On August 14 at Basketball City in lower Manhattan, Joe Adams reclined awkwardly on a set of bleachers under a wide window, trying his best to rest his legs in between games at the National D-League Tryout. Adams had just finished the first of his two games on the day, his two opportunities to impress scouts and show he had what it took to perform at the next level. But Joe Adams is not a player–at least not anymore–Adams was at the National Tryout as a referee.
Along with the four dozen or so former collegiate and international players invited to tryout in New York City, 30 referees were in attendance to show their skills.
“Like the players have scouts that come see them, we have scouts that come see us,” Adams explained. “So there is a regional scout for the southeast and he has been monitoring me for a couple years. I applied (for the National Tryout) and was able to be one of the 30 people selected.”
It’s the latest step in a lifelong basketball journey for Adams, who played collegiately at a small then-NAIA school called Covenant College in Georgia before transitioning to coaching at the high school level. In 2010, he changed lanes once again, deciding to become a referee.
Adams has been reffing ever since, most recently at the Division II level, along with the occasional NAIA game. And just like any player would, Adams has aspirations to get to the highest level. Which was why he made the journey up to New York City, joining the dozens of players and other officials trying to separate themselves from the competition in the hectic four hours of basketball on Sunday afternoon.
“Basically, this is similar to the players,” Adams said. “They told us, ‘Show us what you can do, and we’ll see about the next part of the process.'”
So what exactly do referee evaluators look for? Whether it’s a regular season game or a tryout like Sunday, the answer is the same. “Similar characteristics to a player,” said Adams. “Athletic ability, work ethic, personality off the court, play calling as far as refereeing, just being a good partner, good teammate, that kind of thing.”
The similarities between players and referees don’t stop at what talent evaluators are searching for while they’re on the court, however. Between watching film, studying the rule book (in the refs’ case) and working out, good referees engage in the same never-ending process to get better each and every day just as players do.
Just take it from Adams. “We watch film quite a bit. Typically after every college game I watch film to see my positioning, my play calling, or I have someone else who’s at a higher level to break the film down for me.”
“It’s nonstop trying to get better,” he continued. “Studying rules, watching films, working pro-ams and men’s leagues in the summer. Everybody now is in some kind of conditioning program. The whole game has changed quite a bit.”
Broken down to the most basic aspect, the National Tryout was about getting better–whether you were a player, a referee or a coach. Which was especially important to remember, especially considering it was not a stepping stone straight to the Association. As Adams reflected, “The process is not an overnight thing. It’s not like you’re gonna be in the NBA in five years. It’s a long, tiring process. It’s going to be very challenging.”
Trying to make the big time as a ref isn’t the easiest or most glamorous life, but Adams is all-in despite all the challenges he will face and sacrifices that will be required. A challenge like reffing two games in the span of four hours, despite the constant blast of whistles and buzzers from other games going on just feet away distracting you on potentially one of the biggest days of your life. A sacrifice like leaving home for a whirlwind weekend trip to New York with no guarantee of a reward.
With the afternoon sun shining in through the window above him, Adams gingerly rose from his reclined position on the metal bleachers with all the weariness of a traveler trying to catch a few moments of rest in an uncomfortable position. As he began to prepare for his final game and final chance to impress scouts on Sunday, he smiled and offered a few last words in the vein of Sam Hinkie, “I’m just embracing the process.”