Larry Stick lives in the Woodlands, north of Houston, and founded the Billiard Factory chain of home entertainment furniture stores in 1975. Tim Fontillas is a technical consultant for DXC Technology in Plano, having worked for the company since he graduated from college in California decades ago. Jimmy Gouard is the principal at St. Louis Catholic School in his hometown of Castroville, just west of San Antonio.

They’re regular guys—except their side gigs make them among the most influential individuals in the NBA. On top of their day jobs, Stick, Fontillas, and Gouard work as 24-second shot clock operators for the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, and San Antonio Spurs. Stick has 22 years on the job for the Rockets, while Fontillas and Gouard have spent ten years at the scorer’s table for the Mavericks and Spurs, respectively.

From the opening tip-off to the final buzzer of every game they work, all three are studies in concentration. They’re responsible for resetting the shot clock after a made basket, after the ball has touched the rim, or when there has been a change of possession. It sounds as easy as pressing a button, but any seemingly inconsequential mistake in judgment could wind up swinging the game in one team ’s favor.

“It’s the hardest job at the scorer’s table,” said Stick, 75, who joined the Rockets organization in a lesser role during the 1983–84 season. “It’s the only one that the referees have no control over.”

Fans might think that game clock operators have just as much responsibility and pressure as their shot clock brethren, but that isn’t the case. Years ago, the NBA adopted technology that connects the game clock to belt packs worn by the three on-court referees, thus making the zebras the primary source of clock stoppages throughout the bulk of NBA games.

Not so for the shot clock.

“I’m kind of on an island,” Stick said.

Larry Stick carefully watches play at [HOUSTON ROCKETS?] game in YEARTK.
Larry Stick (far right) working the shot clock at a Houston Rockets game in the mid-aughts.Courtesy of Larry Stick

Where else in big-time sports do common civilians so affect a game? The guys on an NFL chain gang? They spot the stick where the officials tell them to. Maybe the MLB volunteers positioned down the foul lines, who might mistakenly interfere with a ball in play?

“I take pride in the fact that when we’re working a game, the officials know they can count on us,” said the 57-year-old Fontillas. “We’re going to be there for them and allow them to officiate the game and not worry about the administrative stuff, which is the clock and the score.”

“I can’t be watching the crowd or get involved with people who are screaming, yelling,” said Gouard, whose position at the scorer’s table in San Antonio is right next to season ticket holders.

“There was a guy sitting right next to me who asked, ‘Hey, I’m going to get a beer. You want one?’” Gouard recalled. He declined. “No, I don’t think I could have a beer and do this.”

“Don’t talk to the shot clock operator after a made basket when the game clock is running, because they have to focus on when the ball is getting inbounded,” Fontillas said. “Don’t talk to the shot clock operator late in the shot clock, because they’re focusing on the ball hitting the rim or not.”

Determining whether a missed shot has struck the rim can be tricky—misses that glance off the iron can be almost impossible to recognize from the timekeeper’s seat on the sideline. Likewise, it’s sometimes difficult to determine what counts as a change of possession when the ball is being batted back and forth between the teams. That’s why the shot clock gurus of Texas preach patience.

“If you’re not sure, think about it before you react,” Stick said. “If you get a trigger finger and somebody shoots an airball although it looks perfect [and the shot clock is reset], the game stops. And you get on TV.”

“It’s all a matter of the sight line,” said Fontillas, who first joined the Mavericks in 1995 as a stats trainee. “I’m not the only guy responsible for watching the ball hit the rim. I tell the officials, ‘If I see a shot go up and I don’t see it hit the rim, I’m looking at all three of you to see if you’re giving me a signal or not to reset it.’

“There are some tough angles,” Fontillas added. “The ball is being shot away from me, and I don’t know if it hits or not. I’m looking at the rotation of the ball. Did the rotation change? Normally, if it changed, then it’s been hit.”

Determining changes of possession can be more of a judgment call.

“There’s a ball going out of bounds, and a player goes to grab it and they slap at it,” Fontillas said. “That’s really not a change of possession. What they say in the rule book is that [change of possession] is when a player grabs the ball with one hand and he cups it and then throws it back.

“Recently, I had a play to my left in front of the visitors’ bench on the baseline,” Fontillas recalled. “Luka [Dončić, the Mavericks’ 23-year-old Slovenian superstar] went to go get a ball about to go out of bounds. He grabbed it, and he threw it kind of underneath, and I didn’t give it to him. Then I looked up to see if the officials were giving me anything, and they didn’t. Well, the next mandatory timeout, one of them came up to me and said, ‘That should have been a reset.’”

The shot clock operator isn’t involved in the expiration of the shot clock. When the 24 seconds have run out, the horn automatically sounds and red lights around the backboard come to life.

The league attempts to shelter its shot clock operators from the wrath of players and coaches, who are barred from interfering with their work, but that doesn’t stop aggrieved athletes from berating the scorer’s table from afar.

“I just ignore it,” Fontillas said. “They’ll look at me and they’ll start yelling. They’ll say, ‘That didn’t hit the rim!’ And I’ll just look at ’em, and I’ll stare at ’em. I won’t say anything. I can’t say anything. I don’t want to say anything. I’ll tell an official, and the official will go talk to them about it.”

Likewise, the shot clock operators aren’t allowed to mingle with coaches or players. Gouard said longtime Spurs coach Gregg Popovich typically says hello before the first preseason scrimmage—and that’s it for the year.

“On the scorer’s table, we are the only group that is part of the organization—because we are considered part-time employees—that cannot help the team win,” Fontillas said. “Everybody else in the organization is doing everything in their power to help the team win. But we cannot.”

Can the experience be exhausting?

“It used to be that way,” Fontillas said. “We can’t take time off. Some of the hardest games to work are the blowout games because five minutes left, they dump their bench. The players and the coaches, they’re all messing around, but we still have a job to perform, just like the officials.”

Even after decades on the job, the 75-year-old Stick is not ready to give up his seat at the scorer’s table. “I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything as far as my skill set to do it,” Stick said.

So how long will he keep his finger on the button? “Probably longer than my wife wants me to,” he said. “Two or three more years.”

The NBA doesn’t require shot clock operators to prove their competence before each season with, say, a reaction test or vision check. “They used to give a written test to all the personnel on the scorer’s table relative to the rules of the game and our responsibilities,” Fontillas said. “But they haven’t done that in quite a bit.”

The three have also worked college and WNBA games. Fontillas has done those in the Dallas area, along with occasional games for the Mavericks’ G League team in Frisco. He also operates the scoreboard for most Dallas Stars home games and was the only representative of the Texas three to serve in the NBA “bubble” in 2020, spending 92 consecutive days in Orlando, Florida.

With all that, Fontillas rarely attends sporting events for fun—he’s been to a handful of Dallas Cowboys games over the years and one Texas Rangers game last season. When his children were playing sports, he watched plenty of their games.

Which raised something of a sore point. Fontillas traveled to New Jersey with one of his daughters for a travel-team softball tournament in June 2011. While they were away, the Mavericks celebrated their lone NBA championship—and one of the most memorable finals wins in recent history, thanks to Dallas’s upset of LeBron James and the Miami Heat. The parade and subsequent rally that Fontillas missed are probably best known for Dirk Nowitzki’s unforgettable rendition of “We Are the Champions.”

Fontillas still teases his daughter about the triumphant moment he missed for her.

“All the time,” he said with a laugh. “All. The. Time!