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Saturday, July 17, 2010
Making the jump to NBA officiating

By Kevin Arnovitz

The parallels that run through Cox Pavilion during Las Vegas summer league have a profound symmetry. Aspiration can be found in every corner of the building. In a venue no larger than a high school gym, you'll meet undrafted ballplayers competing for coveted invitations to an NBA training camp, eager young agents trying to establish a foothold in the business, scouts who see themselves coaching one day, talented bloggers who want to write about the game on a full-time basis ... and a small group of referees who have a career-making opportunity during summer league to reach the next level.



Thirty-one-year-old Gerald Williams is one of those game officials looking for his big break. After playing college basketball at Houston Baptist University, Williams came to two conclusions. First, he realized didn't have the sufficient talent to play basketball at the professional level. Second, he wanted to stay close to the game he loved -- if not as a player, then in some other capacity.

"I tried to coach, but I was absolutely horrible at it," Williams said. "I couldn't translate the passion I had for the game, so I said, 'Let me try refereeing.'"

As a former point guard, the court vision essential to officiating a good game came naturally to Williams. He started working junior high games in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and loved it. Pretty soon, Williams' ambition led him to a local high school chapter of referees. His contact there suggested he attend a weekend clinic, which would put him on track to officiating on the high school and AAU circuit.

By 27, Williams was a fixture on the varsity referee circuit working for between $35-50 per game, while keeping his day job as a Sherwin-Williams store manager. A couple veteran officials who saw real potential in Williams soon encouraged him to attend a three-day camp, which was a portal to the college ranks. Admission to the camp ran $275, which was more than Williams had ever spent for a clinic, but the intensive instruction and game experience was invaluable. Before long, Williams had a job officiating games in Division II and junior college. Last year, he was tapped by the Division I Summit League. These are solid gigs for a guy in his 20s with a dream of reffing pro ball one day. In the meantime, Williams worked now as a regional account manager for a heating, ventilation and air conditioning company.

Williams was counseled by a mentor in Dallas to keep putting himself in situations where his affable manner, smart officiating, professionalism and youth could attract the attention of people who mattered at the highest level. After attending a camp run by current NBA referee Derrick Collins, Williams learned about an open tryout in Chantilly, Virginia in June hosted by the NBA D-League for both players and officials. Guys with dreams of playing professional basketball would be playing. Guys with dreams of officiating professional basketball would be reffing.

The Chantilly event was serious business. People like Joe Borgia, vice president of referee operations and George Toliver, the NBA director of D-League officials, would be evaluating all the candidates. Borgia and Toliver independently measured the performances of their officiating prospects in three areas:
Once Borgia and Toliver have their ratings for each official, they come together and merge their data. The very best get an invitation to work games at summer league via a phone call from Toliver. By all accounts, Williams shined at Chantilly. Fast forward a month, and Williams is in Las Vegas to work his first-ever professional games.

For his debut, Williams drew the Washington vs. New Orleans matchup on Friday afternoon. Heading into it, the experience was wide-eyed and exhilarating for him: A packed arena to watch the draft's first-round draft pick. Big-time NBA coaches, executives and players in the stands. Lots of media. The NBA's supervisors of officials (a guy who can determine his future). The game is being broadcasted on NBA TV. Those are just the atmospherics. Williams will also encounter a level of speed, size, physicality and athleticism he's never seen before on a basketball court.



Williams' couldn't have asked for a more cinematic introduction to the NBA. Lester Hudson's jumper at the buzzer gave Washington a 1-point win over New Orleans in arguably the most entertaining game of the week. After the game, Williams got hearty congratulations from the more senior referees in his crew, then went downstairs to meet Ronnie Nunn, the NBA's director of officials. Nunn sits with each officiating prospect following the final horn to review each play of the game on video. Were the whistles prompt? Was the official in the right position to make the call? Did he implement the lessons taught at the morning teaching sessions the NBA conducts here in Las Vegas?

If he performs well in summer league, Wiliams could potentially get another call from Toliver -- an offer to serve as a D-League official this fall.

If not, he'll return to the college game, continue to hone his craft and, like so many of the young prospects in NBA uniforms this week, hope for another chance.