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Military Intelligence

Michael Jordan yelling at Bob Delaney before becoming an NBA Supervisor, God bless you, Bob.

NBA Supervisor on the Value of Military Service

Bob Delaney, vice president of referee operations and director of officials for the NBA, sees something special in officials with military backgrounds.

Teamwork and trust are two qualities he believes stand out in veterans — and they are fundamental to success in sports officiating, Delaney said.

“There is no better group to mimic than the military,” said Delaney, who did not serve in the military, but worked in law enforcement before joining the NBA officiating staff.

“We can’t equate basketball to the battlefield, but we can learn from them in terms of how they operate,” Delaney said.

One of the biggest takeaways from the military experience is learning the “why” of a mission. The concept of knowing “why” something must be done helps officials with execution and understanding of what they do on the court, Delaney said.

“The concept of who will benefit by knowing replaces need to know,” Delaney said. “We learn from our experiences. The military learns from theirs, and grows as a result.”

He said veterans and referees share another quality: “They see things that are bigger than themselves. It’s service before self and that is implicit to effectively defending our freedoms and serving a high-quality-officiated game.


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The ranks of sports officials are peppered with many former members of the U.S. military. They officiate kids’ games, all the way up through the pros.

Does military experience provide unique training and lessons that translate well to sports officiating? Are there things other officials can learn from their fellow officials with military backgrounds?

Referee magazine went looking for answers by interviewing a number of officials who made the transition, learned some things along the way and shared tips on why and how a military background gives sports officials a special edge.

Here are a few of the stories of sports officials who served their country

Matt Boland │ National Guard

“Without a doubt there are parallels between what it takes to be in the military and what it takes to become and work as an NBA referee,” said NBA referee Matt Boland. “There is no doubt in my mind that my time in the Army helped to shape me as a person and gave me the foresight and self belief to pursue such a lofty goal as refereeing in the NBA.”

Both the military and officiating are in Boland’s blood: His father Dave was a retired brigadier general and a longtime high school soccer and basketball official in Connecticut. His older brother, Tom, was a full colonel and helicopter pilot in the Connecticut Army National Guard.

After attending a small prep school in northeast Connecticut, Boland’s next stop was the University of Connecticut.

“Even though I came from a military family, I had no real plans at that time to join the service,” Boland said.

After a self-admittedly unfocused and overwhelming year and a half at UConn, Boland found himself at a crossroads.

“I was going nowhere fast and I knew something had to change,” Boland said. “In January 1987, with some family guidance, I decided to become the third member of the family to join the service.” Two months later, he was on his way to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.

The 13 weeks in basic training challenged him physically and mentally.

“I found out I was capable of things I never could have imagined,” Boland said. “Basic training opened up my eyes to see that I could do anything I put my mind to and that I wasn’t going to be satisfied leading a mundane life.”

Upon his return to Connecticut after basic training, Boland entered his third year on local IAABO Board 8 with a new focus and big goals.

Officer candidate school (OCS) provided another unique set of challenges that further helped to shape his character and leadership skills. Boland recalled one particularly memorable day: “After about two weeks of training, we each were placed in various leadership roles. They had our entire group together in a large classroom (approximately 75 candidates in the class). We had become accustomed to expect the unexpected as we were constantly being pushed out of our comfort zones. We were told that one by one we each were to get up in front of the class and tell the group who we felt were the top three candidates in the class and who the bottom three were and why. Suffice to say that made for an interesting afternoon,” Boland said.

Based on how the exercise proceeded, he learned it was more important to be respected than liked. “That is a direct parallel to being an NBA referee,” he said.

“If you are looking to be liked, you are in the wrong profession. You want to be respected.

In the summer of 1989, Boland was commissioned as a second lieutenant, moving into serving as a platoon leader.

“Being 23 years old and standing in front of a platoon with some of the soldiers being twice my age was further evidence for me that I needed to earn their respect,” he said. “I would do that over time by showing competence, consistency and fairness. As referees, that is exactly the same goal. It takes time. You earn respect through consistent work in many highly emotional situations.

