On October 30, 1997, 33-year-old Violet Palmer becomes the first woman to officiate an NBA game. Despite the watershed moment, there is little reaction from the crowd when she is announced before the tip-off of the Dallas Mavericks-Vancouver Grizzlies game. “This is a dream come true, but it’s come about by a lot of hard work,” says Palmer.
“This is a night we’ll all look back on in 25 years and say, ‘That opened the door,'” said NBA vice president of Rod Thom, who attended the historic game in Vancouver. “It’s only appropriate that we be here. I don’t know who’s more excited, Violet or me.”
Palmer, who had officiated women’s Final Four, WNBA and NBA Summer League games prior to her first NBA regular-season game, was eager for the challenge. Years after her debut, she told USA Today: “I was the No. 3 referee in the world for women’s basketball. I had everything: The Final Four. Big TV games. All the limelight I wanted … But my personality is if you give me a challenge, I’m going to take it.”
Palmer also was the first openly gay referee (she came out in 2014) and first female to referee an NBA playoff game.
Palmer earned the respect of her fellow referees, coaches and players—even basketball star Charles Barkley, who emphasized before her debut that the NBA was a “man’s game.” As she recounted in an interview by The History Makers in 2016, “It was probably my third or fourth year, I was in Houston and I had just finished working a game with Charles Barkley and I’m coming out with my partners and Charles came up to me and he said, ‘You know what? I was wrong.'”
Before she became a referee, Palmer starred at point guard at Compton (California) High School and later at Cal Poly Pomona University. She led the school to back-to-back Division II national championships in 1985 and 1986.
Palmer officiated in 919 NBA games before retiring because of a knee injury in 2016.