On NBA schedule release day, players and fans alike circle the dates for their most highly anticipated games of the season.
The game between the Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets on Jan. 19 may not have been ranked very high on many lists, but for the three men scheduled to officiate the game, it was a dream scenario.
“When we first got the schedule and saw it, we were like ‘Alright, this is too good to be true,’ ” said veteran official Bennie Adams, the crew chief for the game.
“When you get your schedule and you see that, you just kind of have a reaction, your eyes kind of get big, to have that opportunity in front of us,” said second-year official C.J. Washington.
What made the game so special for Adams, Washington and Courtney Kirkland was that for the first time in league history, an NBA game would be officiated by three referees that all graduated from the same school.
That school was Southern University in Baton Rouge, La. -- one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities that have produced nine of the league’s 65 officials this season.
In the weeks leading up to the game, the three Southern alums did not discuss their excitement for the moment. They didn’t want to jinx the opportunity.
“We didn’t talk about it, we didn’t say anything prior to, leading up, because you have schedule changes and so much stuff that can happen,” Washington said. “You just keep your fingers crossed that it’s going to happen. And when we got to that moment, it was great.”
The three men arrived in Denver and held their regular morning meeting to address the business of the day. But once those tasks were complete, it was time to reminisce. Over lunch, they told stories of their separate, but similar, paths to the NBA.
“We spent the lunch talking about each of our paths to get to being at that lunch table,” Adams said. “How they all interconnected and all of the different people that helped us.”
Adams serves as valued mentor
Adams is in his 23rd season as an NBA official after earning both his bachelor’s and master’s degree in mathematics at Southern. He taught math at Southern for two semesters (while also refereeing) and eventually followed his passion for refereeing over his initial goal of earning a his PhD and becoming a college professor.
However, his passion for teaching was not lost, but merely redirected. He serves as a mentor to numerous NBA officials, most notably to Kirkland and Washington.
Kirkland and Washington both cite Adams’ tough-love approach to that mentoring role.
Basically he told me ‘Being good enough is not good enough; you’ve got to be that much better.’ And that resonated with me early in my career and I’ve used that throughout the course of my career."
“Bennie basically told me that I had to be better than everybody else, because essentially I was trading on his name,” Kirkland said. “So if his name was going to be involved in the situation, I had to be that good.”
Kirkland tells the story of a study session between he and Adams with Adams quizzing Kirkland on the rulebook. After providing an answer many would deem acceptable, Adams challenged Kirkland to provide the rule verbatim. As frustrating as this was for Kirkland, he understood the lesson Adams was teaching him.
“Basically he told me ‘Being good enough is not good enough; you’ve got to be that much better.’ And that resonated with me early in my career and I’ve used that throughout the course of my career," Kirkland said. "I’ve been in the league for 18 years now and I still remember those times where Bennie would constantly challenge me.”
“He gives tough love, that’s just how Bennie is,” Washington added. “I went through years where I was questioning, ‘Man does this guy even like me?’ because he would always just be on you and on you and it seemed like more than he was on anybody else. But he was just trying to get everything out of you in terms of your ability, your potential, and he just wanted to see you at your very best every time he saw you.”
Adams laughed when he heard these stories of his approach.
“It’s an open and honest relationship so its tough love,” Adams said. “It’s something that was passed down to me, just having attended an HBCU. What I thought was okay really wasn’t enough to be successful in the real world. But at the time I didn’t know what I didn’t know. So that tough love was just pushing them to do better, to do more because they had it in them. I’m only asking you to do things that I know you can do even if you don’t know you can do them yet. And do them at a level of excellence that when they make the decision on you it’s without question.”
Adams says mentors Dr. Rogers Newman (in mathematics) and Aaron Wade (in refereeing) instilled the high expectations in him that he now expects of others.
Adams calls Newman the most intelligent person he’s seen in his entire life and saw him as a bar to strive for.
“I would be in class and I was like, I wish I could do anything in life as well as he can do this. It was just inspiring. I can’t even explain how brilliant he was and how that impacted me,” Adams said. “Everything I thought I was doing -- and I thought I was smart -- I realized I didn’t know anything compared to him and that I had so much more to learn and so much room to grow and that transferred into my refereeing.”
Kirkland bridges two generations
Kirkland is in his 18th season as an NBA official and spent time at Southern with both Adams (who was teaching while Kirkland was a student) and Washington (who was a freshman when Kirkland was a senior), bridging the gap between these three generations of officials.
“It’s pretty interesting that I was in between the two of them but I was able to meet both of them before they got their career started and both of them watched me as I got my career started as well,” he said.
Kirkland’s road to the NBA began in 1994 as a high school official for the Baton Rouge Basketball Officials Association. Despite being named Rookie Official of the Year that year, Kirkland said it never dawned in him in those days that he could pursue refereeing as a career.
