2021 All-Star

NBA Referees Blogtable: Special connection between HBCU officials

The 11 NBA referees who attended HBCUs discuss basketball through their lives, shared experience among alumni, and a fondest NBA officiating memory.

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 role has basketball played in your life, and how did it lead to a career as an official?

Sean Corbin (Coppin State University): My initial goal was to be an attorney. Somehow, I got introduced to basketball, and I played in high school and college. The whole officiating thing took off when I realized that my basketball career wasn’t going to go to the level that I thought it was.

There are other happenings that people don’t realize can still make you a part of the game. The only other way that I realized I could still participate on the court without being a player was to be a referee. Refereeing was a unique discipline that taught you good communication skills, how to control your nerves under pressure, learning to focus, and just seeing how good you could be as an individual. That sort of hit my heart, and I felt a passion and love with that particular discipline of the craft of refereeing, and it just took off from there.

Eric Lewis (Bethune-Cookman University): [Basketball] gave me the opportunity to get a better education and play at a higher level than just high school. For most people in a city, that’s what sports provide for us. Because even though you have two parents that work blue-collar jobs, they can’t afford for their kids to go to college. So now, we rely on sports to help us get out of and better our lives. That’s the role basketball played for me to get me to a better stage in life.

I didn’t think it would take me to become a referee and to enter the NBA … I was playing in summer leagues and on traveling teams. A referee that remembered me from college said I should try refereeing. I did it because I promised him I would try it. I just want to live up to my promise to him because the guy that was a referee coached my sisters from softball to volleyball to basketball coming up. He knew me and my family. I kept my word to him because he’s been there for us. Once I picked the whistle up, I put the basketball down.

Matt Myers (Hampton University): My dad was a referee at a high school growing up. So basketball has always been around, and sports have been around my life. I used basketball to help me financially through college. It was one of the things that I did on the side to keep some money in my pocket. I have a lot of friends through basketball. I’ve made a lot of connections through basketball. Basketball has treated me very well, and I’ve been fortunate enough to obviously referee in the NBA because of basketball.

Courtney Kirkland (Southern University): Basketball has been a part of my life, my whole life. My dad was a basketball coach, so I was born into the game of basketball. He was a very famous basketball coach in Flint, Michigan. I used to always tease him because when I was born, he had just started at a new high school. And when you are dealing with a brand new school, it’s hard to get players there, and usually, teams don’t do very well when they’re brand new. The year after I was born, my dad took a brand new team to the state finals. Over the years, I used to tease my dad and say I was the reason you were so successful with basketball was because I’m the one who made your basketball career turn out the way it was. But I’ve been in basketball my whole life.

I actually started officiating, though, based upon a dare. I had a career-ending injury, so basketball was over for me as far as playing. I went to school, got my degree in computer science, and did internships. I thought maybe I’d go into coaching. At that time, I was doing an internship back in Flint with General Motors, and I was having a conversation with one of my colleagues, and I said I want to stay involved in basketball. He told me, “Why don’t you look into refereeing?” I said, “Refereeing? Oh, absolutely not. I don’t even like referees — I definitely don’t want to do that.” And then he said, “Oh if you’re scared to try something new, I understand you can just leave it alone.” I was like, wait a minute. I’m not saying I’m scared.

From that conversation, I just started thinking about it. I’m sitting here saying I don’t like referees, but I don’t know anything about it. I never knew what the profession really was or what the craft was. And so I took on the challenge. I’ve fallen in love with the craft, and it’s been a part of me for all of these years. I wouldn’t look back and do anything different.

Tom Washington (Norfolk State): I’ve always loved the game. I never thought about officiating initially. It was always about trying to play, but I volunteered for a church group for kids. I decided to read the rulebook so I could teach the kids the right way to play, and that really opened my eyes. I realized that I didn’t know many of the rules. I knew how to play, but I don’t know what the actual rule is. And so, in trying to teach them, I taught myself. That became a whole other passion for me because it was a whole different side of basketball that I really didn’t know much about.

Tony Brown (Clark Atlanta University): I wanted to stay connected with something that I grew up with playing my entire life, and basically, through the direction of my mom, playing basketball really kept me out of trouble. It provided an outlet for that idle time I had to keep me focused on something that was basically the love for the game. My dream was, of course, to play in the league, and it didn’t happen. I wanted to do the next best thing and stay connected and try to referee. I had some really good friends get me involved with it. We’re still friends to this day: Glenn Tuitt, Chuck Jones, and Tony Green. They mentored me, got me involved, and helped me learn the craft. I’m forever grateful to them for helping me make that transition because I was just trying to continue to play.

CJ Washington (Southern University): Once I finished school, I was at the YMCA playing basketball, and a guy approached me about refereeing basketball, which I had never thought of. I never even gave an inkling [of thought to being a referee]. I said no. I had just graduated and was in the process of interviewing to get a job. I asked him if they would pay me. He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Well, sign me up.” You know, I gotta pay rent and I need to pay my cell phone bill. I got involved in the high school chapter and fell in love with it. And it just kinda took off from there. I just had a little bit of a feel for the game.

