Celebrating Black History Month with NBA referees: Derrick Stafford

Brian Martin, for NBA.com

Of the 65 referees in the NBA this season, nine attended Historically Black Colleges and Universities. In celebration of Black History Month, we explore the unique bond that these officials have with one another and the impact that attending an HBCU had on their personal and professional lives.

We open our series with Derrick Stafford, who graduated from Morehouse College in 1978. Stafford is in his 31st season as an NBA referee and entered the 2017-18 campaign with 1,670 regular season, 166 playoff and 12 Finals games to his credit. Stafford was a two-sport athlete at Morehouse, playing football for two years and baseball for four, earning All-Conference honors in baseball three times.

Q: Nine out of 65 NBA Referees attended HBCUs. How important is that bond?

Stafford: I knew there were a few guys that had gone to HBCUs but I didn’t realize it was exactly nine. There is a bond between guys that all went to similar type schools, especially being from the South.

Q: Why did you decide to attend an HBCU?

Stafford: I was one of the first classes of integration here in Atlanta. So after high school I decided that I would go to a predominately black college because I went to a predominately white high school. My high school was probably 90 percent white when I first attended. So I just wanted to get a feel for something different, being around intelligent black guys all with the same type of goals from different parts of the country — really they were from everywhere, all of the world, actually.

Q: What impact did attending an HBCU have on your life?

Stafford: For me in particular, going to Morehouse, it was Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.], just seeing his statue out front and learning about his legacy. Actually being from Atlanta and remembering when he was assassinated, that was main thing that I learned, that he was the main leader in my life, as I grew older.

Q: Name an African-American pioneer who made an impact on you (and why?)

Stafford: Dr. King, Reverend [Joseph] Lowery, Andrew Young, Hosea Williams — they all had a big impact on my life. I saw the work that they were doing and what they were going through, so it was impactful.

Q: What was the best piece of advice someone gave you during college?

Stafford: We had this guy named Reverend Daniels, who was our chaplain for the baseball and football team and once I was talking to him about a particular situation and his answer to me was ‘Whenever you have a problem, always say to yourself what would the master do?’ So by keeping that mindset, it allows me to try to make good decisions in most situations.

Q: Who is a mentor that made the biggest impact on you during college?

Stafford: My baseball coach, coach Basil Hall and my football coach, coach Michael Gray, they were both very instrumental. They were young, they hadn’t been out of college long themselves and they both went to Morehouse. They had a major impact on me, teaching me discipline, sacrifice, fundamentals and also disappointment and how to deal with it.

HBCU Referees Series:

Sean Corbin: Coppin State

Karl Lane: Philander Smith College

Q: Mentoring is something that many referees speak about. How important is mentorship in this profession, both receiving mentorship and being a mentor to others?

Stafford: It’s very important. Without the guidance and mentorship of Darell Garretson even before I got hired I certainly would not be the referee that I am today. So I took that based on what he gave me and I try to give it back to other guys. He definitely made it part of our learning process, to understand that we needed to give back and that is part of what we were expected to do.

Q: How important is the celebration of Black History Month not only to you personally, but in society in general?

Stafford: I think it’s important that we do set aside — and I think any nationality should do the same thing — set aside a particular time where you can kind of reflect on your history and think about the people that helped you get to the point that you are now. I think it’s always good to reflect. Black History Month always makes you sit back and think and it comes at a great time; its in February right after the new year has just started so it’s a good time to reflect going into the new year. I just think all nationalities should look back at their history and be proud of where they came form, accept the mistakes that were made but also be proud of their heritage. But its something that I think living here in the United States it’s just something that’s a part of you and something that you think about and appreciate every day.