NBA: Former Air Force Lieutenant flying high as head of NBA referees

(Reuters) – Retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Michelle Johnson has reached the upper echelons of two very different but equally male-dominated fields and credits her decorated military career with helping her serve as the NBA’s head of referee operations.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) speaks with Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson, superintendent of the Air Force Academy, after presenting the Commander-in-Chief Trophy to the U.S. Air Force Academy football team in the East Room of the White House in Washington May 7, 2015. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Johnson, who was the first woman to lead the U.S. Air Force Academy and one of the top women’s basketball players in school history, had no previous NBA experience when the league named her senior vice president and head of referee operations in 2017

While some might have considered her an out-of-the-box hire, she believes her time as a command pilot, where team work was critical to successful missions, made her someone who could easily relate with NBA referees as they too must make snap decisions in tense situations.

“Being a pilot on a crew airplane where you fly around the globe and have a small crew, you have to have a deep knowledge base on many fronts and make quick decisions that have high stakes, it’s something that’s just really similar,” Johnson told Reuters in a telephone interview.

“You might not think of it, but that’s been a real connective point for me and the officiating staff.”

Johnson, who said the chance to help shape the direction of a key operational group within the NBA made the job appealing to her, is responsible for recruiting, training, developing and evaluating referees. She also oversees the NBA Replay Center.

When it comes to recruiting NBA referees, Johnson said her checklist goes well beyond a foundation of competence, knowledge of rules, an ability to make accurate calls and an understanding of the game, traits that she said can be taught to almost anyone.

For Johnson, it is all about intangibles, like having the courage to make a tough call, the confidence to look a coach or a player in the eye and explain a decision respectfully, and the ability to be humble but not weak.

“If people are decisive and have that kind of strength and that kind of personal character (the rest) can be refined with more training or more study of the rules,” said Johnson, who is the first woman inducted into the Air Force Sports Hall of Fame for her achievements on the basketball court.

“But some things are almost not coachable, and so to be able to have that kind of courage sets people apart.”


There are currently three female referees at NBA level, two of whom were promoted to full-time officials last November. About a third of the approximately 70 officials working in the NBA’s official minor league are women.

Johnson, who last month joined The Female Quotient for its ‘Equality Lounge’ at the NBA All-Star Weekend in Charlotte to speak on a panel about female trailblazers, said there is no “magic number” when it comes to the amount of female referees.

“We look for the best referees and we want to look for the talent where it is,” said Johnson. “But we need the referee staff to look like our league, so we’re mindful of diversity on all fronts so that the talent can come from all avenues.”

During her military career, Johnson became the U.S. Air Force’s first woman cadet wing commander, first female Rhodes Scholar and was the Air Force aide to former U.S. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

The trailblazing Iowa native said there have been at least two all-women officiated games in the G-League this season but believes it could take years before that happens at the NBA level.

According to Johnson the current crop of female referees will need to log more years of service before they have the credentials needed to form a three-person officiating team that consists of a crew chief, referee and umpire.

“The thing about (referees) being at the top of their craft I mean there’s a deep knowledge base but there’s also an experience base,” said Johnson.

“So it’ll take a few years for our (female) refs to be able to become crew chiefs and playoff officials. So it’ll take a few years.”

Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Toby Davis


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