Celebrating Black History Month with NBA referees: Karl Lane
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 continue our series with Karl Lane, who graduated from Philander Smith College in 1998. Lane is in his seventh season as an NBA referee and entered the 2017-18 season having officiated in 326 regular-season games as well as 167 games in the D-League.
Q. Were you aware that nine of the league’s 65 officials went to HBCUs?
I didn’t know there were that many. When I got the email (regarding this interview) I was actually with one of them at the Replay Center and we were having dinner and he informed me. After that we figured out some of the rest.
HBCU Referees Series:
Q. Is there a special bond in having that shared experience?
We didn’t know, so I really don’t know about how much of a bond it is. I think most of the ones that did go (to an HBCU) that I’m close with we were in fraternities, but we were all in different ones. I think two were in the same fraternity and I was in a different one, so I’m the outcast of the group, so we kind of joke with each other about that. It’s not something that really came up; I knew a few of them went to Southern like Courtney [Kirkland] and CJ [Washington], but it really never came up that much.
Q. What made you decide to attend an HBCU?
My decision was pretty easy. My grandmother actually went to the same school that I went to. She wanted me to go there. I was originally going to Northern Illinois and she said she prefer that I go to [Philander Smith College] since she went there and her mother went there as well. During the time that my grandmother went to college – believe it or not her name is Lois Lane (laughs), nobody ever believes me when I tell them that – she actually played basketball and graduated with a degree in Home Economics in 1951. During that time with basketball for women they played half court and she was considered a scorer. So her history with the school made the decision a little bit easier for me. It was a family tradition. And I think I made the right decision by following that tradition
Q. What was the biggest impact that attending an HBCU had on your life?
I think it was making me grow up. I was playing basketball during that time, and even though I split between home and the dorm, it kind of made me grow up a little bit more. Just that whole experience and then that culture of being in a fraternity, being a leader around the school and being looked up to; it’s a smaller university so everybody knew you and it was a family-type vibe.
Q. What was the best piece of advice someone gave you during college?
It was one of my professors that I had for different stuff throughout my college career. And near the end he was the athletic director and he just told me about always being professional – whether it’s when I come to a class, or when I step on a court, when I do anything. Not being late, just being the part, being professional and taking that through throughout your life no matter the situation.
Q. When did you see becoming a referee as a career path? Was it during your time in college?
It was actually almost an accident. After I finished my playing career, I was still going to school; I still had a couple of hours to finish. I was working at this community center that was right across the street from the college. And I started working at the community center and one of the guys that was there was kind of a mentor to me, he ended up talking me into working the summer pro league, which was like a pro-am and had players at the time like Corliss Williamson, Joe Johnson, Derek Fisher, all those guys played in it. I played in it once or twice, but then I knew that I was done playing and then I started to get into officiating that way.
Q. Who is a mentor that made the biggest impact on you during college?
It was one named Huey Pugh. His basketball career actually fizzled out around D-II, but he was another guy that taught me about being professional. He officiated some of the games that I played in, and we ended up being in the same fraternity and somehow we got connected and started talking after that. He taught me a lot and helped me learn how to deal with things not just on the court, but also on a professional level when it comes to officiating.
Q. How important is the celebration of Black History Month not only to you personally, but in society in general?
I really think the NBA does a great job of celebrating Black History Month. It humbles me to see all the people. I’ve been going to some of the games this past month; I was in New York and looked courtside and saw Reverend Jesse Jackson there. I had met him once before at a game – ironically during Black History Month in Memphis – so its just humbling to see the growth of African-Americans in this day and age and how successful we can be with a little effort.
Q. Name an African-American pioneer who made an impact on you (and why?)
Me being from Little Rock, it was actually nine. We had the Little Rock Nine. Being one of the first integrated high schools and that being my home state, and knowing my sister actually went to Central High and they were in our conference when we played, so just all the historical aspects of that school and what that meant for all of them to go through what they did just for a better education, those are ones that I kind of look at.
One of the first students that went on that first day – you can see that historic picture where everybody is yelling at her and she was the only one there. She didn’t have a phone so she didn’t know that they had moved the day. Years ago, I would always see her walking around town and you can tell her life was a little bit harder than maybe some of the other ones that were a little bit more successful that went through that. And you can see her and still see how she’s still impacted to this day. And not in a good way. So there is just a lot of history through them and a lot of sacrifices that they made – being those nine that went to that school.