The Incredible Story of a Former Ref's Journey to the Front Lines and Back

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 21, 2013

Bob Delaney was rattled.

That’s saying something for a man who spent years as an undercover officer infiltrating the New Jersey mob. Hell, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant had both screamed in his face—frothing with competitive rage—during his quarter-century as an NBA official.

Delaney had faced off against plenty of terrifying situations in his life, but on a blistering-hot runway in Kuwait, waiting to board a C-130 that was headed for a combat zone with the 25th Infantry Division of the US Army, he was afraid.

Delaney sat down with Bleacher Report to recount his incredible experiences.

If you’ve never been on a C-130, you’re lined up behind it, standing two-by-two and all you’re saying is "let me on that damn thing," because the fuel coming off the back of that bird is burning the skin right off your body. When you get in, it’s hip to hip, knee to knee, shoulder to shoulder. You’re strapped in. I was soaked in sweat, I could feel my heart rate go up and this young soldier sitting across from me must have seen my eyes get big. He hit his chest and gave me a thumbs up and said, "We’re OK, sir."

In that one snapshot from Delaney’s album of surreal life experiences, there was terror, brotherhood, and above all, irony.

He has spent years helping soldiers, police officers and firefighters cope with post-traumatic stress. He's been a mission, so to speak, to make sure everyone else felt "OK." 

So it was only fitting that a young soldier returned the favor.

Basketball as Therapy

Delaney personally struggled with post-traumatic stress after years of fully immersive undercover work as a New Jersey State Trooper. During that difficult period, refereeing basketball games was the best treatment mechanism he had.

I didn’t know it at the time, but basketball provided therapy for the post-traumatic stress that I was dealing with after three years undercover infiltrating the mob. It gave me an inner peace because the game of basketball had always been a big part of my life. It had rules, boundaries between the lines. It allowed for the endorphins to be released in my body, it satisfied my hyper-vigilance and anger, which are both tell-tale signs of post-traumatic stress.

Running up and down the floor and keeping order in the naturally chaotic environment of a basketball game helped Delaney cope. Basketball became his sanctuary.

And then, largely by chance, it became his profession.

I had no plan to become an NBA referee...I was refereeing in the Jersey Shore summer Pro League and Darrell Garretson, who was the NBA Director of Officials at the time, happened to be in the stands. He took me out to Los Angeles for the L.A. Summer League and I didn't think anything would come of it. But he offered me a position with the Continental Basketball Association, which was the minor leagues of the NBA at that time, and I took it.

Soon after that, Delaney was a full-time NBA official.

During his time on the hardwood, he crossed paths with a man who imparted a mantra by which Delaney still lives: "If you are what you do, then when you don't, you aren't."

Bob Moawad said that to me and it really stuck. He has since passed, but he was a motivational guru from the Seattle area, and he was a Supersonics season ticket holder. He’s an interesting guy who did a lot of coaching and speaking on positive thinking for students. He was involved in the early stages of that book "Chicken Soup for the Soul".

So what I say to folks is: "If all I was was a state trooper and I took my full identity in that, then when I stopped state troopering, I no longer exist. If all I am is an NBA referee, then when I stop refereeing, I no longer exist. And we are all much more than that."

Throughout his career in the NBA, Delaney had actually been doing much more than refereeing. All along, he had been working with and educating police officers, firefighters and members of the military on ways to manage post-traumatic stress.

It was Delaney's way of maintaining balance in his own life, of making sure he wasn't defined by any one particular task. Most of all, it allowed him to help the people that spend (and risk) their lives helping others.

Purple Hearts and Recovery

For years, Delaney has spoken at military bases throughout the United States on the topic of post-traumatic stress. One particular speaking engagement left him with something he'll never forget.

I was at Fort Sill, an army post in Oklahoma. And after I present, I'm used to soldiers coming up and shaking my hand. When they do that, they carry their coin—their military coin—which many times identifies their unit. They shake your hand, and they have it in there, and it’s a way of them giving you a piece of them.

This young soldier shook my hand, and he had some obvious physical wounds. When I looked down it was his Purple Heart that he’d given me. I said "I can’t take this," and he said, "Sir, I want you to have it. Because today you helped me understand how to deal with the wound no one can see. I learned how to deal with the wound everyone can see, but now I know how to deal with the wound people can’t see."

