A journey, like life, often times hurts. There is never a journey any of us will take that doesn’t include picking yourself up at least once and choosing to move forward.
Basketball at a very young age became an integral part of my life. It was the start of my journey you could say…
I remember Sunday’s after church eating dinner at my Grandpa & Grandma Sipes’ house and then running upstairs to watch the Sunday afternoon game on NBC, which usually included the Bulls, Knicks, Celtics, or Lakers.
I was enamored with professional basketball and never really jumped on the popular bandwagon of saying, “the NBA isn’t what it used to be” as the evolution of the game married up to present day.
Although those words are true, in my opinion it’s because of a very different reason…
First off, the players’ size and strength has increased at an unprecedented rate. Secondly, the scrutiny that players, coaches, and team personnel face is at an all-time high. Second to only the scrutiny that is hurled at an unfair velocity towards referees.
Most of you know of my love for officiating basketball. It’s something I’m currently pursuing and constantly striving to get better at. Simply put, I want to referee at the highest level possible. In the sport of basketball that highest level is the National Basketball Association (NBA).
The chances I will ever get that opportunity are slim. There are only 63 referees currently on the NBA Officiating Staff out of roughly 400,000 basketball referees in the United States.
However, the same competitive pride (read: stupidity) that has me putting a striped or grey shirt on only to get jeered and yelled at is the same competitive pride (still read: stupidity) that has me unfazed by those statistics.
A mentor of mine is Rob Rorke. Rob is a Men’s Division I official who currently is the Director of Operations for Court Club Elite.
Court Club changed my life…literally. I attended Court Club Elite camp in Las Vegas, NV in the summer of 2012 and I was grossly out of shape. I had zero business officiating at that camp but Rob allowed me to attend anyways. Current NBA Referee Justin Van Duyne looked at me and said, “you might be able to referee but you are way too big.”
He was right. I was above 270lbs and if I wanted to referee at any level I needed to get my fitness to a point that was healthy. The teaching they provided and the direct feedback the entire staff provided me was the exact motivation I needed to drop a lot of weight and get a lot better at this craft of officiating that I love so much.
I asked Rob three questions and his answers are in step with anybody with the heart of a teacher and competitor.
Me: Can you articulate why you fell in love with refereeing?
Rob: I fell in love with officiating because it continued to fuel my competitiveness, not with others but within myself. The fact that I know I will never have a perfect game, yet strive for that each night is a feeling I can’t really explain, but love. Additionally, the ability for me to stay connected to a game that I have loved since my childhood gives me great satisfaction.
Me: Amidst the chaos and anger we have directed towards us why do you keep at it?
Rob: I believe there is a point in everyone’s career where they become numb to the outside noise and distractions. Negativity will always exist, and for that reason dealing with it becomes part of the job description. For me, I had to learn to be comfortable in uncomfortable environments while not taking myself too seriously. Perspective is also important with the balance of the chaos and anger.
Me: Why are you so passionate about teaching?
Rob: Teaching to me is the core of what we do and who we are as successful officials. Selfishly, I realized that the more I taught others and engaged myself in the mentoring process, the more it was having a positive impact on my personal game through my continued development. Additionally, I’m a product of great teachers and mentors and feel that it is my responsibility to ensure I can help others achieve their success. I have many goals still to be obtained personally, but at this point it brings me greater joy to see someone I have been involved with through mentoring reach one of their goals. At the end of the day I believe we all need to find a mentor and also be a mentor at the same time.
The last referee I highly respect is current NCAA Division I & NBDL official John Butler.
I met John at Coast 2 Coast camp in Los Angeles, CA in 2014. I was still fairly green to officiating and John was a big help on the three games we were assigned together.
I asked John the same questions that I asked Rob. As you can see…the answers are similar.
Me: Why did you start refereeing?
John: One of my coaches in college suggested that I referee during the summer to make some easy money. Eventually he introduced me to my first mentor who officiated and owned an assigning company. I started by scorekeeping his adult leagues and eventually began to officiate for him. Once I began to officiate and learn all of the nuances of officiating and what it took to improve, I was hooked! To me officiating is no different than playing basketball. You have a game plan in place to be successful and the better you execute the plan, the better chance you have of doing well.
Me: Amidst the chaos and anger we have directed towards us why do you keep at it?