Derrick Collins (Xavier University): When I was able to re-activate that dream [of making it to the NBA] as a referee, it just took me to a whole other level of appreciating the sport that provided for me throughout my life. Now that I’m on the other side, I’m now actually in a place where I’m providing for my family.

I’m able to travel the world, see people I normally would never have seen before, and it also brings life to my family members — mainly my mother and my father. They watched me over the years as a player through high school and college. And now, as they’re in their 70s, it’s now still bringing added life to them. They watch their son travel the world and referee these superstar athletes. When I get back to New Orleans, they come to the game. That really is a beautiful thing to see, just to look up into the stands and see my parents there. But when they’re not at the games, they’re at home, and they have League Pass to watch all of my games. This sport has basically shaped and molded me, but it’s also brought life to my family.

Bennie Adams (Southern University): I started officiating just to get gas money. I was a lifeguard by trade [in college], and it was going through a down economic cycle. I wasn’t going to get the rest of my work-study money. I walked in on the intramural officiating meeting, trying not to deplete the rest of my funds. I refereed that night and have been doing it ever since. I never thought I’d still be doing it.

Marc Davis (Howard University): I grew up in Chicago where basketball is king. I think of the YMCA program that I participated in as a child, along with plenty of kids who became Division I athletes, professional players and coaches. Basketball was always there, and now allows me to provide for my family. We’re all lifers here, and to be 53 years old and still be wearing a uniform, is pretty special.

I’ve been thinking lately about how my entire life, I’ve always been wearing a uniform and have been a part of something bigger than myself. In the officiating community, we talk about a sense of humbleness, serving others and being a leader. Nobody has ever paid to see a referee officiate a game, but we do provide an environment where high-level athletes can compete and display their skill set in a manner that’s entertaining to millions of fans around the world.

Bennie Adams said he started officiating as a way to earn gas money. (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

There are 11 officials this season who attended HBCUs. What’s the shared experience among this group of alumni?

Corbin: We all kid each other. We have a sense of pride. You want your university and your school to do well. When you are my age [54] and you also have a son or a sibling who also attends [an HBCU], it gets into a bragging rights thing, and it just makes for good humor.

Lewis: [My school] is the best. I don’t wanna hear nothing about nobody else’s HBCU. Bethune-Cookman. We talk about our bands, our football teams. Most of us play sports, so we say my team would have whooped your team. It’s this sense of pride when you see each other and a sense of family. You can’t forget where we come from. When we walk, we walk together.

Myers: It’s an immediate sort of bond. I mean, we didn’t all go to the same HBCU, but I think we lived a similar HBCU experience. There are bragging rights whenever we get together and talk about it. We all kind of think our HBCU is a little bit better than the other, but I think we all are very proud that we attended and are representing our HBCU as well as the NBA at the same time.

Tom Washington:I think it’s unique to be able to share our experiences with each other. Each school has its own unique experience of campus life, but there’s actually a common thread that runs through all HBCU schools. We understand what you were doing at your school, and we like to talk about how we did similar things at ours. It’s a unique bond that’s great to share, not only amongst ourselves, but amongst our peers that we work with as well, to tell them how things were, how we were educated, and how we socialized at an HBCU.

Karl Lane (Philander Smith College): Some of [the other NBA officials] I’ve known before I even knew they went to an HBCU. I had already known them for years before I started officiating. We still have a brotherhood with everyone on staff, given the group of NBA officials is small.

Brown: It was funny until a few years ago, we didn’t know exactly who went where except for a few of us. One thing is the 11 that have attended, and nine graduated all know that Clark Atlanta University is still the best of all of them. I mean, that’s a consensus. Even if you ask them, they’ll tell you. They know Clark Atlanta University is by far, head and shoulders above all of them. But I think the one common bond that we all share is that we all continue to strive to be decent human beings.

CJ Washington: Yeah, that’s definitely a shared experience. We would get together, and crack a little joke here or there that you understand only if you went to HBCU. Common experience is what creates bonds, right? I have a bond with every referee on the staff, because we have a common experience of refereeing basketball together, and then you have other smaller bonds within that that are created through other different common experiences.

It’s always good to talk about the bands. I’ll tell you this and don’t you forget it. I don’t care what anybody else tells you. The greatest band ever is Southern University. If you want to do your own research, just go to YouTube, and you can make your own decision.

Davis: I do feel an extra special connection with other officials. Although I would agree with my other colleagues that our group is very tight. We do have that connection to this passion for the game of basketball and then this micro-passion for the profession of referee. But then there is that extra special twist of a shared experience prior to coming into this group. Once you come into this group, you become a referee and everybody’s treated the same. And it’s a very fraternal profession now with [seven] women in the mix, who get no quarter from anyone else, nor do they ask for any quarter. But then having that connection to a shared experience during your developmental years does kind of have an extra special touch to it. I don’t think any perspective has ever been exclusive of anybody, I think has been inclusive. And I think that comes back from that sense of competence.

