NBA Referees Blogtable: Advice and impact of the HBCU experience
The 11 NBA referees who attended HBCUs offer advice on attending one of the nation's 105 historically Black colleges and universities.
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 advice have you shared with people who consider attending your alma mater or an HBCU in general?
Courtney Kirkland (Southern University): The one thing that I would share with anyone is to learn how to make friends with people, learn how to communicate with people, and learn how to get things done. Don’t wait for things to happen; make sure that you connect with people, get engaged, get involved because those things help the experience go along. You can’t just sit in one spot and expect things to just happen for you. You’ve got to make sure that you are connected with someone, which can be in various scenarios. It could be a teammate. It could be a fraternity or sorority. It could be a book club. It could be the chess club. It could be in the science club, but the main thing I would say is making sure that a person gets connected with someone because it’s impossible to go and be successful at something all alone.
Sean Corbin (Coppin State University): Just about the sense of community. You go there with a purpose to be disciplined and focused. Get your education, but also learn to socialize with people and have care and compassion for people that are less fortunate than yourselves. Be able to learn to serve the community and give back to those that are less fortunate.
Matt Myers (Hampton University): It really comes down to what type of experience you want to get. I encourage people to go — some of my friends and some of my family members who are looking to go into college, to attend an HBCU. Without the history of HBCUs, there wouldn’t have been an opportunity for people of color to get a higher education. I think it’s very important that we continue those legacies. Some HBCUs have been closed over the years because of financial problems. It’s very important that we keep some of these historic schools up and operating, and many of them are thriving right now. Their attendance is up. I know a lot of kids want to go to big state schools, but I think it’s very important we encourage people to go to our HBCUs.
Tony Brown (Clark Atlanta University): Biggest advice I give them is what my brother gave me: put as much effort and as much work into the education as you do your extracurricular activities. It’ll benefit you because education itself is key to being successful in life. Put as much effort into your education as you do in anything else, and that’ll be a lasting foundation. That’s one thing someone can never take away from you once you get your education. It’s embedded in you. You never have to worry about someone telling you something you can’t do.
Bennie Adams (Southern University): It’s funny. All of my younger cousins attended Southern. … I would just advise anybody that it’s an excellent education. The student-to-teacher ratio is at a number where you feel included in part of the group. You have an opportunity for once in your life to learn from a number of people that are like you with students that are like you, and you can just grow and thrive in that environment, and there’s nothing like that experience.
What does it mean to you to represent your HBCU as an official in the NBA?
Eric Lewis (Bethune-Cookman University): It’s huge. My career is not a thing you study in college. It’s not like a course you take in college. It shows that no matter what, I grew into something bigger, and I give credit to Bethune-Cookman for building that foundation for me to be able to make it. Because in our community, every coach is a counselor, a father. If you didn’t have a father, that’s how they treated you. It wasn’t like you were just another player. My coach knew my mom. They had ties to our community. They had ties to us. Truly it’s like one big family, so they pushed us to keep excelling. It’s just having that pride to show that we made it. From all the hard work everyone pushed into me — you can see the fruits of all that right now.
Kirkland: It means the world to be able to represent my school. I know that there are a lot of people who actually watched me start. There are some people that I still communicate with now, and they say, yeah, I remember when you were first starting this [refereeing] thing. They call it ‘this thing.’ And people were laughing at me … talking about me. They would laugh at me with my stripes on saying, ‘You look like a zebra’ and call me names, but later they came back and said, ‘I’m so proud of you for sticking with it.’
It really means a lot to be able to represent Southern University, because Southern although there were the games you would see on TV, you didn’t get to hear the stories. Now you get to hear about Courtney Kirkland. You get to hear about Bennie Adams. You hear about CJ Washington, who’s an NBA referee. They all came from Southern University. So it shows that Southern University is doing something right as it relates to NBA referees. It inspires me, and it inspires those other individuals who think that they don’t stand a chance. I’m here to say that there is an opportunity, and you do stand a chance.
However, that means that you have to work at it, and you have to work extra hard because it’s not going to just fall into your lap. And that’s the one thing that I’ve done personally to make sure that not only could I do this craft, but I could sustain it long-term. I put in the actual work, and no one has been able to see what I’ve done behind closed doors to prepare myself for this craft. I’m living proof that hard work does pay off.