John: The constant pursuit of excellence in serving the game. No different than playing basketball on a nightly basis we are tasked with accomplishing our game plan (mechanics, court coverage, conflict resolution, awareness, etc.). Perfection is impossible but working together with your partner’s night in and night out trying to execute our game plan is what drives me. With this you shouldn’t necessarily get personal fulfillment from this process. You should be proud that collectively you took care of the game, your crew, and then yourself in that order.
Me: Why is teaching and helping other referees achieve their goals so important to you?
John: I think there are multiple components in assisting others in achieving their goals. Just like anything in life you reap what you sow. Someone else assisted you in your development so it’s only natural that you help others. Not to mention officiating is a journey so to build a foundation with someone from the ground up is a pretty special process.
When you teach others it also creates a level of accountability for yourself. You have to have personal growth to be able to teach others and continually thrive to gain more knowledge. NBA Referee JT Orr always say’s refereeing is like the game “Barrel of Monkey’s”. In officiating you’re always reaching down to help someone else out and eventually, just like the game, others will do the same.
When I was first introduced to anybody in the NBA I was blown away with their quick desire to teach and just simply be a resource of knowledge. I’ve had the opportunity to meet many NBA referees, some veterans and some brand-new. Every single one of them is willing to be that resource of knowledge.
It’s competitive sure and none of them want to lose their position until their own terms dictate it, but not a single referee that I’ve met has ever held back from sharing any and all information they’ve gained along their journey.
You see, refereeing for me reminds me a lot of manhood and womanhood. I choose to referee. We have to choose to be men and women. I don’t mean biologically, I mean in the very definition of the word. We have to choose to be parents, friends, husbands, wives, and so on.
As a referee, I choose to enter the chaos. I choose to put the shirt on, which inexplicably in the eyes of some fans makes you no longer a human being, and enter the chaos. I choose to be the one who puts air in my whistle when a rule needs to be properly adjudicated.
I choose to enter the playing court where my entire job during that game is predicated on harnessing egos, competitive fire, rules knowledge, and somehow manage all of it in a fair and balanced way.
In life, I choose to be a husband. I choose to love my wife. I choose to love my kids. Those things aren’t always a desire of mine. That’s when we let “life” win, is when we start to believe that happiness isn’t a choice. I don’t always feel like being a good husband, or father, or son, or friend.
Some of you may be scoffing at that very notion. But true commitment and covenant is beautifully designed into the fabric of choice, not feeling.
I don’t always feel like going to the gym twice a day to reach certain fitness goals to even gain a sliver of a chance to be identified as a candidate for hire in the NBA D-League (NBDL) which well precedes any opportunity I would get to ever step on an NBA court.
Lastly, I want to talk about the journey. So often we, myself included, get caught up in advancing that we often miss the beauty of where we currently are.
I’m currently working Varsity basketball here in Indiana for some wonderful assignors and also working in the Premier Basketball League (PBL) for a coordinator, Paul Carter, who has done nothing but afforded me opportunity and guidance.
I’m driving hours upon hours and logging ridiculous miles to break even monetarily, simply for the opportunity to referee better basketball to hopefully one day achieve another step forward in the journey.
You see, there is so much beauty in it though. I wish I reflected more often on it. A couple weekends ago I traveled from Indiana to Washington DC to officiate a couple of PBL games. One of my best friends accompanied me on the voyage, and we spent hours talking, laughing, and listening to ridiculous music. These are all memories written into the story of my journey.
My journey may end in me striving to be the best high school and semi-pro referee I can be. It may end in me working in the NBDL or the NBA. However long this journey is, I truly hope I enjoy the rest of it like I have the first five years.
To take it a step further, an NBA officiating scout that just recently watched me work told me this, “It’s better to arrive at goals like yours too late, rather than too early.”
There is so much truth to that statement and I think that that truth bleeds into other “goals” as well. Experiencing and savoring the journey is something that always sticks with you. The veteran NBA referees I’ve spoken with always talk with admiration about their CBA or NBDL days and traveling hours in a car to referee a game with 200 people in the stands.
I seriously challenge each and everyone of you to embrace the journey. The messiness of it, the times you want to quit, the steps backward, and the steps forward. All of those ingredients equate to a pretty special recipe for a story that is written only for you.
As always thank you for reading…
In His Grip,