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MikeCheck: Referees shine under spotlight as NBA, Grizzlies promote HBCUs impact on game

by Michael Wallace | Grind City Media

MEMPHIS – Already a tight-knit group bonded by demands of the job as NBA referees, ties run even deeper for Eric Lewis when the 17-year veteran’s schedule aligns with certain colleagues.

One such occasion happened recently in Memphis, where Lewis and CJ Washington were two of the three officials working the nationally televised, Grizzlies-Pelicans game at FedExForum.

Lewis and Washington have a combined 1,200 games of experience over a collective 23 seasons as NBA referees. But they also share a uniquely prideful path that has guided them from Historically Black Colleges and Universities to the glitz, glamour and grind of the NBA.

Tom Washington officiating a game
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - JANUARY 29: Referee, Tom Washington looks on during the game between the Utah Jazz and the Dallas Mavericks. Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images.

“When you talk about HBCUs, people don’t always think of them as avenues to make it to this level,” Lewis told Grind City Media. “So with the NBA showcasing we have people here from that level of talent, (those coming behind us) are like, ‘Wow. I do have a shot, because they made it.’ Maybe this gives them motivation to continue and not just stop, but to keep going.”

Lewis, 49, is a graduate of Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla., where his wife is head women’s basketball coach of the NCAA Division I program. Washington, 41, is a graduate of Southern University in Baton Rouge, La. While Portland Trail Blazers forward and Tennessee State alum Robert Covington is the NBA’s lone active player from an HBCU, the league’s roster of referees boasts 11 game night officials who are products of black colleges.

These 11 Black College alums entered this season having combined to officiate 10,864 NBA regular season games, 583 playoff contests and 21 Finals appearances. And no one has contributed more to that tally than Tom Washington, one of the league’s senior-most officials. In his 30th season as an NBA referee, the Ft. Smith, Arkansas native and Norfolk State University graduate was assigned crew chief for Saturday’s HBCU Night Game as the Grizzlies faced the Suns at FedExForum.

There are 105 current HBCUs in the country, and nine are represented by Covington and the league’s group of referees who either graduated or attended black colleges.

One way or another, HBCUs are holding court in the NBA.

As the NBA shines a spotlight on diversity, heritage and inclusion in commemoration of Black History Month, there’s a renewed focus on the vital role HBCUs have played in producing key contributors at all levels of the game, both on and off the court.

The Grizzlies continue to be at the forefront of the NBA’s commitment to promote social awareness, specifically with HBCU outreach and spotlighting Black and minority-owned local businesses. Saturday’s HBCU Night game is the centerpiece of a month-long initiative to showcase contributions from those across sports, entertainment, business, education and community activism.

Throughout the month of February, the Grizzlies are donating to the scholarship funds of HBCUs that were attended by the franchise’s eight Empowerment Award honorees. And Saturday’s game features a marquee matchup of point guards with deep HBCU ties.

Grizzlies catalyst Ja Morant was raised by parents who both attended and played sports at Claflin University in South Carolina. One of Ja Morant’s first scholarship offers came from an HBCU, South Carolina State before he ultimately decided to attend Murray State in Kentucky.

These HBCUs are places that made a lot of us who we are. And even people who didn’t go to one, they had people in their families who attended an HBCU. It’s an important part of our history.

Robert Covington

Suns’ veteran point guard Chris Paul attended Wake Forest University, but has become one of the NBA's biggest advocates of HBCU fashion, culture and education. Paul has produced documentaries, partnered with designers to promote HBCU clothing brands and has also visited black college campuses throughout his home state of North Carolina in recent years.

Beyond that, several NBA icons have attached their names and resources to HBCU initiatives.

In 2019, Warriors guard Steph Curry spearheaded efforts to relaunch the golf program at Howard University. Last year, Hall of Fame forward Charles Barkley surpassed $3 million in donations to HBCUs, including a boost to Miles College just outside his hometown near Birmingham. Two years ago, Magic Johnson expanded his business empire to create restaurant and food catering services on multiple college campuses, including Jackson State University.

Robert Covington representing HBCUs before a game
DALLAS, TX - FEBRUARY 14: Robert Covington #23 of the Portland Trail Blazers arrives to the arena before the game against the Dallas Mavericks. Photo by Brandon Colston/NBAE via Getty Images.

“We’re all just trying to hopefully build on that momentum of giving back, especially to schools that get overlooked or underfunded in a lot of ways,” said Covington, who committed money last year to build a new basketball practice facility at Tennessee State University. “These HBCUs are places that made a lot of us who we are. And even people who didn’t go to one, they had people in their families who attended an HBCU. It’s an important part of our history.”

And, HBCUs are a significant part of the future, too. The current glow is seen across various walks of society, with Howard University alum Kamala Harris becoming the first female and Black woman elected as Vice President of the United States.

The NBA has contributed to spreading awareness. As part of this week’s official league announcement of the March 7 All-Star Game in Atlanta, the NBA and the Players Association have pledged at least $2.5 million in funding and resources to HBCUs and affiliated programs.

It’s just a start, but also a significant statement as the nation tries to address social and racial unrest that have resurfaced throughout the country in recent years.

“HBCUs provided premium education to our communities at a time when access to higher learning was denied to us,” NBA Players Association executive director Michele Roberts said as part of the joint announcement this week. “They were there – and have remained there – for us. We now stand with them.”

Derrick Collins officiating
SACRAMENTO, CA - OCTOBER 24: Referee Derrick Collins #11 officiates during the game between the Sacramento Kings and the Memphis Grizzlies at Golden 1 Center. Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images.

The league has also stood by its game officials, who have also used their platform to take stances on social justice and call attention to inequities in education and community issues. During the NBA bubble last summer in Orlando, NBA referees held a unity walk and used their social media platforms to address police brutality and to call for unity.

“Some of the things that happened in the bubble showed that we are an important part of this, too, and that we have voices and causes we feel are important to address,” said CJ Washington, in his fifth season as an NBA official. “There’s a sense of pride in knowing we’re in this together.”

The league’s focus on HBCUs resonates deeply, especially among those who have made the determined journey from those proud campuses to reach the game’s highest level.

They were there – and have remained there – for us. We now stand with them.

Michele Roberts

“The thing they always teach is make sure you know your workplace, know your league,” said NBA official and Coppin State University graduate Sean Corbin. “It’s huge that we can share in this whole awareness thing. The whole idea is to share, educate people and make them aware. We’re kind of anonymous on the floor as referees, but we go back into our communities as well and people look up to you. We want to win by doing a good job and by servicing this game.”

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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