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Whistle Blowers

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THE MOMENT VIOLET PALMER HAD dreamed about finally arrived on Oct. 31. That was when a crowd of 17,021 fans at a National Basketball Association game in Vancouver, B.C., serenaded the rookie official with a chorus of boos for a call against the hometown Grizzlies. Little did they realize the catcalls were music to her ears. “I’m sure that’s how she would have liked it,” explains Palmer’s brother Rod, a high school basketball coach in Compton, Calif. “She wants to be treated just like any other referee.”

Which is to say, heckled by fans, hounded by coaches and having their patience tried by Dennis Rodman—precisely the fate that awaits Palmer, 33, and Dee Kantner, 37, the NBA’s first female referees. Picked to don the stripes and patrol a game of giants with only a whistle and their wiles, the pair have so far smoothly navigated the high-testosterone league, despite some skepticism. Charles Barkley opined that lady refs were about as bright an idea as women in combat—in his view, not very—while Rodman promised his own inimitable welcome: “Patting them on the butt,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times, “doesn’t mean I want to get friendly with them.”

Be warned, Dennis: Kantner and Palmer will give as good as they get. “Confrontation is part of being a referee,” Palmer said at a press conference when asked about thorny players (the NBA generally prohibits interviews with referees). “If they cross a line they are not supposed to, they will receive a technical foul.” Added the 57″ Kantner, who called her first game on Nov. 5: “Acceptance is something we won’t be extremely, overtly concerned about. Our focus is to referee games.”

That no-nonsense approach was evident when the 5’9″ Palmer, betraying no nervousness beyond manic gum-chewing, called the Grizzlies game with the Dallas Mavericks without fanfare or fanny pats. “She did a fine job,” said Dallas center Shawn Bradley. “She made a couple of good calls, a couple of bad calls. She put her nose on the line and didn’t step back a bit.”

Toughness under pressure is precisely what landed Palmer and Kantner on NBA hardwood. Growing up in Compton as the second of four, young Violet played sports alongside boys and “was always the only girl on the team,” says her mother, Gussie, a homemaker. Palmer’s hoop skills—honed on a backyard court set up by her father, James, a retired foreman for an airplane-parts company—earned her a scholarship to Cal Poly Pomona, where she led the team to two NCAA Division II titles.

After graduating in 1987 with a degree in recreational administration, Palmer began reffing high school games. She worked her way up to calling NBA preseason games in 1996 and officiated for the nascent WNBA earlier this year, all while working as director of a Los Angeles recreational center (she lives in Carson, Calif.). When the NBA hired her last month, Palmer was ready. “She’ll be one of the guys,” predicts Rhonda Windham, general manager of the WNBA’s L.A. Sparks. “She’ll give players space without allowing them to disrespect her.”

They can expect the same from Kantner, the youngest of four kids raised in Reading, Pa., by Jan Vroman, a real estate office manager, and her husband, Neil, a steelworker who died in 1978. Kantner amassed a record 13 varsity letters at Exeter Township High before attending the University of Pittsburgh on a field hockey scholarship. In 1982 a friend suggested she officiate a church-league basketball game. “And from there,” says her mother, “it just grew like crazy.” After college, Kantner, now living in Charlotte, N.C., worked as a sales engineer and, like Palmer, reffed NBA preseason games. In 1996, she was named supervisor of officials for the WNBA. Then came the NBA’s call—a chance her brother David, a mechanic, is sure she’s ready for: “Dee is just this side of being cocky. Which is good.”

Indeed, NBA officials insist it is their ability, not their gender, that got Palmer and Kantner hired. “They have poise and a feel for the game,” says Rod Thorn, senior vice president of basketball operations. Detroit Piston guard Malik Sealy agrees. “Women are just as capable as men,” he says. “How hard is it to blow that whistle?”

Palmer and Kantner, both single, will earn $80,000 a year to find out. Set to work a rookie schedule of about 55 games, neither expects much trouble keeping up. “It’s a little faster,” said Palmer, “but it’s still basketball.” How they’ll handle the egos of high-salaried superstars remains to be seen, but it looks as if they’re in for some equal-opportunity abuse. Says Grizzlies guard Blue Edwards of Palmer: “To me, she’s just an official. We yell at them all.”


CYNTHIA WANG in New York City, LORENZO BENET in Los Angeles, MIRO CERNETH; in Vancouver and LAURA LEWIS in Myrtle Beach, N.C.