Whenever the Charlotte Hornets play a home game, Richard Ward has the best seat in the house – front row, dead center at the mid-court stripe.
To retain that seat – and Ward has been there since 1990 at the old Charlotte Coliseum – he had to learn something counter-intuitive: Don’t watch the game.
Don’t watch players moving without the ball or who is setting a screen or whether a particular shot was well-timed. His one task, and nothing can distract from this, is to track the ball until it either goes through the basket or goes out-of-bounds.
Ward is Charlotte’s game-clock operator, and he’s good at it. He’s had his finger on that button for more than 1,000 regular-season and playoff games. He’s done a dozen NBA Finals games, plus the Atlanta Olympics.
This 26 years-and-counting career nearly didn’t get past a six-game tryout with the original Hornets.
“I was so bad in those six games I never expected a call back,” Ward recalled.
The Hornets had just let go of their original clock operator and were scrambling for a replacement. Adonis “Sporty” Jeralds, then the Coliseum’s assistant manager, approached Ward, who had played, coached and refereed basketball.
But he’d never run a game clock at any level.
Jeralds handed Ward an NBA rule book and told him to study it. The next day Ward passed an informal quiz that put him at the clock for those six games.
And then …
There was the time a referee admonished Ward to “wake up!” because he was initially so far behind the action. It was mortifying, but educational.
“It was just forgetting to start the clock or stop the clock because I wasn’t used to being focused,” Ward said.
That became a revelation that has sustained him for a quarter century. To be good as a clock operator, you must detach yourself from the action. Tenths of a second matter in overseeing games of such consequence.
‘Royal screw up’ in playoffs
There was no better example of this for Ward than perhaps as historic a game as any in Hornets history.
It was 1993 and the Hornets were making their first playoff appearance, playing the storied Boston Celtics in the first round. The Hornets were about to close out the Celtics at home to advance to a second-round matchup with the New York Knicks.
Center Alonzo Mourning hit that miraculous jump shot from the top of the key, and as players piled on Zo Ward fell prey to human emotion.
He cheered rather than react, never stopping the clock as the ball fell through the net.
“I royally screwed up because I cheered. So I didn’t stop the clock,” Ward said. “All I remember is the referee coming over and reading me the riot act. It blew my confidence.
“The Celtics had already left the floor (thinking they’d been eliminated). So they had to bring the Celtics back out.”
This was before the high-tech precision-timing devices now fitted on referees and attuned to their whistles or even before access to replay. So the referees huddled, decided four-tenths of a second was fair, and awarded the Celtics the ball.
Had Dee Brown managed to make the ensuing shot over Kendall Gill, the Celtics would have forced a deciding Game 5 back in Boston.
Advice from Garretson
Ward survived that mistake and grew in the role. Early on he sought advice from veteran referee Darell Garretson, who became a mentor of sorts.
Over time Ward realized that while his overarching responsibility was stopping and starting the action, the better clock operators became traffic cops of sorts.
There were ancillary tasks, like accounting for whether a player was inside the box, defined by lines near mid-court, that would allow that player to enter the game if there was a change of possession in the backcourt.
Beyond that, Ward started proactively helping the referees. For instance, he made it a habit to signal to the refs that the next dead ball would represent a mandatory timeout. Later on, he made it his job to help load and synchronize the precision-timing devices pre-game.
He got noticed and prospered. The NBA adopted a system where the clock operator at a playoff game had to be from a neutral city. That made for some lucrative freelance work in the spring. And the thrill and pressure of working Finals games.
“That’s the peak of my career,” Ward said.
Ward was working a 2013 Finals game between the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat when referees reviewed a late-game play.
“In the meantime, (Tim) Duncan substituted himself into the game when he wasn’t supposed to,” Ward recalled.
“I wasn’t even out of the arena before the phone calls came, wanting to know why did I let him into the game. I said, ‘I didn’t let him into the game. He didn’t come over (to report in, which would have been an illegal substitution because no timeout had been called).’
“That was the most pressure I’ve felt in my life. My heart was coming through my chest. I couldn’t screw up. Literally, the entire world was watching this.”
In early February, Ward worked his 1,000th NBA game. The Hornets noticed. They made sure he received that game ball.
Ward is 66 and retired from his day job as a delivery executive for IBM. How much longer will he have his finger on the button?
“Maybe 10 more years,” Ward said. “There’s a guy in Indiana who did it until he was almost 90.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell