On your next trip to Wellington’s Village Park, take note of the older gentleman sitting behind the desk at the recreation center. He answers the phone and greets visitors to the gymnasium. His name is Joe Cassiere, but he’s not your average Joe.
In fact, he’s a very unique Joe. He’s one of the most accomplished, experienced, well-traveled referees in the history of professional and college basketball. There’s a good chance that you have watched a game or two on television or attended a game where he officiated.
Cassiere, 72, has retired as a basketball whistle blower due to how his left knee has impacted his mobility. But his memories of those bygone days are vivid.
“I officiated 13,995 college and pro basketball games, but most of my games were college games,” Cassiere said. “I have lost track of all the rec and high school basketball games that I officiated.”
For Cassiere, his journey as a basketball ref started in December 1974 when he officiated a high school game in New York City.
“The two teams were Molloy and Holy Cross,” Cassiere recalled. “It was a freshman game in the Catholic League.”
Looking back, Cassiere gives much of the credit for him becoming a basketball ref to his father. Otherwise, he probably would have played professional baseball.
Out of high school, I was drafted in the fifth round by the Atlanta Braves. I was a third baseman, but my dad said I was going to college instead, so I went to Emporia State University in Kansas,” Cassiere said. “Back then, you didn’t mess around with an Italian father with a belt!”
For Cassiere, whose nickname is “Jamaica Joe” because he graduated from New York City’s Jamaica High School, his basketball officiating career lasted nearly 30 years.
From 1978 to 1982, he was an NBA referee. Back then, the life of an NBA ref was more demanding than it is now.
“Back then, we only had two officials for every game,” Cassiere said. “And we had weight limits in the NBA.”
For Cassiere, the key to his success as an NBA referee was to stay in his lane, so to speak.
“While I have a love for the game of basketball, being an official was my job,” Cassiere said. “I enjoyed it, but it was all about the paycheck. I made a living as a basketball referee.”
While he was always surrounded by some of the NBA’s greatest basketball players — such as Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — he was never starstruck by their presence.
“They were just numbers,” Cassiere said. “In the NBA, we didn’t ask for autographs and didn’t shake their hands. It’s a business.”
When asked who was the best NBA star that he ever saw play, he shook his head.
“There were too many great players in the NBA to pick the best,” Cassiere said.
From 1982 to 2000, Cassiere worked college basketball games.
“The greatest college player that I ever saw play was the late Len Bias from the University of Maryland,” Cassiere said.
During his days at the college level, he officiated in many historic arenas, such as Duke University’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, Indiana University’s Assembly Hall, New York City’s Madison Square Garden and the University of Kentucky’s Rupp Arena. He also officiated games involving top college coaches, such as Georgetown’s John Thompson, North Carolina’s Dean Smith, Villanova’s Rollie Massimino, North Carolina State’s Jim Valvano, Georgia Tech’s Bobby Cremins, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, Indiana’s Bobby Knight and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski.
In 1984, he officiated the McDonald’s All-American Game at the Omni in Atlanta. Two of the players in that game were future NBA stars Kenny Smith and Dwayne “Pearl” Washington. Smith is now a basketball analyst for TNT.
During his days as a college official, Cassiere officiated the championship games in the junior college national tournament in Hutchinson, Kansas, and in the NCAA Division II national tournament in Springfield, Massachusetts. He also officiated many March Madness (NCAA Division I) tournament games, including a few Sweet 16 contests. And in the summer, he officiated basketball games at the World University Games on three occasions — Puerto Rico (1974), Mexico (1977) and Panama (1984).
During those years, Cassiere was in and out of airports and hotels from early November until late March. In addition to being a basketball official, he had another job as a customer service agent for American Airlines, which gave him easy access to inexpensive flights around the country. He worked for American Airlines for 30 years, and then another five years for Marriott as a concierge manager.
Earlier in his career, Cassiere had some off-season stints officiating pro basketball in Europe and in Puerto Rico. While in Europe, he was based in Munich, Germany, and he commuted to games on trains. Those were memorable years, for a number of reasons.
“While in Puerto Rico, I was shot at three times, twice after the home team lost and once after the home team won,” Cassiere said. “Fortunately, I dodged all the bullets.”
On one occasion, he was the focal point of a story in Sports Illustrated entitled “Born to Be a Ref.”
One rule change that made his officiating job a little easier was the introduction of the three-point shot because it caused players to spread out on the court. As a result, fewer people were driving to the basket, where there was ultimately going to be a foul because of excessive physical contact.
“Once I saw the ball go through the hoop, it made my job easier,” Cassiere said.
After he stopped officiating basketball roughly 20 years ago, he worked as an assessor for high school basketball referees in Palm Beach County.
“Working as an assessor was my way of giving back to basketball, specifically to players and coaches,” Cassiere said.
As Cassiere reflects on the many games he officiated, he was guided by one philosophy.
“During the last five minutes of every game, the goal was to let the players decide the outcome of the game unless you had to,” Cassiere said. “I was more focused toward the end of every game because if I made a mistake in the closing minutes, I would hear about it.”