New Jersey to Australia: Ken Widgeon's officiating journey is just beginning
Widgeon takes us behind the scenes into life as an NBL referee.
Credit: Supplied / NBL
The cacophony of the sounds of the game are overwhelming. There’s the squeak of sneakers, as players run, dodge, and slalom across the court. There’s the soundtrack of a rabid home crowd, all raucous cheers one second, followed by jeers the next, only intensified when a call is perceived to be unjust. And now, there’s an irate coach, incredulous that a call hasn’t been made.
Amidst this frenzy, Ken Widgeon tries to maintain his Zen-like focus. Yet his mind ticks over. He’s untroubled by the overpowering stimuli around him, but he’s troubled by something else.
He analyses. He overthinks. Finally, he’s disappointed.
You see, only moments earlier, Widgeon, a first year referee in the NBL and hailing from New Jersey, has experienced a coach’s challenge. Footage of the play is replayed over and over on the broadcast. The Replay Centre, with its angles and expert analysis confirms that Widgeon made the right call.
Coach’s challenge is unsuccessful. Oh, this won’t help the mood in the building. The ball is inbounded and Widgeon tries to move onto the next play. He’s been validated, after all.
‘But, I can remember thinking to myself,” Widgeon tells The Pick and Roll. “Was that really a whistle that we needed to have?”
The very next play, with these thoughts swirling in his mind, Widgeon sees contact on the offensive player. Is it marginal? Was it just on the other side of marginal?
“I had a situation where the contact was just on the other side of marginal,” he says, “and put that offensive dribbler at a disadvantage, but I didn’t call it.”
Unwittingly, he had broken the cardinal rule he had set for himself: always focus on one play at a time.
“If you get stuck on one play, and you’re refereeing the next play,” explains Widgeon, “you can compound mistakes.”
Widgeon’s tone is one of reflection, not disappointment now. It’s a learning opportunity, and one he embraces with open arms. He speaks with a frankness and doesn’t shy away from self-critique.
“There’s so many actions in a game, and there’s so much activity around the floor, that if you think you have made an error on a play, you can’t afford to dwell on that. You’ve just got to get to the next action,” says Scott Butler, the NBL’s Head of Referees. “The job is to go to the next play as quickly as possible and remain in the moment.”
“We all second guess ourselves,” admits Widgeon. “If I did a better job of just letting go of that play that got challenged, and just moving on to the next play, I think my awareness would have been a little bit better and I would have just put a whistle on what on film showed up to be a simple play to call a foul on.”
But it’s time to move on - one play at a time, remember? He’s here to learn, after all.
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It’s this growth mindset towards learning that led a New Jersey baller, one who played across all positions in AAU, to ditch the jersey and pick up a whistle, and find himself all the way in Australia, but not before assorted detours in the NCAA, and professional leagues such as The Basketball League (TBL), the American Basketball Association (ABA), and the rough and tumble of New York City streetball.
Officiating is in Widgeon’s blood. His dad was a referee, and did so for 10 years. In Widgeon’s freshman year in college, they offered him US$25-30 per hour to referee games in the Spring Intramural League.
“As a college kid, 25-30 bucks an hour is a gold mine,” he says. “So, I went home, stole one of my dad’s shirts, stole one of his whistles, and kind of went at it.”
At first, it was a part-time job that paid well. It was only when he saw a YouTube video in which NBA referees showcased their jetsetting ways that his interest in pursuing this as a full-time career crystallised.
So, Widgeon threw himself into it. He worked his way up through the college officiating ranks. To truly make it, he knew he had to be more intentional and focus on the professional level.
“So I decided to let go of college basketball and focus on working in the pro leagues that I was working at the time,” he says, “which were the TBL and the ABA.”
In case you’re wondering, yes, the same ABA that Dr J played in. (Widgeon confirms they still use the red, white and blue hued basketball.)
But it was the leagues in New York City that seemed to instil him with the most confidence. NBA players, high level Division I college players, and international players would come to town to play. Those leagues were seen as testing grounds for New York City basketball.
“They call it streetball,” explains Widgeon. “A lot of those environments can get really intense, and I’ve actually gotten an extreme amount of value out of working in those environments. Because if I can stay disciplined and not let the crowd get to me, and do what I got to do out there, then I can pretty much work anywhere else in the world.”
Widgeon’s growth coincided with the NBL’s referee development plan. Butler reached out to Ronnie Nunn, a former NBA official who now works for the league, and asked if he knew any suitable candidates. Nunn was a mentor to Widgeon, and included his name in the list given to Butler to assess.
Asked why Widgeon was ultimately chosen, Butler cites not only his technical ability but his character. “Because he’s actually willing to learn,” says Butler, on one of Widgeon’s strongest traits, “and he’s willing to take on training, and coaching, and adapt to a different style, that’s where he’s done really well to this point.”
Part of training and coaching is the weekly review process. Butler describes a rigorous apparatus in which every game of every round is thoroughly reviewed through multiple perspectives.
