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Is Haywoode Workman the NBA Referee of the Future?

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Is Haywoode Workman the NBA Referee of the Future?
Kyle Terada/USA Today

Haywoode Workman has lived the life of an NBA journeyman, which means he knows what it's like to feel unwanted. Logging time with five different teams in parts of eight seasons is a quick way to learn the pain of marginalization.

But the latest chapter of Workman's life is different.

Now, when he's jetting from Atlanta to Indiana to Toronto, he's doing so as an NBA referee—a job he's held since 2008. And instead of living with the constant, hand-wringing disquiet of a player whose career was always unsettled, Workman goes to work with the certitude that his current employer deeply values his services.

That's because Workman might just be the future of NBA officiating.

 

A New Path

Mike Bantom, the NBA's executive vice president of referee operations, told Bleacher Report that the league is in the early stages of an initiative to add more former players—from both the NBA and collegiate ranks—to its pool of officials.

"We've decided that’s a direction we want to go, and we’ve decided to go about it in a couple of different ways," Bantom said. "One is, we’re working on putting together an updated recruiting video with Haywoode (Workman) and Leon (Wood), and it’s targeted toward players.

"So, our players in the league will see it. We also use our player development group to get that message across when they speak to all the players during the course of the year about career transition."

Per Bantom, the NBA is also making a strong push to market officiating careers to current collegians. Why target young athletes who might never set foot on an NBA floor? The reasoning is simple.

"Just because they’re younger, they have more of a career path in front of them. It might be more attractive to them in terms of having an option of staying in the game. Like I said before, we’re appealing to our NBA athletes as well, but we didn’t want to limit it to just the small number of athletes in the NBA," Bantom said.

That's a smart play, especially considering the obvious difficulty of selling millionaires who can retire at 35 on the merits of pursuing a second career.

Workman is a big reason the NBA is confident it can get more players interested in sporting referee's stripes. But he's also a symbol of how difficult the road to that second career can be.

 

Starting Over

Tom Hauck/Getty Images

In the summer of 2001, Workman returned from a season overseas to find no NBA offers awaiting him. While Workman was working out in Bradenton, Fla., veteran crew chief Bob Delaney approached him about pursuing a career as an official.

Workman resisted at first, still committed to continuing his playing career if at all possible.

He told B/R, "And then when I didn’t get picked up by a team and didn’t go overseas, I thought maybe I should look into this officiating thing.

"From there, I made a couple phone calls, and they said, 'Hey, you’ve got to go to either the Coast to Coast Referee Camp or you’ve got to go do some pro-am work.' I was kind of familiar with pro-am because I played in those leagues. So it was a matter of figuring out where I was going to go for pro-am. So I went to Los Angeles for a month and a half out of my own pocket and stayed out there. I tried to ref wherever I could.

"So I did the Drew League, Venice Beach and L.A. College—20 bucks a game."

By today's warped standards, Workman never raked in huge dollars as a player. But Basketball-Reference.com estimates his career earnings at a little under $7 million. That doesn't account for what he earned playing overseas, either.

So running up and down the court for two hours to collect 20 bucks was quite a change.

The pay cut is just one of the difficulties the NBA faces in its effort to draw more of its current and former players into the officiating game. There's also the stigma of "going to the other side," as Workman put it.

He said, "I’ve had guys go, 'Man, you’ve gone to the other side.' Like Rasheed Wallace, when he played, he’d say, 'I can’t believe you went on the other side.'"

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

In instances like those, Workman's nomadic NBA lifestyle actually equipped him with a perfect retort for any questions about potential biases. 

He explained, "I’ve had a couple players say, 'How are you reffing this game? You used to play here!' And I say, 'Well, I played for five different teams and they all cut me. So what are you trying to say?'"

 

Added Value

For all the challenges involved in making the move from player to official, there are at least as many benefits.

From the NBA's perspective, it can only help to have former world-class athletes running up and down the floor alongside guys such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant. There aren't many people on Earth capable of matching the fitness levels of the league's current stars, but there's an obvious benefit to using some of the few who once did just that.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Plus, there's the added boost years of on-court playing experience have on a referee's ability to anticipate and react to lightning-quick action.

Workman explained, "Knowing what players are going to do helps you get to the right position. For me, say a guy’s right-handed and he’s got the ball on the left side. He’s going to go to the right. I know that. From there, it’s about getting into position. I have make sure I’m in the right spot."

