Bill DiFabio's Sports Column
Natili whistles while he works
Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim yells at Ray Natili during the first half against Villanova in December.
If you watch college basketball on television, chances are you’ve seen Washington native Ray Natili officiate a game.
In 23 years as an official, including 20 at the NCAA Division I level, Natili has officiated more than 1,200 games in 37 states. He’s worked the small colleges, the mid-majors, the power conferences and the NCAA tournament.
It’s no surprise Natili spends his nights on the court. He’s been around basketball almost all his life. His background in the sport goes back to when he was 4-years old, following his father, also named Ray, a coach who won 205 games in 14 seasons at Immaculate Conception High School.
“Raymond would come to the IC gym and try to get on the floor with the big kids. He’d get stepped on and pushed around. But by the age of 10, he knew the game.” explained the elder Natili, who coached his son in high school.
Ray Natili III was a three-year letterman for Immaculate Conception and the school’s leading scorer with 1,561 points. During the 1978-79 season, he was the leading scorer in Washington County with 598 points. In 1980, when the Comets went 22-4 and won the Section 9-AA-A championship, Natili was named the first Observer-Reporter Boys Basketball Player of the Year.
It would be hard to find a player who was better at the free-throw line than Natili. And he went to the line a lot.
“It was nothing for him to shoot 20 to 24 foul shots a game,” his father said with a smile. “He would drive down the lane against bigger players, make the basket and get fouled. He was a driver.”
Natili played his college ball at Waynesburg under legendary coach Rudy Marisa. A starting point guard for the Yellow Jackets for four seasons (1980-81 to 83-84), Natili led them to two NAIA District 18 championships and trips to Kansas City for the national tournament. He scored 1,545 career points and had more than 1,000 assists.
As a senior, Natili was the leading scorer on Waynesburg’s 25-6 team, averaging 16.9 points per game and shooting 87 percent (202-for-232) from the free-throw line. In one game that season, Natili made 18 free throws.
“I didn’t see all of his talent immediately,” Marisa said. “In a game against Frostburg State in Ray’s freshman year, I inserted him in the lineup. He replaced a former Division I point guard. He shined in the game, and (the coaches) knew he was something special.
“Here’s a freshman, he’s maybe 6-1, driving to the glass against bigger and stronger players and scoring, getting fouled and making the free throws.”
One thing Natili was never short on was confidence, which is something that makes him a good official.
“He was, without a doubt, very confident and capable of doing anything he wanted,” Marisa said. “His confidence on the floor had a positive effect on the team. And he was very easy to get along with. It was like I had a coach playing the game. He thought like a coach. .. Ray was aware of everything on the court. He had a tremendous knowledge of the game.”
In Natili’s senior season, Waynesburg defeated Denver and St. Mary’s (Texas) in the national tournament before losing to eventual NAIA champion Fort Hays State in the Elite 8.
When his playing days ended, Natili made the natural progression to officiating high school games in Washington County and the WPIAL. He often worked with his father, who also was an official.
“We would discuss decision calls. He was usually right on all of them,” the elder Natili recalled. “He would work for Frank Scott officiating the summer league basketball at the YMCA in Washington. Then, we started to work together. Our first game was a McGuffey varsity contest. Raymond never worked a JV game.
“It was wonderful working with him. Sometimes, I would get caught up watching him. In two years, he was better than me, and I was considered a pretty good ref.”
Did Natili ever consider coaching instead of officiating?
“You know, I wonder what kind of coach he would have been,” Natili’s father said. “He wanted to ref.”
And the ref is doing an outstanding job. He’s worked in the Atlantic Coast Conference for 18 seasons, has officiated 14 ACC tournaments including eight semifinals and one championship game. Natili has been rewarded for his performance by being selected to officiate 12 NCAA tournaments, three Sweet 16s and last year’s Elite 8.
In addition to the ACC, Natili has officiated in the Big East, Sun Belt, Southern and Big South conferences.
He has officiated Pitt games, including those this season against Loyola-Marymount and Georgia Tech.
“He’s the consummate pro,” said Bill Hillgrove, the radio voice of the Panthers. “He never shows any partiality. It’s always good to see him walk in the gym.”
Natili is respected in the ACC.
“At first, I thought he was kind of raw. He knows the game, loves the game and he has done a great job. Remember, the ACC is a tough conference to play in and coach in, and he has handled it well,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams once said of Natili.
In last year’s NCAA tournament, Natili officiated Wichita State’s upset of then-No. 3 Ohio State in the Elite 8. The game was played at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the home of the Lakers.
Natili, however, says his best moments on the court were spent back at IC.
“Playing for my dad. He was my idol,” Natili said. “I loved to ref with him. We had fun. It was a great time and a learning time for me. I love the game. It’s been a great experience.”
Natili is considered one of the top officials in the NCAA. It’s just a matter of time until he gets the call to work a Final Four.
Bill DiFabio writes a bi-weekly column about local sports history for the Observer-Reporter.