“In many cases, my soldiers had more expertise and experience in the areas that we were tasked to do, such as working with explosives. One of our refereeing mottos is to referee to our level of experience. I learned that concept early on as a platoon leader. If I tried to act like I knew it all and had all the answers, I would lose the respect of my soldiers. The same mindset applies to being an NBA referee. We work hard to have all the answers to all the challenges we are presented with every game, but we also have to be able to admit a mistake or acknowledge we need help from our partners,” Boland said.

When it comes to teamwork, Boland saw his platoon was only as strong as the weakest link.

“It was up to the platoon to train and bring every soldier up to speed,” he said. “Each one of us had to carry our weight. We had to count on each other to perform our assigned role consistently in high pressure situations. As NBA referees, we walk on the floor each night as a team. We may be a mix of levels of experience, but we fail and succeed together. We talk about putting our priorities in the order of game, crew, self. Any variation from that order and we will not be successful and we will not do justice to the game or our profession.

“The military provided me with the boost, direction and confidence to believe I could one day work in the NBA. The NBA is a lofty goal. It’s tough to get there. You must have a plan, and even then there are no guarantees. But with no plan, you have no shot. The military gave me the structure on how to do it,” Boland said.

Because there is criticism in both the military and officiating in the NBA, mental toughness is very important.

“In the NBA environment, you are hearing a lot of people disagreeing with your work, so you must have confidence and a belief in yourself,” Boland said.

Boland referenced an obstacle course during training that required tougher and tighter steps as the trainee neared the top, along with a leap at the last rung of a ladder. “Somehow you do it. You have to believe in yourself. You see yourself in a different light,” he observed.

The military trains, trains and trains some more. “Everything we did was to practice and prepare for the real thing. We would stress the importance of detailed work. Lack of focus on detail could cost lives one day. As referees, we spend tremendous amounts of time preparing to work at our best. We are constantly preparing and maintaining ourselves physically to be able to keep up with the greatest athletes in the world.

We have to be in position on every play to get the calls right.

We are preparing by studying our game tapes looking for things we do right for reinforcement and for things we need to do better,” Boland said.

The military has an after-action review (AAR), which is similar to a postgame report.

“Every time we completed a training exercise, we did an AAR,” Boland said. “We would take a comprehensive look at all the things we did well and all the things we need to focus more on. This was a critical part of the overall training process. We would be our own worst critic and we weren’t afraid to be open and honest with each other. This is exactly what NBA referees do after each game they work. We drill down deep and we do so with an open mind among the crew to improve.


Bob ElcWee │ U.S. Naval Academy

Bob McElwee loves football. He played through his years at the U.S. Naval Academy, and as he transitioned to flight school as the new Air Force Academy was being built outside Denver in 1955. He kept playing for three years after that. He hadn’t thought of officiating football up to that point. But once he hung up the spikes, he found there was a void on Saturday afternoons.

“I started off officiating midget kids, and loved the games. I was bored to tears on Saturdays,” he said. His love for football helped him start down the officiating path, but the NFL veteran’s (27 years) military background laid the foundation for success. There are certain skills that are paramount in officiating success, according to McElwee, including discipline, integrity and judgment under pressure.

“Some can be taught and some you just have,” he said. The military helps on the teaching side.

“Officials must be disciplined to prepare for games, similar to the military,” he said. The military also teaches leadership, which applies to officiating: “As the referee, you are in charge of all the guys on the field, and you have to make sure the game is officiated fairly and kept under control,” McElwee said.

He related a unique situation that brought all his military preparedness into play during a game in Washington, D.C., following the anthrax scares post-9/11.

“There had been the anthrax scares in D.C. Something was being sprayed on the sidelines. You train to handle these types of situations, both in the military and as an NFL official. First, I stopped the game. I asked for a chemical engineer to figure out what was burning the players’ eyes,” McElwee said. “We weren’t going to continue the game until I knew what the stuff was.”

Behind the team benches, there had been a fight in the stands. Security had used pepper spray to subdue the combatants, and the mist had blown onto the field by large field fans.

“That’s why the players couldn’t see,” McElwee said.

Once he got the information he needed, he proceeded with the game.

Later, McElwee got a call from a friend and colleague who was an admiral in the Navy. “He called me and said, ‘Bob, this is what we trained for. I’m proud of you,’” McElwee said