How does a young referee get to the NBA? The path is different for everyone, but for Tyler Ford, a 31-year-old in his second full season as an NBA ref, that journey was faster than most.
It doesn’t mean it comes without challenges — like balancing long road trips with a wife and newborn at home. We talked to Ford for the latest in our referee profiles (see Violet Palmer’s earlier this year).
NBRA: How did you get involved in refereeing?
Tyler Ford: My journey started in intramural sports. When I was taking my orientation visit to Ball State, I was heading there with the intent of studying sports administration — I thought I wanted to be a sports agent when I first got there, and knew I wanted to have a campus job. Our orientation leader had worked at the rec center and had refereed. So I remember seeing that and thinking that was perfect. I was a huge sports fan since I was really young, always familiar with the rules, while playing three sports in high school. It made a lot of sense. I did volleyball first, then started doing basketball in January, and immediately got hooked by the internal competition that takes place on every possession — that competition that I didn’t have in life anymore after leaving high school.
NBRA: You were a rookie NBA referee last season, and are one of the youngest referees in the league. How was it making the leap last year, and who were some mentors that have helped you along the way?
TF: The transition is easier now because they sprinkle you in a couple games when you’re still in the D-League. I worked 10 or 12 regular season games and three preseason games the year before. In terms of the schedule or the way things work, none of that was really a surprise. Anytime you go to an arena for the first time, there’s that unfamiliarity you have. It’s easier this year going through it, that provides a greater level of comfort. But in terms of the level of play, it’s bigger, faster, stronger, more mentally draining — all of the above, in terms of what the NBA game is above anything else I’ve worked at. I have worked in the WNBA, D-League and Division I in the past. There’s a lot of pressure in the NBA every night. You just try to laser-focus on your job, every single possession, to try to be as successful as possible.
NBRA: How about on the external side — the things around the game. Commentary from fans you might get on social media, or from people in your life — has that given you a different level of exposure?
TF: You get a lot more Facebook friends. I think you get a feel in the referee community how much other referees look up to the refs in the NBA. And I think that’s deserving. It’s one of the most talented group of referees in the world. You certainly are able to connect and impact the referee community across the country. You notice that immediately. I got inducted into my high school Hall of Fame a few weeks ago, mostly because I’m an NBA referee. It’s things like that that happen now where people say ‘oh you work in the NBA, that’s really cool.’
NBRA: You had stops in the NBA D-League and the WNBA before coming to the NBA. What did you take from those jobs?
TF: The D-League is fundamentally where you learn how to be an NBA referee, from a mechanics standpoint. I worked close to 200 games in the D-League. You go through a lot of different experiences. We didn’t have replay in the D-League when I was there, so when I got to the WNBA, it allowed me to grow in that particular area.
NBRA: You and your wife just had a baby. How has the balance of personal and work life been for you?
TF: It’s different now. I don’t want to downplay the fact that you want to get home and see your wife, but certainly when you have a child I think that you miss being home even more when you’re on the road. I’m only on my second true road trip of the season, so I’m sure that’s going to continue to grow. I’m in the midst of an 11-day trip — I can’t wait to go home. I can’t imagine what this job would have been like 10 or 15 years ago. Now we have FaceTime — that makes it easier. As a dad, I fear that potential disconnect from being on the road so much. So hopefully with technology, I can make up for that.
NBRA: What advice would you have for an aspiring referee?
TF: Luckily I had the experience of training a lot of intramural referees. The first thing is just giving it a try. There’s a lot of people that are fearful of competition, or don’t want to get yelled at. It is challenging when you first start. Confidence is such a big part of what we do. You can be active, there’s a fitness aspect to this, it’s mentally stimulating. Every day is different, so there’s a lot you can gain from the game.
Most memorable moment as a ref: “The phone call to get hired by the NBA.”
One secret about being a ref that most people wouldn’t know: “That we don’t care who wins or loses, or who is on the floor.”
One way you get through the grueling schedule: “I’m a big sports fan. I watch a lot of basketball, but also football and golf.”
If you weren’t a referee, what would you be?: “I would be working in the sports industry in some form or fashion.”