Derrick Collins said one memory of refereeing an NBA All-Star Game has stuck with him more than anything else. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

What is your fondest NBA officiating memory?

Collins: When you work an All-Star Game, it kind of breaks the ice between the players, the coaches, the referees, and we get a chance to mingle with our families. My first couple of years, I always had confrontations with [a bruising All-Star]. I got a chance [at All-Star Weekend] to reintroduce myself to him along with my wife. It was at a social event, and it was one of the best experiences as I interacted with someone that I felt I would never be able to have a peaceful conversation with. It was something I’ll never forget. It just carried with me everywhere. I know in the heat of the moment he has to do his job. I have to do my job. But overall, we’re still men that are in a business where we have to wear our hats. It was a normal conversation, and he really thoroughly enjoyed meeting my wife.

My first game out of the All-Star break [the bruising All-Star was playing]. I had a call, and he was upset. Did he not remember that we just had a conversation at All-Star?! Later on in that game, I’m at the free-throw line with him, and now it’s just him and I talking, and he said, “Man, you know, I didn’t mean anything about it. Tell your wife I say hello.” It was just funny, so I’ve never forgotten that. This was one of the toughest guys that prepared me with how to deal with anybody else. Now I exchange conversation within the heat of the moment. If I can deal with him, I can deal with anybody else.

Tom Washington: One of my favorite moments was being alongside Danny Crawford and Tony Brothers officiating The Finals in 2012 at Oklahoma City. That was the first time three Black officials had been on the floor at the same time. So that was a proud moment for me.

Corbin: I had a triple-overtime game in 1999. It was Vancouver vs. Boston. I had never worked a triple-overtime before. It felt like the game lasted almost a year because both teams were so competitive, and nobody wanted to leave or lose. You could see that there was mental fatigue, there was physical fatigue, but you had to find an inner strength within yourself to do whatever you had to do to get through the game and to get to the end. That was a phenomenal experience.

Lewis: The most memorable [moment] is my first game as an actual NBA referee. It was Golden State at Dallas. And when you walk out on the floor, you go, is this real? You kind of want to kiss the floor and pinch yourself and make sure you’re in the right spot. … It took two months until I really realized that I’m an NBA referee. That very first game had a dramatic ending where Dallas is down three and Michael Finley hits a three-point shot in the corner right in front of me on a double team, and they go into overtime. It was like, wow, my first game in overtime.

Myers: This is only my third year, but I really think my fondest memory is my dad, who started me refereeing when I was about 14 or 15 years old. He attended a game last year in Indianapolis, and he refereed for over 40 years. It was cool to have him and his college and high school basketball buddies and his best friends in the stands watching me referee an NBA game.

Kirkland: Probably my very first playoff game because I was so, so nervous. Shaq was playing with Miami at the time, and they were playing against Chicago. There was so much intensity in the arena. The fans seemed to be louder than they were during the regular season, and there was just so much energy. I can just remember being so nervous and just saying to myself, don’t mess up, don’t mess up, don’t mess up. That’s just a lot of pressure I put on myself to be as perfect as I possibly can, but then there’s the outside pressure to do things the way that the game is designed to be played.

Brown: I think my fondest memories of officiating a game is when my family gets to come and watch me work because it’s such a huge sacrifice for them while I’m out here working. It’s a great reward, but the sacrifice being away from them is taxing. Whenever they get an opportunity to come to watch me work, wherever it is, that makes it even more rewarding.

CJ Washington: The day that I got hired. That’s one of those days that just you don’t forget: August 24, 2016. I was in Cheddar’s ordering food, and I got the phone call. I’m talking and all of a sudden I wasn’t hungry. I was just so excited to have that moment finally come. Something that you had dreamed about and envisioned, and finally to be told we’re inviting you on to the NBA staff. I would say that when I think about moments that one just always sits at the top.

Adams: My fondest memory is [seeing] the number of officials that have come out of Southern University. It’s been amazing to watch. Not just in the NBA, but also in the NCAA.

Davis: In my second or third year, I worked a Finals game with two gentlemen I had known since I was a child — Danny Crawford and James Capers. I grew up in the same neighborhood as James Capers and good friends with his younger brother. And that’s one of my greatest memories.

To me, it’s not about the game, per se, it’s more about the relationships. When I was 29 years old, prior to being married or having children, I made friends with people who are in their 60s. They weren’t my parents’ friends, an uncle or a former teacher, they were my friends. As a young man, to have friends with that kind of experience by far is the most remarkable thing I’ve experienced. Now, I have friends who are way closer to my children’s age than they are to mine. The friendships are the most remarkable things I think about as opposed to the games. That game with Danny and James is more remarkable because of our families all being there and the kids growing up with each other. That’s what makes it more memorable than the actual experience. And I think that’s consistent with my experience with HBCUs is just the friendships that I’ve had over the years.

Interviews conducted and edited by Julia Adams, Mason Leib, and Jordan Buckamneer.