Prior to every game, one member of the officiating crew is assigned to scout the game ahead and share their dossier with the rest of the group before the game. The scout can cover a range of things, from from playing styles of teams, to personnel (player tendencies, who’s playing and who’s injured, key matchups to watch). But it’s designed to allow the crew to get a feel for how the game might play out, and any points of interest to focus on. Essentially, like coaches and players, they’re asked to meticulously prepare for the game.
“Then on game night, out on the Replay Centre, I’m cutting clips for the guys,” says Butler. “It could be educational clips, they could be just confirmation of a play, whether it was right or wrong, and all of the angles that are accompanied with that particular play.”
Depending on the game, each official may receive 15-25 clips from a single game - Butler uploads these clips, ready for officials to access and download within 15 minutes of a game concluding. It doesn’t stop there.
Each referee must complete a self-assessment of their performance within 24-48 hours. One of the league’s referee coaches, assigned for the game, also completes a review within that time frame.
“During this period, I will have actually reviewed the game from top to bottom,” says Butler. He then creates a video package (or playcalling feedback, as is the parlance) which is uploaded to a platform called Hudl, where referees may access the detailed video review.
The ecosystem that Butler works in is so comprehensive, with so much data and analytics available, that Butler says he could ascertain how many correct calls an official makes in a particular area on the floor, or in certain play types, or even in relation to specific players.
Then, there’s Tuesday nights, which are the designated referee coaching nights. The referee coach for the game meets with the assigned crew and goes through a coaching process - that’s the cycle, round by round.
“It can get strenuous,” says Widgeon. “I’ve been in camp situations. I’ve been in film breakdown situations. We might have a 30-minute conversation literally about one play. It can take hours. Sometimes, it can take days, you know, a couple hour sessions each time to get through a specific game depending on if there’s a lot calls, and a lot of stuff to evaluate.”
Still, Widgeon has no doubt that it has made him a better official already.
Even with the layers upon layers of reviews, and the scrutiny, referees will make mistakes. They’re human, after all. “Referees will know when they’ve made a mistake,” says Butler. “Referees will also think they’ve made a mistake.”
Credit: Supplied / NBL
So, what about the myth of the make up call?
“Not on this level,” Widgeon says flatly. “On this level, our goal is to just get plays right. When you try to have make up calls, basically, what ends up happening is you end up compounding mistakes. So if you make a bad call on one side, and then you make a bad call on the other side, in order to make up for the bad call you just made on one side, now you just made two mistakes instead of one.”
Momentary lapses aside, Widgeon prides himself on the way he’s able to maintain focus on the court. He speaks about officiating with the same intense focus. “We’re actually not looking at the offence,” says Ken Widgeon, his voice resolute when discussing plays at the rim. “We’re looking at the defence.”
The story of the game has always been told through offence, its principal protagonist. Isn’t it always the ballad of an offensive genius always front and centre in basketball folklore?
“In actuality, defence is going to tell most of the story,” Widgeon explains. “When you look at a guard go to the basket and go for a layup, then all of a sudden he bumps into a 6’8”, 240 pound guy, it looks like a foul. But, if 6’8”, 240, is just standing in the the paint in legal guarding position and then jumps straight up, maintains his verticality, a lot of people don’t understand that offence-initiated contact is usually not a foul on the defence. And if there is a foul to be called, most of the time, it’s going to be an offensive foul if that defender has legal guarding position.”
Butler agrees with his first year referee.
“So your eyes would need to go to defender first,” says Scott Butler in agreement. Butler says that this is an old, but still very relevant, concept. “Once the defender has established legal guarding position, then you can assess the level of contact by the offence, those types of actions after that. So what he’s referring to is things like plays to the rim, where you’re looking for a defender to establish legal guarding position.”
To hear them both talk about the intricacies of officiating is to marvel at their ability to compartmentalise and stay in the moment.
“I’ve actually gotten into the habit of maybe waiting until quarter breaks or timeouts to just take a couple of seconds and really appreciate where I’m at, appreciate the moment,” says Widgeon.
His mind turns to the opening night of the season, when The Throwdown saw Melbourne United against South East Melbourne Phoenix. During the game, the ball ricocheted out of bounds, and Widgeon, the lead official that night, went to retrieve it for the inbounds.
“And it actually lands in Scottie Pippen’s hands. He stands up, hands me the ball,” says Widgeon. “I would say that’s definitely the coolest moment I’ve ever had in my basketball officiating career.”
Those highlight moments flash by before anyone notices, and are all too brief.
The cacophony of the sounds of the game return. The squeak of sneakers, the raucous jeers and boos from a rabid home crowd at RAC Arena, a cocktail of sound and fury. But Widgeon maintains his focus. Suddenly, he blows his whistle, the play stops, and he signals a foul.
“And I’m standing in the middle of the court, they’re playing it on a 100-foot TV screen, we’re waiting on feedback from Scott, and it really hit me that, wow, I’m really out here.”
It’s a little moment to exhale, and Wigeon allows himself to take it all in.
“And then when I looked up, and saw literally thirteen, fourteen, fifteen thousand people waiting for verification on the call that I made, it’s like, wow, I’m really out here. And I really appreciated it.”