This season, there are 11 NBA referees who attended one of the nation’s 105 historically Black colleges and universities. In the first section of a three-part interview, each official shares their take on why they chose their school, how their college experience shaped them personally, and what makes the HBCU experience unique. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What made you choose your HBCU?
Courtney Kirkland (Southern University): I originally considered going to Marquette University in Milwaukee. That’s a big difference versus being in Baton Rouge (La.), just even the weather itself. But the culture was a little bit different when I visited Southern. I remember watching Southern play football on TV. When I went to visit, the experience was something different. The culture, the food; it was just different. A different environment. A different vibe. And that was one of the reasons why I wanted to go down to Louisiana. I just fell in love with the culture there.
Sean Corbin (Coppin State University): The reason why I chose the school is that my godfather attended, as well as my mother and my wife. We kind of had an extended family with my wife with a tradition of that we all want to attend a Historically Black College, and the choices that we had in the Baltimore area, which is where I grew up, were Morgan State University and Coppin State University.
Eric Lewis (Bethune-Cookman University): Back then, it was called Bethune-Cookman College, and now it’s Bethune-Cookman University. I’m a homegrown kid right out of Daytona Beach (Fla.). My mom, my sisters and my brother went to Bethune-Cookman. So it’s a tradition in a sense – really never leaving outside of my neighborhood or Daytona. It was comfortable.
Matt Myers (Hampton University): [My father] suggested I attend a Historically Black College because he went to one many years ago; he went to Knoxville College in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Karl Lane (Philander Smith College): I chose my school because my grandmother attended there and she wanted me to be there as well. She played on the basketball team back when women only played half court, so that’s one of the main reasons I chose to attend.
Tony Brown (Clark Atlanta University): I initially attended Florida A&M University to play basketball and ended up transferring to Clark Atlanta University where I graduated with a degree in finance. I had family members that had attended Florida A&M, so that was initially why I wanted to go there. It was just kind of falling in line with family tradition.
One thing I did know is that selecting Florida A&M and then Clark Atlanta University, they just had a strong sense of community and pride and I wanted to be a part of that. Being a Black man, it was just empowering to know and see people that had like-minded thinking. It just gave me a sense of empowerment to want to go and get my education. It was really, really, really good. It was a very supportive environment and it was very good for me. It was a quality education, affordability was the key, and that was the main connection for me.
CJ Washington (Southern University): I grew up going to Southern University football games, basketball games, homecomings and Bayou Classic. My mom attended Southern University. I had a lot of other family, older cousins, aunts, who attended Southern University. It was a family tradition. It was seamless. Before I even got into Southern, I had been on campus several times throughout my life. It was very natural for me to go to Southern.
Derrick Collins (Xavier University of Louisiana): They wanted me to play on the basketball team. The coach came to my house, interviewed me and my parents. They awarded me an athletic scholarship. It was a telling sign for me and also because my parents went there. It’s a family tradition.
Bennie Adams (Southern University): I don’t know why I chose [Southern University]. I started off my education at LSU. Out of high school, both my parents went to HBCUs, and encouraged me to go to HBCU — in particular, Southern. But me being 18, I didn’t listen. I started at LSU and at the end of my third year, I wasn’t happy. I was three semesters from graduating in electrical engineering and knew I wanted to do something different. I transferred schools and changed my major to math, which was my first love. They had a great math department. Southern became the ideal choice, and I never looked back.
Marc Davis (Howard University): When I left the Naval Academy, I was looking to jump into school right away. My mother was a graduate of Fisk University in 1965, and one of her classmates there, Dr. Ron Walters, was the chairman of the political science department [at Howard University] … I was looking for a place to just be a student, and Dr. Walters was a connection, since I was previously a political science major at Navy. It was just an easy transition for me to go there.
How would you describe your college experience, and how did it shape you personally?
Corbin: Oh, wow. That’s a pretty loaded question. You know, thinking back over the experience [at Coppin State University], I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. I met my wife there. My mother went there … The people I met from all walks of life and the experiences I had being in a small community, I think it’s really beneficial. You’re a young kid coming out of high school. You want to attend a university and get a new experience. I think having a family atmosphere makes you feel comfortable, and you’re not a small fish in a big pond. I felt really, really comfortable attending.
