He didn’t go to college. His profession doesn’t require a degree. His job requires 100 percent concentration, while judging some of the best athletes in the world. When he’s right, no one tells him good job, but when he’s wrong everybody lets him know it. It’s a demanding job, being a referee in the National Basketball Association, but as Mike “Duke” Callahan continues his 25th year it’s ever bit as rewarding as year one.
After graduating high school, Callahan stayed in his Philadelphia-area home. He refereed grade school Catholic Youth Organization basketball games and realized how much he enjoyed refereeing. He wanted to make it to the pros.
“I started studying NBA rule books, NBA official manuals, and I was lucky enough that I was refereeing a CYO game and Joey Crawford saw me refereeing and he asked me if I was interested in moving up to a higher level,” said Callahan.
Crawford went to the same high school as Callahan, Cardinal O’Hara, which is located about 10 miles outside of Philadelphia. Crawford has been an NBA official since 1977.
The summer after Crawford contacted Callahan, he was invited to a training camp in Los Angeles with a bunch of young referees.
“I guess I did OK because they asked me to work in the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) the following fall,” said Callahan.
He worked there three years until the NBA gave him a job in 1990.
Since then, Callahan has refereed over 1,500 games, including preseason, regular season and the NBA playoffs.
No matter the game, Callahan has the same approach.
“Do the best I can to make the right calls.”
It doesn’t matter if it’s the preseason or NBA Finals, Callahan and other NBA referees have the same pre-game routine.
“It’s not like we just throw the ball up and make calls and then go home,” said Callahan.
Referees meet every game day at 11 a.m. for a meeting. They review match-ups, and then look over debatable calls from the previous night NBA games. The meeting usually lasts 45 minutes; depending on how many calls the NBA sends them to review. It’s free time until 75 minutes until tip-off when the referees have to arrive at the arena.
The crew chief checks in with NBA headquarters in New Jersey where they review all of the replay angles, making sure the shot clock and game clock work correctly. The NBA has one contact person for every NBA game, so it’s important that the crew chief and the contact person confirm all of the replay angles correct before the game begins.
“With about 15 minutes on the clock, we have to be on the floor for warm-ups, and we get an active list,” said Callahan. “Thirteen players are active, and they have to be circled and the coach has to sign it.”
From there, the referees meet with a team spokesperson.
“It’s important each team assigns a team spokesperson for each game because it’s the only person that can talk to the referees about rule interpretation,” said Callahan.
During the game, Callahan and his crew have to make sure they do the best job possible. It’s difficult keeping track of 10 incredibly gifted athletes, but Callahan credits the NBA’s training methods and how they instruct referees to ref to help enforce rules.
“Trying to have concentration for 48 minutes (is the most difficult part of refereeing), but we’re instructing on refereeing the defender, our main goal is refereeing the defender because nine times out of 10 they are going to be the ones that hurt you, and that’s when if it’s a foul, we have to call the violation,” said Callahan.
Although refereeing incredible athletes can be difficult, it’s Callahan’s favorite part about refereeing in the NBA.
“My favorite thing is probably the competition,” said Callahan. “I think we’re dealing with the best players in the world of all the sports.”
He continued, “Our players are so big and athletic, so quick, and everything happens so fast, and that’s my favorite thing about being out there, being apart of the NBA.”
After each game, referees return to the locker room where they review plays.
“All notable plays, like technical or flagrant fouls, have to be sent to league office by the next morning,” he said.
The NBA looks at every call a referee does or does not make.
“There are plays that are no calls that are in your primary (records) are also documented, so we’re documented on every whistle, or non-whistle that is in our primary,” said Callahan.
If a referee makes a good no call then they get credit, but if they get a NCI, which is a no-call incorrectly, that gets recorded, too.
Last year Callahan refereed 72 games, including the NBA Finals.
He refereed perhaps the greatest game in NBA history two years ago.
In Game 6 of the 2012 NBA Finals, the Miami Heat beat the San Antonio Spurs to force a Game 7. The Spurs were seconds away from winning the title before a Ray Allen 3-point shot put the Heat in overtime where they eventually won.
And although Callahan refereed that game, it’s not his most memorable one.
“I guess my most memorable game was my first one in Philadelphia at the Spectrum,” said Callahan. “It’s a home game, and you’re just getting hired, and that’s one that I remember the most.”
He doesn’t put too much stock in refereeing Finals’ games because he sees it as simply a reward for the work you put in during the season.
“They put you in the Finals’ games, so I guess that’s what they think of you,” said Callahan.
Refereeing games that all-timers Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Hakeem Olajuwon and LeBron James have played in sounds like a dream job, but it has its ups and downs.
“The toughest part of the job is being away from home,” said Callahan.
It’s not like referees have a home court where they referee half of their games. They’re on the road nearly 100 percent of their games, which means lots and lots of traveling.
It can be a physically exhausting job, and with media and fan scrutiny, it can be mentally exhausting.
“Some plays we miss are on TV for two or three days, but it just goes down to accept and move on,” said Callahan. “Some plays are critical plays during the course of the game and we miss, and sure it is not a good feeling, but it’s rewarding when you prepared and you did the best that you could.”
As Callahan referees his 25th season, he has become a mentor for the younger referees.
“In this business, you don’t get too high about things, meaning if you have a great game and you’re feeling good about yourself, then guess what you have to work the next night in some city,” he said. “You can’t get too high, or too low about yourself. If you don’t do well, you just have to forget about it.”
Callahan will continue refereeing for as long as he’s able, and each game, whether it’s preseason or the NBA Finals, he’ll approach the same.
“At the end of the day, you prepare and you try to do the best that you can,” he said.