That would soon change as mutual contacts put Kirkland in touch with Adams, which began their mentoring relationship. A work stoppage with NBA officials the following year provided a unique opportunity. With NBA officials locked out, Continental Basketball Association officials refereed NBA games. That left openings in the CBA and Kirkland’s name popped up to fill an open CBA officiating spot.
“Now I didn’t know anything about refereeing pro basketball but that was when I met Aaron Wade, who at the time was overseeing the CBA,” Kirkland said. “He called me and he said ‘I heard you were a pretty good referee, are you interested in working in the CBA?’
“Again I had no idea what I was doing, no clue, no nothing, but I said ‘Sure I’m interested.’ I’d had some conversations with Bennie. He had sent me some videotapes. He said look over the videotapes, here’s some rulebooks, read them and be ready to go. And I said ‘Okay.’ And I looked at the videotapes, I studied them like it was the bible. I read the rulebooks like they were the bible and I also went on to do a couple of CBA games.”
The labor dispute ended and Kirkland only refereed a few CBA games, but that experience left a strong impression on him.
“Once I got that little taste that’s when I realized this is something I could do long term,” he said. “And that’s when I really got the bug of trying to do this professionally. And then I basically just ran a race from there.
“I got myself engaged with the Southeastern Conference and their training program so while I was doing that, Darell Garretson was actually the supervisor for the NBA. So Darell got the chance to look at me at a college camp and with the SEC, that was kind of a springboard for my career.”
Kirkland would earn a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Southern in 1999 and was hired by the NBA in 2000. It was in his final year at Southern that Kirkland met Washington, even though it wasn’t in a refereeing capacity just yet.
“Refereeing was never part of the conversation at that point in his life,” Kirkland said of Washington. “He was still relatively new at Southern. It wasn’t until later on, where I had already graduated and kind of gone on with my life and started with basketball that he actually got involved in refereeing. Then to go and see him again and be like ‘Wow I remember you; now you’re doing this!’
“I helped train C.J. for many years when he moved to Texas. I used to do a training camp down in Lake Charles, Louisiana. C.J. was one of the campers that I helped to train there and then when he got involved with the SWAC conference, I helped train him there as well. I’ve known C.J. for years so that was a great experience.”
Washington continues Southern legacy
By the time Washington began refereeing high school basketball in 2002, Adams and Kirkland were already in the NBA. But the efforts to bring along the next generation of officials from Southern kept Adams and Kirkland involved with Washington’s development.
Washington graduated from Southern in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications. After spending a year as a high school referee and real estate appraiser, Washington pursued full-time refereeing, beginning a 14-year journey to the NBA.
“When I became an official, of course I heard all these names of people that came before me and so of course Bennie and Courtney were two of the names,” Washington said. “So when I got a chance to meet them a few years later we automatically had this sort of a bond because they wanted to see me be successful being that I was from Southern and kind of started in the same area and the same way that they did. So that’s a pretty cool bond that we have.”
It’s something that we’re really, really proud of because it’s like ‘Do you want to be the one and only or the first of many?’ That’s what it’s really about."
Washington’s journey went from high schools to the SWAC, SEC, Conference USA and Southland Conference. Then came the G League, where he spent eight years before being hired by the NBA last season.
Washington was able to put everything in perspective once his goal of being an NBA referee was realized.
“I will never forget it when I finally made it to the NBA, even before I got hired, when I was there as a part-time referee and was on the radar to get hired, and then getting hired, Bennie was one of the first people to reach out," Washington said. "And he had the biggest smile on his face and he just said ‘Man, I’m so proud of you.’ ”
“Everybody has taken pride in passing it down and trying to reach back and bring the next person along with C.J. being the latest person,” Adams said. “And a couple other people who aren’t in the NBA have had very successful collegiate careers, having worked multiple Final Fours -- all coming out of that same [high school] association and through our same network.
“It’s something that we’re really, really proud of because it’s like ‘Do you want to be the one and only or the first of many?’ That’s what it’s really about. If I get in and it’s just me and nobody else comes along then I haven’t really done anything. But when you can be the first of many to come and that’s an attainable dream for people behind you, it’s really humbling and you take pride in your responsibility of it.”
When it comes to pride, few nights will stood out more than that Jan. 19 in Denver as Adams, Kirkland and Washington worked their first game together. The trio had NBA photographer Garrett Elwood capture the moment on film before the game. But then there was work to do.
“There was anxiety of the three of us being able to enjoy the moment, but still having to take care of the work at hand,” Adams said. “If we don’t work the game well, then the moment is meaningless because you still have to go do the job. You don’t want the moment tarnished. It was the beauty of having that challenge.”
“In the back our minds, we wanted to do well so that the moment would be something that we could always be remembered in a positive way and I think we did that,” Washington said. “Were we perfect? No, we weren’t perfect, but we were pretty good. And we took care of the game and we walked off the court feeling good about ourselves and the work that we did and just proud of the way we were taught how to referee and how its translated to the NBA for all three of us.”