The NBA’s lone player from a historically Black college and university (HBCU) is the Portland Trail Blazers’ Robert Covington. However, there is a lot of HBCU representation on the NBA floor every night – it’s among the referees.
The NBA currently has 73 referees for the 2020-21 season, according to the National Basketball Referees Association. Nine of them are African Americans who graduated from HBCUs: Bennie Adams, Courtney Kirkland and CJ Washington from Southern University, Tony Brown from Clark Atlanta, Derrick Collins from Xavier of Louisiana, Sean Corbin from Coppin State, Karl Lane from Philander Smith College, Matt Myers from Hampton University and Tom Washington from Norfolk State. Referees Marc Davis attended Howard and Eric Lewis attended Bethune-Cookman.
“It just makes me feel good that HBCUs can represent as well,” Kirkland said. “For a long time, it was thought that HBCUs didn’t share amongst the quality around our country. It really makes me feel good that there are people that come from HBCUs that bring a lot of talent, a lot of weight to not only this business but to so many other businesses as leadership across the country. … I’m proud of the number and I look forward to that number increasing.”
Jackie White became the first African American to work as an NBA official during a game between the Chicago Bulls and Cincinnati Royals in Cleveland on Feb. 11, 1968. Kenneth Hudson became the first full-time African American referee in the NBA in 1968. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, former Boston Celtics star Bill Russell was impressed by Hudson when he was refereeing college games and convinced head coach Red Auerbach to let him officiate scrimmages in training camp. Auerbach then recommended him to the NBA. Hudson refereed several hundred games professionally from 1968 to 1972 and was a recipient of the Mannie Jackson – Basketball’s Human Spirit Award in 2009.
The first referee from an HBCU was Hugh Evans, who was a star basketball and baseball player at North Carolina A&T. The Squire, West Virginia, native was the 80th selection overall of the 1963 NBA draft by the St. Louis Hawks. But Evans didn’t give the NBA a try as a player because he didn’t believe he would get a fair chance due to racism. He went on to spend three years in the San Francisco Giants minor league system instead.
“There was a quota system in the NBA back then,” Evans said. “Teams weren’t going to have but so many Blacks on the team. I got drafted in the eighth round by the St. Louis Hawks. Lenny Wilkens was on that team at the time. I can’t beat him out. Cleo Hill was there. I can’t beat him out. And then there was Chico Vaughn from Southern Illinois, and I’m not going to beat him out. They weren’t going to have but so many Blacks and they weren’t going to keep but so many. So, I gave baseball a try.”
Evans initially was a softball umpire before he began refereeing basketball games in the late 1960s. When he began refereeing NBA games in 1972, he said, the only other Black referees were Lee Jones and James Capers Sr. Over 29 years, Evans officiated nearly 2,000 regular-season games, 170 playoff games, 35 NBA Finals games and four NBA All-Star games. The first Black man to referee an NBA Finals game also was ranked as the second-best NBA referee during the 1995-96 season and became the NBA assistant supervisor of officials from 2001 to 2003.
Being the first NBA referee from an HBCU also meant a lot to Evans.
“I took a lot of pride in that,” Evans said. “You have to represent every day. You do that and do it the right way, you’ll be all right.”
Evans said the biggest challenge he had being a Black NBA referee was becoming widely respected and overcoming institutionalized racism. He said his professionalism on and off the court, which included his storied sharp dressing, eventually got him that respect.
“Being accepted by the coaches, players, fans and general managers was difficult,” Evans said. “They didn’t think we [Black referees] could do the job. I was the first Black to work past the first round of the playoffs. I went on to do the Finals. After a while they said, ‘This guy is good. We will give him space.’ ”
Some of Evans’ fondest memories from refereeing came from crossing paths with other former HBCU players such as former NBA star Earl “The Pearl” Monroe from Winston-Salem State. Evans and Monroe both played in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA). Evans also credited Monroe for helping his transition as an NBA ref.
“Pearl was glad to see me and welcomed me. He told guys how the CIAA was and the good times we had. Some [Black players] never knew how good of a time you had if you went to the CIAA tournament. By Pearl welcoming me, it made life a lot easier for me,” Evans said.
Evans would go on to serve as a mentor to many Black referees. He was once quoted in USA Today saying, “I know I’ll miss the competitive part and the friends and officials I’ve met, but I’ll enjoy sitting in my rocking chair and watching the young referees I helped.” One young guy he helped was Kirkland.
“Our conversations were really about the craft and not white referees and Black referees. It was about being the best referee I could possibly be,” Kirkland said.
So why are 10 of the referees in the NBA from HBCUs, including three from Southern? Myers didn’t have the answer, but he did say the NBA’s HBCU referees have a unique bond.
“There is a group of us that went to historically Black colleges,” Myers said. “But I think it was cool because it helps put HBCUs on the map. If you look across the professional world, there are different people in different careers. So, we are well-represented on our staff. …
“I don’t know why we have so many. If it weren’t for my dad, I probably wouldn’t have got into refereeing. I wish at the HBCU level there were knowledge about refereeing and other stuff surrounding sports. A lot of people you have to be a player or something like that.”
Said Evans: “I’m not surprised, because there were always good Black officials in the CIAA.”
The NBA referee kinship was on full display daily in the NBA bubble at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, when last season resumed during the pandemic. They were often outside their hotel rooms during downtime playing Dominican dominoes, listening to old-school R&B and rap music, watching games by the pool, playing pickleball and going on long walks in the hot sun. But what stood out in the bubble regardless of whether they were from an HBCU, Black or white, was a collective stance against racism and police brutality.
The NBA referees arrived at the bubble wearing black T-shirts that read “Everybody vs. Racism.” The Milwaukee Bucks sparked a three-day protest by all remaining teams beginning on Aug. 26, 2020, in the wake of the police shooting of African American Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The next day, dozens of NBA referees working in the bubble took part in a peaceful walk outside their Disney hotels in support of the players. In a statement, the referees said their members were marching “against racism and grieve for the Black lives taken too soon.” The referees also stopped by the players’ meeting during their march to show support.
“The solidarity, brotherhood and unity we got from it was great,” Kirkland said. “It really gave us an opportunity to link up with each other when we did that march.”
Evans was very impressed by what NBA referees did in the bubble. He is also very happy to not only see a quality list of HBCU referees in the NBA, but also see African Americans and women getting quality postseason assignments.
“That is a long way from my day,” Evans said.