“I said, 'We've got to pursue this guy,” Spruell said. “He loves to teach and mentor. He was doing that on crew-by-crew basis. Now, he gets to that across the community of officials – not just NBA but the NBA, WNBA and G-League.”
It wasn't an easy decision for McCutchen, who officiated more than 1,400 games, including 169 playoff games and 16 Finals games in 24-plus NBA seasons.
But he had a discussion with his dad, who helped guide his choice.
“He pointed opportunity doesn't fit our nice little boxes of chronological time,” McCutchen said. “The way we plan things out is not often exactly how it happens. Life is much more fluid and much more random.
“Any real decision means there's both pain and excitement involved. What you say yes too, you're also saying no to something else. The opportunity was too big to take even up against the disappointment or the no portion of the decision to come off the floor.”
McCutchen figured he would have a 30-year career as a referee and then retire. Until the league called.
“I like the world view of community, and from that standpoint, I like the idea of serving this group,” he said. “It spoke to a core value I have of passing down of what's been graciously passed down to me.”