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Delaney applies stress strategies learned in military

Staying strong emotionally plays a key role for NBA referees

POSTED: Nov 11, 2014 2:14 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Picture an NBA highlight reel full of nothing but whistles and unconsummated plays. Illegal screens, clear-path fouls, barely discernible traveling calls and various offenses against verticality. And no, we're not talking about a Lakers-Sixers game here.

All of it is edited down into a tidy 90 seconds or two minutes. Then it is set to music, something appropriate like Aretha Franklin's "Respect" or Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle with You," to bring the ears into the process, reinforcing the eyes. At which point an NBA referee puts on his headphones, dims the lights, leans back in a private moment and clicks on the Play button ...

Bob Delaney, longtime NBA referee, considers this sort of mental rehearsal to be vital in helping the league's game officials do the very best jobs they can, while helping them to carve out some uplifting personal time to keep them stronger emotionally. This group of people who work in a uniquely negative environment -- constant criticism from players, coaches, GMs and fans, followed by late-night scrutiny from themselves and league executives -- need and maybe even crave this little oasis of positive reinforcement, whether they realize it or not.

"Take plays that you've called that you know you've nailed -- you're 100 percent," said Delaney, the NBA's new VP of referee operations, in explaining the value of a "Ref's Greatest Hits" compilation. "It becomes a pattern, a rhythm and a beat in your head. It's building confidence but it's reinforcing what you're doing right so we can have that repeated over and over on the floor."

We have a greater debt to the men and women who serve us.

– Bob Delaney

There is a laundry list of skills ripe for attention and enhancement -- resiliency, mental conditioning, communication, leadership, teamwork -- in Delaney's area of referee development. Points of emphasis, one might say, for the folks who learn and enforce the league's points of emphasis every season.

"We're taking a more holistic approach to training," said Delaney, widely regarded as one of the NBA's top refs from his debut in 1987 to his retirement from games in 2011. "While we're continuing to do the job-specific activities with the Xs and Os of refereeing, we also want to be able to talk about dealing with stress, dealing with emotional situations. How do you diffuse them? How do you help resolve them? How do we communicate with people, not only coaches and players but with each other? What's our body language saying?"

bob delaney
Bob Delaney (second from left) with General Bob Brown in Mosul, Iraq in 2009.

If it all sounds a little new-agey, incense optional, try telling that to the law enforcement and military personnel who have embraced and benefited from the same or similar methods. Delaney knows, because he's been doing that sort of emotional missionary work for years, addressing and educating them about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He revved up his efforts after working his last NBA game and, despite his new full-time gig at league headquarters, he will continue in the offseason next summer.

This stuff is straight out of Iraq, Afghanistan and other global hot spots, like New Jersey, where Delaney grew up and where he made his bones bringing down the guys who make (and break) their bones. He's the former Jersey state trooper who went deep undercover from 1975-1977 as "Bobby Covert," masquerading as a trucking company president in an investigation that led to the convictions of more than 30 Mafia criminals.

He's a bookend to "Donnie Brasco," except that Joe Pistone is the former FBI agent who had a Hollywood movie starring Johnny Depp and Al Pacino made about his life. "Bobby Covert" is the guy who wound up hiding in plain sight for more than two decades, officiating more than 200 NBA playoff games and nine Finals. He left behind the stress and threats inherent in living a double life, long before they left him.

"Basketball became my therapy," said Delaney, who started refereeing at the game's lowest level. "I was doing it because I was around all that was bad, being on the street, and I wanted to be around all that was good. To me, nothing was better than being on the basketball court. With kids playing and their families and students cheering them on, I enjoyed it. And one door opened another -- [former NBA supervisor] Darrell Garretson happened to see me referee a game at the Jersey Shore League back in the early '80s."

Delaney got assigned to the CBA and worked his way up to the league quickly enough, toting baggage from his previous occupation. The moods, the thoughts, the fears he experienced, and the behavior he'd sometimes exhibit, made him understand he wasn't out. Never mind the image of the tough, in-control authority figure we've come to expect from referees and umpires -- Delaney learned more, sought advice and became an expert on what he prefers to call "operational stress" rather than PTSD.

"I went through it. Then I wanted to know more and more about what was going on inside of me," he said. "The more I spoke about it to others, the more I realized it was going on inside of them."

Delaney, co-author of the book "Surviving the Shadows: A Journey of Hope into Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder," added: "One phrase that I use is, Whatever's personal is universal. If you're feeling it, I'm probably feeling a sense of it."

About a dozen years ago, Delaney spoke about PTSD before a border-enforcement task force and one of the military leaders there asked him to speak to the troops. His work in that area took off from there. In 2009, he was embedded with the 25th Infantry Division in Mosul, Iraq. He has been there and to Afghanistan on multiple occasions, as well as to South Korea and "almost every post in the U.S. and in Europe."

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Raymond Odierno and Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan are among those who endorsed Delaney's message and put him in front of their troops. And now the NBA -- with the support of president Rod Thorn, executive VP of referee operations Mike Bantom and director of officials Don Vaden -- has him in front of its officiating crews.

Delaney meets with the refs when they rotate through New York or Brooklyn to work games. He'll huddle up in meetings to break down video, while encouraging conversation and focusing on life skills.

Here's a for-instance: "If we know we missed a call in the first quarter," Delaney said, "how are we resilient to get that out of our mind, not allow one bad call to become two, three, four bad calls and become paralyzed through a phobia? Versus moving it off to the side, compartmentalize it, do our jobs and come back and figure out after the game what went wrong and how can we get better."

While he does not equate the stresses in a referee's world to those faced by soldiers, police and firefighters, Delaney obviously sees the overlap and how applicable some new ways can be. It's no longer enough, not nearly so, for a ref to be an autocrat who memorized a rule book.

"We don't have to be sick to get better," Delaney said. "I tell that to the referees over and over -- this is not saying we don't have these skills or there's a major problem, but that we're constantly working to get better. I use the analogy, 'If I want to get these monster guns [arms] I'm walking around with, I don't lift a 40-pound weight one time.' I've got to have a plan. I've got to figure out a way for how I'm going to stay in good physical shape. Same thing with emotional shape, same thing with mental conditioning, resiliency."

It hits home hard for Delaney on Veteran's Day, recalling all the military personnel he's met and hopefully helped, and even more so the families of soldiers who could not cope and took their own lives.

"We have a great national debt in our country, and we hear about it on a daily basis. But I believe we have a greater debt to the men and women who serve us," he said.

"We live in the land of the free because of the brave. Honoring them during NBA games is great. However, we all should do it every day of the year."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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