I’m looking at it right now; that Purple Heart is framed over my desk. The times I get to spend with our troops are the most rewarding that I have in my life.

In 2011, Delaney took part in "Ride 2 Recovery," a 540-mile bicycle trek to commemorate the 10th anniversary of September 11. Some 350 riders—many of whom were wounded veterans or family members of the victims of the attack on the World Trade Center—traveled from Ground Zero to the Pentagon.

After riding all day, the group would stop along the route at night to rest, eat and share their stories.

One particular story resonated with Delaney, and it's one he shares regularly in his efforts to shine a light on the suffering of many silent heroes.

Some nights we’d have open mics after the rides, and there was one soldier who spoke—his name was Dexter—who was blinded by an IED blast. He said, "When I came home and I knew I was blinded, I gave serious thought to suicide. And I even almost acted out on it. But today when my kids run their hands over my face, I’m glad I didn’t leave."

When we hear from those who have had those kinds of experiences—and not from someone who’s just on a commercial on TV or some kind of infomercial or a PSA—when we actually hear words, it validates the feelings of others who are going through similar situations and it gives permission for them to have the conversation they need to have.

Delaney has collected dozens of stories like this one—stories of catharsis, of personal triumph in the face of hopelessness. To get them, though, he's had to travel to a few places most normal folks wouldn't want to visit.

The Front Lines

On the way to one of those places—namely a forward operating base in Mosul—Delaney got to enjoy a few moments of brevity in an otherwise stressful environment.

When we got to camp Arifjan on my first visit heading to Iraq in 2009, the escort team said, "We’ve got a basketball game tonight, we’d like you to referee it, sir."

I had brought my NBA gear knowing that I’d wear it just to have some fun with them, and I put on my uniform and went down to the gym and it was packed. They had two units that were going to play against each other and it was a little different atmosphere. I’ve never had quite so many guns along the sidelines of a game that I was refereeing. I was more aware of my calls and the ramifications of what could happen with those guns being on the sidelines. But we had fun. A lot of laughs and you almost forgot where you were.

And it reminded me that no matter where you are, what gym you’re in, you’re just in the gym. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in an NBA city or Iraq or Afghanistan. You’re just in the gym.

Delaney wasn't always in his element, though. 

Just days later (after that fateful flight on the C-130), he found himself in Mosul with the 25th infantry division. There, he realized just how close his desire to help had brought him to the front lines.

After landing, Delaney traveled with the division to a forward operating base, essentially a fabricated military village containing two-man CHU's (contained housing units), gravel streets and little else. In theory, the concrete construction of those housing units is designed to protect the occupants from bomb blasts.

He shared the jarring experience of his first night in the base:

I was with Tim Dwight. He played for University of Iowa, was an All-American football player, played in the NFL for nine years [actually 10], ran a TD back on a kickoff in a Super Bowl when he played for Atlanta. The guy could fly. He and I got assigned the same CHU.

Around 4:30 a.m., there was an explosion. And the reason I told you how fast Timmy was was because I beat him to the door. I was running. I didn’t know where the hell I was going, but I heard that explosion and I busted that door open and there were soldiers standing outside in that area of the CHUs and they just looked at me and they smiled and they said, "Sir, we’re OK. It was close, but not that close."

The Message

Delaney has spent decades trying to raise awareness about post-traumatic stress and helping those afflicted with it. When I asked him what drove him to such great lengths (and far-flung, dangerous places) in pursuit of those goals, he recounted a final anecdote that helped explain his motivation.

Having survived the close (but apparently not that close) explosion on the first night of his stay with the troops in Iraq, Delaney went on to have numerous conversations with the soldiers in camp.

I had conversations with those troops, and one said to me the most powerful words I’ve ever heard in my life. He said to me, "Sir, we do our best soldiering when we’re not afraid of dying."

Think of those words: We do our best soldiering when we’re not afraid of dying. I thought about the commitment they have to each other, the commitment they have to our country, the commitment they have to me and my family, you and your family.

And that brings me to my mission today: It’s helping them know it's OK to be a little selfish because they’re always taking care of somebody else. We have to help them understand that some of the stuff that they go through may impact them. Not all wounds bleed; some wounds are invisible. And helping them get to the point that Main Street, USA, is normal for them—not Main Street, Kandahar, or Main Street, Baghdad—is what my hope is in doing the work that I’m doing now.

Note: All images courtesy of Bob Delaney. 



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