From Maintenance of Nuclear Machines to Refereeing on the NBA Court
Before the Whistle with NBA Referee Tony Brothers
After 24 years in the NBA, referee Tony Brothers has seen just about all you can see on the court. But prior to realizing his NBA goals, Brothers was working in a totally different world — one with high levels of security clearance and nuclear implications. Brothers got his officiating start as an umpire on the baseball field. When he found his stride officiating on the basketball court, Brothers set his sights on the NCAA Final Four and did not originally consider reaching the NBA to be his end goal. Find out what changed Tony’s mind and more about his interesting career in a life before the whistle.
Did you have a career in a different industry before officiating full-time?
“I worked for a consulting firm called Tidewater Consultants Inc. in Virginia Beach, Virginia. What I did there was help design and maintain the system that did periodic maintenance on nuclear submarines, sub tenders and aircraft carriers. Everything that is nuclear requires periodic maintenance, so you have to have a very high level of clearance to work on that stuff because you know when the submarines are going to be down for repair or refurbishing. During that time, they had these big mainframe computers on the vessels and the system I worked on was called IMMS or Intermediate Maintenance Management System. I worked on a few different versions of the system. On my last contract, I led the team that back fit changes to the older version of the system, which had a positive impact on how our military maintained vessels. To facilitate the time needed to officiate in the CBA (now the G-League), I transferred to a contract in New York where I did the programming that reported all the accounting and established revenue controls for the New York subway system. So, Monday through Thursday I would be working in New York and on Friday morning I would fly to my CBA assignments, fly home Sunday and then back to New York on Monday.
“The people at the consulting firm are a major part of the reason I am where I am now. I wanted to do something and for four years they did whatever they could to let me go where I needed to go. The NBA as well, because the last year it was getting to be a little tense at work. I knew my time was running short. I would sit on the phone with the NBA scheduler and we would decide where I could work so I could get back to my job on time Monday morning. It was everybody working together that got me to this point.”
What sparked your interest in officiating?
“I was in the office one day and a lady named Virginia Miller walked past my desk with a black and white striped shirt across her arm. I asked her what she did, and she explained that she refereed basketball. I thought to myself, you know, I’m sitting at this desk and probably already gained 30 pounds, so I need to do something. I asked her how to get started. At the time, it was baseball season, so I went to the umpires meeting. I was interested, but I had to buy all of the equipment and they told me the fees were going up that year, and I didn’t know you had to pay to umpire. I went back to Virginia the next day and told her I went to the meeting but wasn’t sure about all those fees, and she said to me, ‘stupid, that’s what you get paid!’ I remember saying in surprise, ‘you get paid for this?’ So, I started umpiring baseball and slow pitch soft ball. I was just coming out of college with $17,000 in debt, and I was out of debt in a year. Next, I went from baseball season to football and then came basketball season.”
What was your basketball officiating career path like before the NBA?
“When the NBA came on TV, all you would see would be the older referees, so I thought to myself, ‘I don’t want to be 99 before I can start refereeing in the NBA,’ so I stuck with pursuing college officiating in the beginning. There was a man named Dick Bowie and he was in charge of football and basketball (officiating) in my area. He said, ‘young man, you’re pretty good at this and I’m going to help direct your path.’ So, Dick sent me to a camp that was run by George Toliver, who’s now in charge of the G-league. George had a camp in Harrisonburg and I went there after my second year of refereeing. While I was there, there was a supervisor from the Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) and I was lucky enough to get picked up in that D III conference.”
When did you decide to pursue the goal of reaching the NBA?
“At the first camp, Hugh Evans (former NBA official) came to George Toliver’s camp to speak. After watching my game, he asked me if I was interested in refereeing professional basketball and I told him no. Remember, Virginia said I was stupid! So, he kept moving. Again, I thought you had to be 99 to get a shot. At that time, the only games we saw in Norfolk Virginia were the Finals and they were tape delayed. Then the next summer, Norfolk got Cox Cable and they started showing the Bullets (Washington Wizards) games. I saw Derrick Stafford, who at the time was a young man, reffing an NBA game. After I saw that, I called George and asked him to call Hugh and tell him I changed my mind. Hugh said, ‘Too late.’ George told me to come back (to camp) next year, and he would invite Hugh back as well. This time I told Hugh I was interested in professional basketball and that’s where we left it. When I got home I got a call from Aaron Wade, and he invited me to LA and I tried out for the CBA. Darrel Garretson was the boss at the time. He offered me a position in the CBA guaranteeing me to officiate a certain number of games but told me I had to give up my college schedule. At that time, I had just been added to another conference, the CIAA, a DII conference, but I hadn’t worked a game yet. So, I decided to give up the college officiating. I spent four years (in the CBA) before getting picked up in the NBA. It took me seven years from the beginning to a new beginning.”