How Jacqui Dover rekindled her basketball journey as the NBL's first Indigenous female referee

Dover fell out of love with basketball as a player, and it was as a referee that her passion for the sport returned.

Basketball refereeing came to Jacqui Dover at a young age.

Her parents managed courts on the Gold Coast and she spent a lot of her youth spending her free time around those courts - it’s where she developed her love for the game. Instead of just sitting around, Dover picked up a whistle to earn pocket money for lollies. She continued playing basketball throughout her teens, but gave up refereeing when she was 16, for for seven years, in a bid to dedicate herself to her journey as a player.

“I was that player who thought they knew everything [when talking] to the refs. I was getting too angry and emotional,” Dover remembers. “I literally had to stop refereeing because I was a 16 year old kid that was yelling at referees, thinking I was the best thing at Townsville basketball.”

Jacqui Dover was like most of us growing up - she had hoop dreams. But like many other stories, obstacles got in the way. In Dover’s case, it was a shoulder injury that made her consider retirement. She was falling out of love with the game, while riding the bench at the state level.

Dover however hit a breaking point, becoming frustrated and losing her love for the game. She admitted it was difficult to actually accept the fact that playing basketball professionally was unlikely to ever happen.

“I realised I was a terrible defender, and that’s why I sat on the bench all of the time.”

Getting serious about officiating

It was until she was 22, nearly seven years after trying to make it as a player, that Dover once again picked up a whistle. She started officiating locally in Townsville in late November 2014, and less than 12 months later was elevated to the QBL, something she never expected. By October 2019 she progressed into the WNBL, rising to the highest level of competition for Australian women’s basketball within just four years.

Dover was surprised by how quickly she was progressing, as well as how much she was enjoying it.

“When I began reffing, there was a turning point where a year or two in I realised this is progressing, a) faster than I thought it would have been, and, b) I was actually really enjoying it and I found my love for the game again. That was the turning point. I needed need open a rule book — I kept getting caught out in situations where I’m not 100 per cent correct, and I didn’t like that feeling.”

Dover’s career has taken her to as far as the United States in 2019, where she was one of 40 referees selected from over 400 applicants to attend the National Referee Try-Outs in Chicago. After evaluation by NBA and G League referee scouts, her efforts ultimately led her to becoming the NBL’s first female Indigenous referee.

Her debut was made in the Indigenous round with Cairns Taipans playing against the Brisbane Bullets on May 26th, 2021.

“It was pretty awesome, the experience was — I just really enjoyed being out on the court.

“The lead up to it was a bit different than I expected for my first game in terms of the media that came with it. It didn’t really click that it was the Indigenous round or that I was the first female Indigenous referee. The players were all encouraging before the game, a couple of congratulations – which was quite welcoming into the league.”

Dover takes her craft as seriously as any player would. Instead of early mornings or late nights in the gym, Dover spends her free moments pouring over rulebooks (both FIBA and NBA) and film. You might ask: referees watch film?

“It’s so we can prepare for what might occur through the game so that we can make accurate calls and try to have enough time to process each play,” Dover explained. “What plays teams run, their defences, their offences, your shooters... It’s not so we can predict and preempt calls, it’s so we can try to move on the court to be in position to have an open look at what’s happening. The scouts are purely to educate us and put us in a good position to be able to make the right decision on the court.”

Influencing the next generation

Many of Dover’s non-officiating hours are spent in basketball, including guiding the next generation of referees. Dover has her own academy ‘JD8’, and also serves as the Indigenous program’s manager for Basketball New South Wales (BNSW) while also working with Indigenous Basketball Australia (IBA).

Growing up, Dover never considered that basketball officiating could become a real career, let alone allowing her to travel at home and abroad.

“I don’t think I had the understanding that these kinds of opportunities were available as referees.

“So I guess that’s a part of what I’m trying to do now. Allowing the Indigenous youth to know that they have pathways available. I think I am a decent example of an aspiring young player who wanted to make it to the national league, and I think I got lucky in finding refereeing as a pathway.”

Dover discussed the misconception on the amount of work work referees invest in their craft, that often goes unrecognised or unrewarded. Referees are often an afterthought in basketball, but they are essential in maintaining the quality basketball we consume - and the NBL is taking steps, to ensure that is maintained.

The recent announcement of joint partnerships between the NBL and basketball state governing bodies in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia has provided Dover with the opportunity to fulfil her goal.

The partnership supports referees while they continue to pursue their dreams of officiating in the NBL. The program provides financial (full-time salaries) and professional support from the NBL’s best referees. Dover was one of three referees selected for this program. Her new role in the NBL gives her a singular job to focus on, and provides her with a direct pathway to improve and work her way into being a full-time NBL referee. It’s an opportunity for her to achieve her dream job and possibly inspire the next generation of referees.

Dover does not see herself as a role model or a trailblazer. Instead, she considers what she is doing as pursuing her passion and investing in being the best official she can be.

“I think I’m doing the right job if I can service the game but also inspire more people to try become a part of the game in whatever aspect that is, playing, coaching or refereeing. If that puts me in that role model category, then I’m completely fine with that.”

Dover is undoubtedly shining a new light for those who need it, and showing that opportunities exist in the world of Australian refereeing.