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Violet Palmer paved the way for female NBA referees

Referee Violet Palmer, left, receives a kiss on

Referee Violet Palmer, left, receives a kiss on the hand from Denver Nuggets mascot Rocky the mountain lion just before tipoff as the Nuggets host the Orlando Magic in the first quarter of an NBA game Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015, in Denver. Credit: AP / David Zalubowski

What exactly did Chris Paul mean Thursday when he questioned Lauren Holtkamp's ability to officiate in the NBA? Was he just upset about a call and taking it out on a rookie referee? Or did his questioning of her career choice have anything to do with her gender?

Lost in all the nonstop debate about Paul's intent and character since his "this may not be for her" comment is the fact that in no other major male sports league could we have this debate.

That is because no other major sports league has female officials. And the reason the NBA does -- the reason that Holtkamp was on the floor and that there are other women behind her in the NBA officiating pipeline -- boils down to two simple words:

Violet Palmer.

For 18 seasons -- for a total of 904 regular-season games and nine postseason contests -- Palmer has been doing her job and doing it well. She has done it so well that when I reached out to her last week, she joked that her major legacy is that no one really notices that there is a woman on the floor.

"I think I've become such a permanent fixture that the whole women's deal doesn't matter anymore," said Palmer, 50.

Of course, that was far from the case in 1997 when she and Dee Kantner became the NBA's first female referees. The notion was so far out there that when Palmer first got a call from the league in 1995 asking if she would like to enter the NBA's training program for referees, she thought it was one of her friends playing a prank.

(Today, there are 62 full-time referee spots in the NBA, and two of them are women).

"The truth was the NBA had never been on my radar because I thought it wasn't attainable," said Palmer, who at the time was one of the top-ranked women's college officials and had officiated five NCAA women's Final Fours.

Truth was, it was a bit of a social experiment, one that the NBA knew not everyone was going to readily accept.

Rod Thorn, the NBA's president of basketball operations, made the final decision to hire Palmer. He said that in addition to hiring a top-notch official, the league knew the women they picked to break this gender barrier had to have a unique sort of mental toughness.

"We looked very closely at the makeup of Violet and Dee from the standpoint of 'Are they going to be tough enough to do this? " Thorn said. "Did they have the mental makeup, the toughness to handle different situations?"

Kantner lasted five seasons and eventually became the WNBA's supervisor of officials.

Palmer, who said she never set out to be a trailblazer, realized the moment she walked out to officiate a summer league game in Long Beach in 1995 that she wanted to make a career out of officiating games involving the best players in the world.

"They cracked the door and I just took my foot and kicked it wide open," Palmer said with a laugh.

It wasn't always easy.

During the 1997 preseason, Charles Barkley, then with the Houston Rockets, famously told reporters: "I don't think women should be in the Army and I don't think they should be NBA refs.''

He has since repeatedly told Palmer that he was wrong.

Ten years later, in 2007, Boston Celtics announcer Cedric Maxwell, when he disagreed with a call, said she should go "back in the kitchen" and later added she needed to "make some bacon and eggs."

"To [Maxwell's] credit, he also apologized. They always do," she said. "I didn't take it personally. If you're a referee, you get used to hearing the negative, and you have to flick it off your shoulders."

The 5-8 Palmer also has proved to be physically tough. In 2009, she tripped and tore a rotator cuff in the third quarter of a game. She finished the game before having season-ending shoulder surgery two days later.

Until recently, Palmer never thought much about being a pioneer. About five years ago, however, she saw herself on a poster of heroes for Black History Month and began to think about what she had accomplished.

There now are a number of women in non-traditional positions in the NBA.

Becky Hammon is an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs. Michele Roberts was hired last summer to be the executive director of the NBA players' union. And Holtkamp is officiating in the NBA.

Said Palmer: "I hate to pat myself on the back, but I think I was able to change the perception of what people thought about a woman being in a certain profession. Now it's no big deal. And it shouldn't be."

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