In addition to fitness and the familiarity necessary to get into optimal spots, Bantom prizes the passion and commitment of former players. Anyone willing to work and sacrifice to the degree necessary to have success as an NBA player must, by Bantom's sound reasoning, care deeply for the game.

"One thing I noticed about our best officials since I've been in this job is they have a very strong passion for this game," he said. "They watch it all the time. They follow it. They have a strong desire to get it right and to add to the game. And I think these are qualities you’ll probably find in the most dedicated basketball players as well."

Perhaps more than anything, there's also the credibility boost former players enjoy when they transition into refereeing. Workman explained the added cachet a playing career can have for referees.

"The coaches are going to trust their players," he said. "So if I was a player and I played for that coach, when I’m out there he’s going to trust me. ... Now, if there’s a referee that never played, or didn’t play basketball at this level, players and coaches aren’t going to trust that person because they don’t think he understands the game.

"And that’s why sometimes coaches yell my name: because they don’t think that other referee understands, or they think he got it wrong."

At the same time, both Workman and Bantom cited experience as the most important quality in a good official. Playing career or not, the referees who've logged the most games are generally the most respected. All things being equal, though, playing experience is helpful.

Bantom echoed Workman's sentiments, speaking candidly about the value of having a recognizable face enforcing the rules.

"As a former player, walking on the floor, they already know who you are. They don’t have to get to know you, so to speak. And then you still have to earn your stripes and earn your respect as an official, but I think you get a little more credibility walking in the door than you would if you were just an average guy coming out of nowhere," he explained. 

Clearly, there are advantages to having former players fill out the officiating ranks that are worth exploring. Workman exemplifies many of them.

One particular thing Workman has—and one thing the league is likely to seek out in most of its future players-turned-referees—is an unsympathetic ear toward complainers.

"I think in my eight-year career I probably had five technicals and one ejection, something like that. I didn’t say anything to the refs when I played," Workman said. "I was too worried about my job and what I was supposed to do out there on the floor because (laughing) I could get cut at any time, you know? The important thing was not the referee. Plus he wasn’t going to change the call, so there was no use in arguing."

A former player coaches trust has nearly a decade of NBA experience, remains in top physical condition and doesn't put any stock in constant griping? It's starting to feel like the NBA would clone Workman if it could.

 

What's Next?

According to Bantom, the NBA is still in the early stages of putting together a more comprehensive initiative. But the desire to seek out and train players in the ways of officiating is strong in the league office.

Having run through the various benefits of using former players as referees, it's easy to understand why.

At the same time, it's worth pointing out that some careful calculation will be necessary to isolate the right candidates. We all know that an illustrious career as a player doesn't necessarily lead to a successful one as a coach or executive (see: Johnson, Magic; Thomas, Isiah and Jordan, Michael).

So it stands to reason that only a select few players have what it takes to do well as officials.

Who might those players be?

Mark Duncan/Associated Press

According to Workman, in addition to the league's broader efforts, he has personally pitched the idea to current players Luke Ridnour and Mike James, along with free agent Mickael Pietrus. Just don't expect any of them to jump right into training.

"The first reaction was 'Naaaaah.' And then afterwards I said, 'Hey, it’s a second pension.' And they go, 'Wait a minute, I need to think about it,'" Workman said.

Perhaps Workman's third career should be in sales. He seems to have the art of persuasion down pat.

 

In Demand...Finally

Jason O. Watson-USA TODAY Sports

As enticing as it might be to imagine an NBA future that features dozens of former players blowing the whistles—paying it forward, as it were, after their playing careers have ended—the truth is that guys like Workman (and Leon Wood and Bernie Fryer before him) are extremely rare.

We've touched on the financial and logistical hardships of transitioning from player to ref, but prospective "Workman types" will also have to share his rare willingness to suffer through the learning curve, face inevitable criticism and humble themselves in the task of learning a familiar game from an unfamiliar angle.

It seems, though, that the league stands to gain a great deal if its effort to recruit more people like Workman is successful. Clearer lines of communication between coaches and officials and an infusion of youth might be just the beginning.

As a player, Workman spent years doing everything he could to stick around in the league. Now, he's suddenly a foundational piece of the NBA's future.

His days of being unwanted are long gone.

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