Lewis: It was phenomenal. I’m pretty sure every college student says that … [Bethune-Cookman] University was very involved in the community. So we attended programs there as youths. In the summer, it was called the NYSP [National Youth Sports Program]. It was huge for kids in our community because every part of our community was represented. We played sports the entire summer in that program … watching all the football games, the homecomings, the basketball games — my sisters played basketball and softball there. Going to games and being the last child, I got to see all that, and I grew to become like a Wildcat.
Myers: Going to an HBCU like Hampton was cool because a majority of the kids look like me, and a majority of the teachers looked like me. There was a lot of culture. They really wanted academics to be the focus of your college experience. I was fortunate enough also to play golf while I was there so that molded part of my college career being around athletics.
Kirkland: I look at it this way. I always say that I grew up in Flint, Michigan, but I became a man when I was in Baton Rouge. I was raised in Flint – I was taught the values to survive in this world as a young man. But when I went off to Louisiana, it started me becoming my own man. I had to learn valuable lessons to just survive as a man. Period. And that’s why I say that I became a man there because I went away from my parents. My whole family was still in Michigan. I was so far away from them. I was doing things on my own. I was learning different things on how to survive on my own. There was schoolwork; there was basketball, then there was just life outside of that. I was just learning all of those things, and I didn’t have mom and dad to lean on. I was having to get some of those experiences myself: some good, some bad. And I think those are the things that shaped me into the man that I’ve become now.
Tom Washington: I think one of the best parts about [attending Norfolk State] is that it was a more comfortable learning environment where I was able to excel. And it also helped me financially because I was able to obtain educational scholarships along the way. It was a wonderful experience there. It took a lot of hard work, but it was fun, too.
Brown: [Clark Atlanta University] helped me develop into a responsible individual. Not only the educational piece, but it helped me gain life skills and teach me what it took for me to be a Black man surviving out in the world, and not just in America, but in the world. It gave me the foundation for who I am today. It taught me a lot about respect and treating people the way you want to be treated. It helped with what I was taught by my mom. That was some of her core values of raising me, my brother and my sister was you always treat people the way you want to be treated. Be respectful to people and it’ll come back to you the way you give it.
CJ Washington: Prior to marriage, [attending Southern University was the] best four years of my life. It was great. It was a moment in time where I was able to be independent, and gained some friends who are more like family now. To be on a campus where you’re not the minority, it’s just a very comfortable feeling. You just kind of figured out who you are and through those experiences, it helped me grow and taught me a lot about responsibility, accountability. [Learning to be] present with what it is you’re doing and trying to do it at your best. Be the best that you can be in whatever you decide to do when you’re on the campus.
Collins: [Xavier University] developed me from an academic standpoint. It gave me an opportunity to be comfortable with a lot of the African-Americans that went there, but it was very diverse as well. It gave me an opportunity to really engage with my professors. The classes were small, populations for us at the school were small. As an athlete, it really gave me a direct connection with the faculty there. And it helped me in classes that I wasn’t doing well in to have that one-on-one individual time where they would help me improve in my studies. I can get that one-on-one attention that maybe I wouldn’t have gotten at a bigger university, but for me it just helped because they were able to know who I was.
Adams: My time at Southern was probably one of the best times of my life – that period of finishing my undergraduate studies and completing my masters. It helped me find that happiness is more important than money or goals and success. I also learned that I could do anything that I put my mind to, so as far as dreaming something and actually being it … I was just around so many other people that had dreamt and done so many amazing things [across] so many different facets of life. It was any and all people of color, and it was totally enriching … Everybody had done amazing things that weren’t noted because it’s just not covered, especially back then, because there was no social media, no email.
Davis: I don’t think you’re lacking in terms of intellectual experience. Maybe the facilities are not as comparable, the endowments are clearly not. The physical experience may not be the same, but it’s the emotional connections, which is what you really attach to your university — the relationships, the friendships and the experiences is what keeps you engaged as an alumni for life. That is a benefit.
At Yale or Harvard, you’ll be intellectually stimulated, but we’re not at a point yet where you’re not just a Black student. And we’re at a place now where, as a Black student, you’re not treated any differently. But you still have that weight of always being a minority or always trying to navigate how to fit in and make yourself, and others, comfortable. It’s a heavy weight.
