Bernie Fryer of Sequim hasn’t worn all of the hats in a 46-year long playing and officiating career with the National Basketball Association, but closing in on his 70th birthday, the former Port Angeles Roughrider and Peninsula College basketball legend has “worn most of them.”
After becoming the first NBA player from the North Olympic Peninsula, Fryer is still working as an advisor for the biggest basketball league in the world, evaluating the in-game performance of NBA and WNBA officials — including a recent Seattle Storm game with former Washington standout Kelsey Plum making a return to Seattle.
“Watched that one, did a little observation with the officials after the game and wrote them some notes and I’ll write up the report this morning,” Fryer said recently.
The NBA assumed officiating duties for the WNBA last season and Fryer has been busy as the NBA moves closer into becoming almost a year-round operation.
“Referees used to have summers off, but I just got back from summer league in Las Vegas and before that I was in Latvia doing a Basketball Without Borders training of younger refs there. And the NBA is setting up the NBA Africa League in 2020, so we are working on developing referees over there So no retirement so far, but I keep thinking about it.”
Fryer has it pretty well locked these days, retirement or no. He enjoys sailing and spending time on the salt water here on the North Olympic Peninsula and is based in Mesa, Arizona during the NBA season — a more central jumping off point for travel to games along the West Coast and in Texas. He still maintains a single-stroke handicap in his golf game as a long-time member of Alta Mesa Golf Club.
He played in the recent Sonny Sixkiller Classic, a fundraiser for the Olympic Medical Center Foundation at The Cedars at Dungeness golf course.
And he’ll join his fourth hall of fame later this summer when he, along with Seattle Mariners broadcaster Rick Rizzs, former Seattle Seahawks player and longtime radio voice Steve Raible and boxer Sugar Ray Seales, a 1972 Olympic Gold Medalist are inducted into the State of Washington Sports Hall of Fame and honored before a Mariners game on Aug. 26.
“My buddy Steve Hawes teased me that he beat me into (the hall),” Fryer said of his friend, a former Washington basketball standout and NBA player who plays in the Sixxkiller every year.
Fryer also is a member of the Northwest Athletic Conference Hall of Fame and a founding member of the Pirate Athletic Hall of Fame for his starring role on the 1970 NWAC champion Peninsula College basketball team and an inaugural inductee to the Port Angeles High School Athletic Hall of Fame.
“This is kind of a nice surprise as referees try to stay in the background and I’m not the type to blow my own horn,” Fryer said.
Player to referee
Fryer led Peninsula to the school’s first title, transferred to Brigham Young and led the Cougars to two NCAA Regional appearances back when the NCAA Tournament was limited to 25 teams.
Fryer played in the NBA and the American Basketball Association from 1973-1975, earning second-team All-Rookie honors with Portland in 1973-1974 and wrapping up his playing career while teammates in New Orleans with NBA legend Pistol Pete Maravich — the best player Fryer ever played with, although Fryer had a hard time choosing between Maravich and his former St. Louis Spirits road trip roommate Maurice Lucas.
“He was ahead of his time, Pete,” Fryer said. “My rookie year in Portland with Sidney Wicks and Geoff Petrie they were the big guns. Pete was like an early Magic. Had the size, an incredible shot and he could pass — his passing was unbelievable. Close to Magic. Those days you played against the (Jerry West’s), the (John) Havilceks’, Wilt (Chamberlain). Those guys were so good back then. And then as a I ref I worked games in the (Michael) Jordan era and the Lebron (era), so I don’t know how much better it can get.”
He first thought he’d become an educator.
“I was going to be a teacher and coach,” Fryer said of an alternate career path. “You hoped to play in the NBA back then. Now it’s a destination, but back then with 16 teams there was not much room for error in trying to make a team and stick around.”
Fryer said when he left the league, he thought he would join the family business, M M Fryer and Sons Insurance back in Port Angeles.
Instead, Fryer became the first former NBA player to make the transition to officiating. Only three former players have done so.
“The league keeps hoping former players will make the move and officiate but the players make too much now to do that,” Fryer said.
It wasn’t an instantaneous move, as Fryer had no real officiating experience as an adult, so he learned on the job.
“Before I got hired by the NBA, I started by doing some junior high games. I remember I went out to Neah Bay for a junior high or junior varsity game. Most of my refereeing experience before the NBA came locally.
“I had watched the guys (refs) work while I was playing (in the NBA) and I was encouraged to apply. Being a former player impressed the brass, so my app got to the top of the pile and I got sent out to the Los Angeles Summer League. There was no minor leagues then, no GLeague, so I worked and got hired that same year by the NBA. (1978).”
Fryer was mentored by longtime NBA ref Darrell Garrettson. “I learned the most from him and back then we were only running a two-man system (three-person crews are now standard at nearly every level of basketball).”
Fryer said he was far more nervous for his first game as an NBA ref than as a player.
“The pressure of being a ref — from the crowd, the coaches and the players — it’s a real rush. That’s what drew me to pursuing it.”
His nearly 3o-year tenure as an NBA ref paralleled the game’s surge in growth behind the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird Lakers vs. Celtics rivalry, the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons, the rise of Air Jordan and the transition into the LeBron James era.
Fryer officiated 1,806 NBA games, 145 playoff contests and two NBA Finals, working the Indiana Pacers-Los Angeles Lakers series in 1999 and the 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers-San Antonio Spurs series. He also worked the 1998 All-Star Game with a roster that included Jordan, first-time all-star Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp and Kevin Garnett.
Allen Iverson and Rasheed Wallace stood out as troublemakers for Fryer.
“I think Allen was no. 1. He was tough on me every game from opening tip on he was a pistol. Rasheed was the same way and it was not good natured, it was mean spirited. Eventually there was an awareness that it was making the refs and league look bad, so they put some respect the game standards into the rulebook.”
Larry Brown, a Basketball Hall of Famer who coached numerous NBA teams, always gave Fryer a hard time.
“Larry and I did not get along,” Fryer said. “We would butt heads. Whenever I had his games, I would really, really try to concentrate and say to myself ‘I’m not missing any plays, I don’t want to give him a chance to get on me.’ Most of the time it didn’t work. He’d find something to argue over.”
Fyer singled out Game 7 of the the 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Lakers as the best game he ever officiated. The Lakers would force overtime and advance to the NBA Finals in a 112-106 win.
“Sacramento should have beat them. Vlade Divac was playing for Sacramento and he and Chris Webber both missed free throws in regulation. ‘That was the best game I ever worked, even better than the finals. Best played game I’ve ever seen.”
Game six of that same series was alleged to have been fixed by fellow NBA ref and gambler Tim Donaghy (Fryer did not work that game) and a scandal arose years later, just as Fryer thought he was exiting the game for good.
“The Donaghy scandal broke that Summer after I retired and I was up on my boat in the Gulf Islands (of British Columbia) and (former NBA Commissioner) David Stern called me and asked me to be assistant to the supervisor of officiating, Ronnie Nunn. And I took over from him.”
Fryer said his focus as supervisor of officiating was simplifying the duties of the rank-and-file.
“The staff was in such disarray, so messed up, I wanted them to get back to nothing but refereeing. Just ref, we will take care of the other stuff. Kept the work load light and they got back on track. Playoffs went well, no major controversies.”
And Fryer expects to continue to assist the league as it continues to expand its footprint globally.
“I have worn all the hats, but until they kick me out, I die or they quit playing, I’ll stick with them.”