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Division II coach pushed Palmer to break NBA gender barrier

The ball just needed to get into the air. Then everything would feel normal again.

On Halloween night, 1997, Violet Palmer sat inside the underbelly of Vancouver’s General Motors Place with feelings she’d seldom experienced as a championship-tested basketball official. She was set to make history in the National Basketball Association. Palmer was about to become the first female to officiate an NBA regular-season game.

“I can honestly say that I was scared out of my wits,” Palmer recalled. “I felt like I was going to pee my pants. The scrutiny, all the negative stuff – all I wanted was to get out on the floor and have the ball go up. Then I could just become a referee.”

And who could blame Palmer for being a bit anxious before breaking a gender barrier in one of America’s premier professional sports leagues? The media tours had been enough to handle, but the walk from the NBA’s first female dressing room to the court of play made the buildup a reality. This was really happening.

That’s when a calming influence came over Palmer. It was the confident influence of a mentor who years earlier recruited Palmer out of Compton, Calif., to play NCAA Division II women’s basketball at Cal Poly Pomona.

“Walking out there and onto the court, I got that sense of, ‘I belong here. I deserve it,’” Palmer remembered. “I worked for it and I had the feeling that it was like a dream, but it was a reality. It goes into the whole thought of, if you can dream it you can be it.”

Palmer’s passion for officiating came unexpectedly, but bred from a strong connection with Hall of Fame women’s basketball coach Darlene May. Not only did May serve as Pomona’s no-nonsense coach who guided the Broncos to three national titles and six championship-game appearances, she had also broken a gender barrier of her own.

At the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, May became the first woman to officiate a men’s Olympic basketball contest.

“I watched her and thought, ‘maybe this is something I should try,’” Palmer remembered. “So I tried it, and it all just felt natural. I became so passionate about officiating. It’s just one of those things where you’re like, ‘where did that even come from?’”

The passion came from a college coach, who transformed into Palmer’s mentor and close friend.

Palmer first began officiating youth games while she was a student-athlete at Pomona. Though she admired May’s officiating expertise from afar, Palmer had yet to broach the topic with her coach.

Of course, Palmer’s quiet start to a historic officiating career couldn’t be hidden from Coach May. Nothing was.

“She pulls me into her office and says, ‘a little tweetie bird told me that she saw you officiating and that you looked a lot like me,’” Palmer recalled May saying. “My eyes just got big and I went, ‘You know?’

“She said, ‘Of course I know, and you are going to be really good at it. You have the demeanor, the personality and the work ethic. When it comes to being fair and flexible, you have the qualities that will make a good referee.’ I just melted. I wanted to cry. But you couldn’t cry in front of Coach May. She wouldn’t have allowed that.”

From that point forward, Palmer did everything associated with Coach May’s professional circle. She played under May as a point guard for the Broncos, coached alongside May as a graduate assistant and later officiated alongside May in women’s college basketball games.

“After I was finished playing, we became really good friends who could talk about anything,” Palmer said. “Coach May was always a very private person and once we became friends, she would call me and we’d swap all kinds of stories.

“She was so warm and you felt like you were a part of her family when you were at Cal Poly. With her, it wasn’t just about basketball. We knew that she cared about every aspect of our lives. I just loved being around her. She was such a great role model and mentor, but she was always stern and firm. You always toed that line with her, because you always knew she was extremely proud.”

After notching 519 career wins, May was forced to retire from coaching in 1994 due to a terminal bout with breast cancer. Pomona’s gym was renamed the “Darlene May Gymnasium” in January 1996. She died 10 months later.

Though she wasn’t alive to witness Palmer breaking the NBA’s officiating gender barrier, May had a profound impact on Palmer’s ability to excel to the top of the officiating profession. She also had a knack for uplifting Palmer at precisely the right time.

One of those moments was the first of five Women’s Final Fours Palmer would officiate.

“I’m sitting in the dressing room before the game and the security guard knocks on my door,” Palmer recalled. “He hands me a note that says, ‘Can you step outside?’ Step outside? Who sent me this?”

Reluctantly, Palmer accepted the note’s invitation to exit the dressing room. Mentally, she justified that a security officer wasn’t just going to knock on a referee’s door for no apparent reason with a note in hand.

“I walk outside and Coach May is standing there,” Palmer said. “I said, ‘How did you even know?’ Official assignments were pretty secret back then.

“Coach May said, ‘You really thought you were going to go out there on the big stage and that I wouldn’t know?’ She hadn’t been to a Final Four in years, but told me that she wouldn’t miss this one for the world. I think that moment solidified my officiating career. That game, I was good. It was just like my mother knocking on my door and giving me the confidence. It was one of the best moments I’ve had.”

Palmer can recall all kinds of similar stories with Coach May.

There was the time when she was the lone Pomona starter who didn’t earn all-California Collegiate Athletic Association basketball honors. The lack of external respect crushed Palmer, who was clearly the offensive and defensive floor general for one of the top women’s basketball dynasties in Division II.

Palmer’s disappointment was evident to her coach.

“She pulled me aside and said, ‘You are the backbone of this team,’” Palmer remembered. “She said, ‘What you do for this team, your teammates need. Those awards mean nothing. They’re just awards. I want you to know how important you are here and how much your teammates look up to you. That can take the place of every single award that’s out there. You are this team’s MVP.’

“I was so disappointed and then, right there, all those feelings went away.”

As Palmer walked onto the court on that historic NBA night in Vancouver, she relied on her Division II experience to excel. The ball eventually went in the air. It was game day again. Everything felt right.

“Those thoughts as I first walked out onto the floor as an NBA referee, I can definitely tie back to when I first made the decision to play basketball at Cal Poly Pomona,” Palmer said. “My Division II experience taught me those essential things in life, not only as a basketball player but as a human being.

“It was dedication. It was hard work. It was the work ethic every single day. I don’t look at myself and think that I’m doing something special. I was given an opportunity and, with that, it’s really simple. I was in the right place at the right time and the right gender. With that, I used my experiences as a basketball player at Cal Poly Pomona to excel.“