Brown: It gives me a sense of pride because I always want to be a role model for people who look like me. I want to be a role model for everybody, but I want to be a role model for people who look like me, who have not had the same opportunities that I had to become successful. I have a son, and his name is Basile Brown. And I tell him all the time, you know, I said, I always want you to: 1) Be respectful. Once you are a respectful person and you go out and work hard, you’re living a very successful life by being a good person. I think that’s the key to life. And for me, when people are at HBCUs, I want them to look at me and say, I can do that.
CJ Washington (Southern University): It means a lot. I’m actually the fourth graduate of Southern University to be hired as an NBA official, so I’m the baby, the puppy of that small fraternity. When I think about the four that came before me … you just always want to make them proud. They poured a lot into me, and you want to carry on and continue on that tradition of excellence from Southern University.
When people think about Southern, and they think about athletics, they think about the likes of Avery Johnson. They think about Lou Brock. They think about Aeneas Williams, Mel Blount. These are all people that went on to do tremendous things in their field and Hall of Famers and Championships when you talk about Avery. You want to be at a point where they set the bar so high that you want to continue on that tradition of excellence. You want to be in a place where [people] say, where’d you go to school? And you can proudly say, “Southern University.” One day I can talk to someone, and they say, “Man, I would like to go to Southern because you went to Southern.” If you can be that type of influence on somebody, then that makes you feel good.
Myers: Anytime I can shout out Hampton University — there are many different professionals who have gone to Hampton University in many different fields. I think it’s cool to continue to put Hampton on the map as far as people have been in politics, doctors, business, or whatever. Hopefully, I’m not the last referee that attends Hampton. Hopefully, there’s another one in the near future that comes from Hampton, but I think it was pretty cool just to be a Hampton alumnus and support my alumni in the best way I can.
Karl Lane (Philander Smith College): It’s like a badge of honor when you succeed after coming from an HBCU, especially knowing why they were first established. And to see the NBA putting on this type of show for All-Star is just phenomenal. I just think there’s a lot of African American kids growing up right now who may have previously decided against going to college, but now think that they can go to an HBCU and be comfortable with people who look like them.
Derrick Collins (Xavier University): It just makes me proud knowing that I represent my culture, where I grew up, the environment where I grew up, and Xavier University. I represent them everywhere I go as an NBA referee. It just brings joy to me knowing that a lot of them are proud of me. The people that knew me, the people that don’t know me say, “Wow, this guy grew up at Xavier University as a young kid, growing into a mature man.”
Now, later on in his life, they’re watching the success; it just brings added confirmation that HBCU does generate quality professional people when they’re long gone from the university. So, it’s just living a legacy, man. It’s just being able to let kids know who are thinking about going to HBCUs that it can happen for them. So for me, I’m just glad that I’m one of the ones out there, leading the drive now. Just expanding throughout this country, what the nurturing at HBCU at Xavier University did for me.
Adams: I’m very proud, very proud to be a Southern Jaguar on the court. I’ve had the opportunity to work with two other fellow alumni of Southern in a game — Courtney Kirkland and CJ Washington — and that was one of my highest moments in the NBA. That we could share and enjoy that moment together on the court.
Marc Davis (Howard): The interesting thing about our group, if I could draw a parallel, is that we are very rarely part of the general conversation. So our group of officials is already in a position of being a minority in and of itself, and if you look at the members of the HBCU community, there’s a parallel experience there. I think that sense of grit, determination and connection may be underrepresented in the basketball community. We understand our importance to the game of basketball, and I think that connection to the HBCU is what is still there. Although maybe not seen as the intellectual powerhouses of academia, those who have attended recognize what has been given to them and their place in society. So I think there’s a parallel there as to how we carry ourselves as NBA officials and how we’re taught that through our HBCU experiences. We have to have a strong sense of self-confidence and self-worth in an environment that inherently does not provide that externally. No matter what the outside noise is, you always have a sense of self, purpose and ability so you’re prepared for the moment at hand.
More than $3M in initial support will be donated to the HBCU community as part of NBA All-Star 2021. What does it mean to you to have the NBA support and recognize HBCUs?