At an HBCU, you can just be a student. For African American students, that’s just a phenomenal weight off of you, and generally allows you to spread your wings a little more by engaging more intellectually and socially. Then, that prepares you for wherever you go next, you go with a sense of empowerment and sense of understanding of what your rightful place is, a sense of confidence and sense of self.
What is unique about the HBCU experience?
Corbin: The uniqueness is that you’re around people that are pretty much like yourself. You’ve come from similar backgrounds. You have some of those similar beliefs. It gives you a comfort level. It gave you a sense of pride … Historically Black colleges gave you an opportunity to attend if you couldn’t afford it or have the funds. They would offer grants like other universities, but HBCUs just gave you the family atmosphere. It gave me a comfort level and built my confidence up as a growing young man.
Lewis: My mother, all she thought about was we just got to get you out of high school. Graduate high school. Now, to have the ability to go to college because it was seven of us and a single parent. Just getting through high school was the epitome. It signified something. I’m [able to go to college] on a basketball scholarship. My oldest sisters didn’t go to college. But now, they’re going to college, and they understand the significance of having a degree.
The youngest siblings — me and my other two sisters — we were able to go to college on scholarships. That was huge for us. An experience to go there, to see people like you getting a higher education and survive or have a better life than what we grew up in. When you finish high school and just work, you continue that cycle of a week-to-week or month-to-month paycheck. You live like that because you have no education to support your worth and support what you get paid. We broke the cycle in our family and our community of getting to another level of education.
Myers: I would say the culture, the alumni — we have a big alumni network. I know if you go to a variety of HBCUs when you meet somebody, it’s an immediate connection whether or not it’s on a professional level or whether or not it’s on a friendship level, you immediately have that bond. And I’ve been fortunate enough to keep in touch with many of my friends that I went to school with throughout the years.
Tom Washington: There’s an underlying understanding that, culturally, you tend to know what challenges I may or may not face. You learn to be able to sit down with someone and express your challenges — where your areas of need or strength may be. [At an HBCU] they’re able to point that out more readily. I do think that had I gone somewhere else, then we would have eventually gotten to that point, but I think that sometimes you’d get there just a little bit quicker because there’s an underlying understanding of what may or may not be there so to speak.
I hope that I, along with the other referees who attended HBCUs, actually become somewhat of a role model, showing that there are HBCU grads who are successful. Hopefully we’ve represented, not just the NBA, our families and ourselves, but the HBCU community as well. Hopefully, that’s empowering and inspiring to a younger generation that may look at us and say, “What he’s done is exceptional and it’s great. What school did he go to?”
Brown: I think the socializing environment and how culturally engaging it is for you to be who you want to be [makes the HBCU experience unique]. They basically accept everybody. There’s no cookie cutter. Everybody’s welcome. You learn what makes you unique. One thing I do know: the differences in all of us is what’s great in all of us. Going to an HBCU, it made me feel comfortable in my own skin, and helped build my confidence to go out and be one of the best referees in the world now. It helped mold me. That’s how I was fortunate enough to be where I am. It gave me the foundation to work hard, and once the opportunity presented itself, I was ready.
CJ Washington: The HBCU experience is almost like a family experience. I had so many family members that went to school there. Even being able to be at school and then to go home on the weekend and have conversations with my mom or my aunts and uncles, and we talk about [the school]. To have that common sense of experience and have these discussions with people that went before you was a great thing.
I can think about a few of my professors where they spoke to me as if they were my aunt or my uncle and more like I was their nephew as opposed to being my teacher. It was tough love at times and it was just comfortable. It was just so comfortable to be in a place where you were going to be completely judged on what you did, whether you were successful or not.
Collins: I believe it nurtured me a lot, the environment, the challenging academic program was rich in history. The discipline that I received was second to none. You get constant encouragement from the professors, as well as your peers. They made sure that you graduated … I just remember all of the things my professors told me in regards to sticking with it, you gotta persevere. You gotta work hard. Nothing is just going to be given to you. You got to learn how to deal with adversity. I carry those characteristics with me in my career. Working in the NBA for 20 years, I just remember those lasting imprints that they gave me back then, that I carry with me now.