Groundbreaking ref Dee Kantner joins NC Sports Hall of Fame

The Pennsylvania transplant was a top women’s basketball official before becoming one of the first female NBA referees

Referee Dee Kantner talks to Atlanta Hawks center Dikembe Mutombo during her first NBA game Nov. 5, 1997. Kantner was part of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2019. (Rusty Kennedy / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — The goal of every official working games at this week’s NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors — and every official in every sport, for that matter — is to remain as anonymous as possible.

It’s a luxury Dee Kantner never had during her days in the league.

As one of the NBA’s first female referees, the spotlight of attention was on her every time she donned her whistle and took the court. No matter how cleanly the game was called.

But that’s exactly why she took the job in the first place.

“It was an opportunity to make the statement that women can do this,” Kantner said last month upon her induction into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. “Somebody had to take that first step, and now more women are doing it.”

Kantner was hired by the NBA along with Violet Palmer in 1997 in a move that was anything but a publicity stunt. By that time, she’d already earned a reputation for being one of the best, most respected referees in women’s basketball — a game she said was “different, but the same” as the men’s version.

Her impressive resume includes 22 college Final Fours and 14 national championships games. In 1997, she won the prestigious Naismith Award as the Women’s Basketball Official of the Year. In addition to her four seasons in the NBA, she also spent a year as the supervisor of officials for the WNBA.

Not bad for someone who never had any intention of being a referee for a living. Or even fit the profile of one.

“My high school basketball coach, who’s one of the most influential people in my life, said that in all the thousands of athletes she had met and coached throughout her 25-year career, I was the last one she ever thought would be a referee,” Kantner said. “I wonder what that means?”

It means that she has a competitive streak and an outspoken personality that made her the kind of player referees come to hate. But that disposition, she said, is one of the reasons she’s learned to have patience with the players and coaches involved in the games she works.

No matter what they say to or about her.

The same goes for those watching at home on TV.

She learned that early in her career, when reffing was still a side gig from her “real job” as a sales engineer for Westinghouse Electric.

“When women’s basketball, thanks to ESPN, started getting seen more and more on television, it gave me an advantage over many of the other salespeople because I was so visible,” said Kantner, who has a degree in engineering from Pittsburgh. “But the customers did tell me I sucked. I’ve heard it all. In every language.”

Surprisingly, her time in the NBA was among the least contentious.

“I know there was some trepidation or concerns,” she said. “The first time men see a woman official, they’re taken aback. You have to scratch out your territory a little more sometimes. But ultimately, I was accepted.”

She’s also been accepted as a North Carolinian, even though she spent her formative years living in her native Pennsylvania.

Kantner came to Asheville through her work with Westinghouse in 1984, the same year she was hired by the Southern Conference for her first reffing job. Even though she wasn’t born a Tar Heel, she said she loves calling North Carolina her home.

Her pride in her adopted home state only grew when she learned of her selection into its Sports Hall of Fame.

“Pennsylvania hasn’t even inducted me yet,” she said with a chuckle.

She is the second straight official to be inducted into the N.C. shrine, joining baseball umpire Joe West in 2018. As excited as she was to be included in this year’s class, the honor took on even more meaning when he learned that she was going in alongside national celebrities Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Davis Love III.

The rest of the new Hall of Famers are football player and artist Ernie Barnes, administrator Willie Bradshaw, outdoorsman Eddie Bridges, football coach Rod Broadway, former ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan, wrestling coach Steve Gabriel, longtime Elon athletic director Neill McGeachy, former UNC quarterback Paul Miller and football coach Thell Overman.

“My mother is a huge Dale Earnhardt Sr. fan,” Kantner said. “I had a picture taken with him in Charlotte a number of years ago, and she didn’t even see my face in the picture.

“When I said I was inducted into the North Carolina Hall of Fame and I said that Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Davis Love III were in the same group, it was like, ‘Oh wow!’ Now you have some gravitas. But it’s been tremendous and humbling. I’ve loved getting to know all of these people and hearing their stories.”