Corbin: I think it’s great. As they [the NBA] continue, the world changes. It’s all about entering, introducing, and exposing people to things that they’re not aware of. The NBA can pitch in the funds, but also as players and referees, we can go back in our own communities and share what this means, and continue to inform and educate people who are watching the NBA daily, but may not know the uniqueness of an HBCU. I think it’s a huge thing that we’ll continue to do, and people look up to us as well, even though they see us on television when you go back in your own community — people recognize. They want to know a little bit more about your background, and if you can continue to share that and educate people, I think it can be nothing but a positive and a plus.
Lewis: That recognition is huge because we don’t get any of this magnitude. They’ll show a game or two here on TV, but it’s not as huge as an SEC team playing on TV every week. We don’t have the luxury of that because we don’t have a huge following. We’re not as marketable as the Power Five schools and the predominantly white institutions. We also don’t have the revenue to upgrade facilities for it, not just from the sports aspect, but as far as the educational aspect as well. To get this extra funding is huge for us. It helps upgrade those areas and gives us a better platform to attract more people to come to those schools or motivate them to go to those schools.
Kirkland: I am so glad that they are pledging support because a lot of times, the HBCUs just don’t have the resources. They don’t have the funding. They don’t have the enrollment, and it’s very challenging to get players to the universities when those players can go to other universities that have shiny environments, bigger weight rooms, better dormitories, and better meal plans. It’s hard to recruit and get players there when you can go somewhere else.
When you can somewhat level that playing field — meaning the environments are very similar in nature — then you have the potential to bring out the best in whoever is there. I’ll mention Jackson State — when Deion Sanders took over as the head coach of their football program, you had players left and right changing their minds about the schools that they were originally going to. If he could do something at Jackson State, someone else will be able to do something at Grambling or Southern or Bethune-Cookman. If we can start bringing those resources there, we can show students and student-athletes that yes, we can compete, but also our environment is strong enough to compete with everybody else’s environment too. So, it means a lot that the NBA and the NBPA are dedicating money to the HBCUs, so at least we can get the ball rolling to increase some of the resources there.
Myers: It’s huge. We’re continuing to get recognized by big companies like the NBA and other large Fortune 500 companies that see HBCUs as a place where there’s a lot of opportunities to grow. There’s a lot of opportunities to reach out to the community within there. So I think it’s really cool that the NBA has taken the step along with the players to see that they want to be a part of helping to grow the HBCU culture and the HBCU experience for students and alumni.
CJ Washington: I’m very proud that the company that I work for … they’re giving back to institutions that mean a lot to me. Right. So that’s big, and especially in the climate that we’re in now, you know, it’s kinda been a line drawn in the sand, and it’s like, what side are you on? So for the NBA to say we’re on the side of social justice and equality for all, and then we’re going to put our money where our mouth is. That’s big. I’m proud to say that my employer is helping grow young Black men and women, helping give them an opportunity to be successful, to be educated, and to achieve the things in life that they strive to achieve. It makes me want to do things that I can do on the individual [level] to help somebody do the same thing.
Tom Washington (Norfolk State): It’s phenomenal. It really is. It’s not just a gesture. It’s a remarkable symbol of their commitment to being involved and caring. I hope everyone sees it that way. I think that [support], in and of itself, is inspiring to the youth and families across the country. It could also inspire some people to look at attending an HBCU school because of that commitment there. I can’t thank [the NBA] enough because it’s a phenomenal and outstanding gesture on their part.
Brown: It’s like a positive affirmation that they know there’s help that needs to be given. Their assistance is needed there. And I just think it opens doors. It’s a very positive action that they’re doing to help give somebody that opportunity, and just shed light on education anywhere is good, as long as you’re getting one. It’s key that they are saying, hey, we’re planting this money to help people who wouldn’t have an opportunity to get an education. That is the biggest thing you can do for anybody is help them get an education.
Collins: It just lets everyone know that if you’re African-American that they’re behind this big opportunity to express what the HBCUs do for African-Americans … Using this opportunity is great, especially in the times that we’re living in now. There needs to be a lot more positive messaging sent out there for these kids that are growing up that have been isolated for the last year and a half, man. Just not being able to do the certain things that they’d like to do. The messaging now will help define and shape them as they think about the future of what college they’re thinking about attending.
Davis: All the recognition is a connection with the level of professionalism, the quality level of education HBCU provides. The fact that now the NBA, once again, is able to use their platform to bring attention to those universities, to bring attention to that community is profound. And I think the Players Association, along with the NBRA, as well as the NBA’s participation in this year’s All-Star Game to promote and to project and to kind of open the world’s eyes to the HBCU, both historically and in the future, what they can accomplish, I think is phenomenal. And once again, just speaks to our business and our sport of basketball always being out in front.
We need an educated society. Facts matter, intellect matters, the ability to have critical thoughts matter, the ability to be a critical thinker matters, to be able to engage and articulate your opinions matters in our society more than ever. Because the less we focus on intellectual advancement and more we retract to more emotional conversations, I think is helpful for us as a nation. And I think the NBA, through transparency and Adam Silver’s leadership has given so many people a voice. This is just another part of that voice.
What progress have you seen in HBCU representation around the game?
Corbin: It’s all about exposure. The more kids find out that they can attend school and it doesn’t always have to be Yale or Harvard or schools that you always hear about. A debit and a credit are the same at Coppin State as it is at Harvard. The education may be just a little different because the people are different, but the unique experience you have going to an HBCU is priceless. You have to be there to experience it, but the more we can let kids know that those kinds of schools are available to you, and that it’s another avenue, I think it can be nothing but a positive.
Myers: I’ve read bios about coaches and some trainers, and I see some HBCU schools pop up there. So I see it more, maybe on the operations and the team side. I hope one day we get more players that have attended and will come out of HBCUs. We only have [Portland Trail Blazer and Tennessee State University alum] Robert Covington [in the NBA right now]. If we can get more players and get more exposure to the basketball programs and help them get kids into the NBA Draft, that would be huge.
Tom Washington: We’ve always had some players who represent HBCUs, and they get mentioned along the way. Bobby Dandridge is probably the most famous Norfolk State Spartan who played in the NBA. Then there are guys like Charles Oakley and Rick Mahorn [who also went to HBCUs]. So I think when those guys get mentioned, you understand that it’s not mandatory to go to a big Division I school to get the NBA, and I think that helps inspire our kids as well.
Even this year, we had some high-level players commit to HBCU schools where before, that was never heard of. People may have thought before you might not have a chance to make it to the NBA if you go that route, but the narrative is changing. If you’re good enough, they will find you. So it was inspiring and humbling to me that kids are starting to look at HBCUs as a viable option. I think there’s progress, and we feel that we’re on the same level as bigger-named schools for that reason. But if nothing else, at least we’re not excluded. There’s inclusion there — that’s awesome.
Lane: I think it’s becoming more of an avenue — especially for those students who maybe want to pursue a professional career in any kind of sport. Deion Sanders taking over Jackson State University [football] has been a big boost. And there have been others who have taken head coaching jobs that have helped make progress. And I think kids are maybe seeing now that maybe you don’t have to go to a big-time university to be able to further my playing career in professional sports.
Adams: I’ve seen a lot of people in different positions, not just officiating, but in broadcast, like the late [NBA TV talent and NBA.com writer] Sekou Smith, or in team jobs becoming coaches. The visibility this next generation of players brings in light to the HBCU experience, highlights the schools with the paraphernalia that they wear in interviews and as they enter the arenas. That’s been special to watch with this latest initiative. It’s been cool.
Davis: Two or three of the first five African Americans to have a career in the NBA were graduates of HBCUs. So, I do see some improvement. I don’t see us recruiting predominantly from that space, but there has been a connection. Particularly, I think about how refereeing is a very fraternal profession and very organic in that you never want for a lack of mentors. I know for a while Southern University had a strong officiating system through intramurals, and as a result, had quite a few successful people come out of that program.
I haven’t seen any improvement, per se, because we’ve been on the forefront from the beginning. I think the officiating community and the NBA has always been connected to the HBCU community. I’ve never seen it as a negative, because that connection has always been there.
Interviews conducted and edited by Julia Adams, Mason Leib, and Jordan Buckamneer.