Alan Richardson is one of the finest referees to ever work in international basketball.
He has a piece of advice that everyone should take on board.
"Never stop learning," he says.
"I always tell the guys that want to be referees, or the people who have been doing the job for a long time, ‘You never know everything. You're still learning'.
"You can apply that to any job, any walk of life. You're always learning."
Richardson, who is a FIBA Europe instructor, will share that advice June 3-7 and June 9-13 in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, at an annual clinic for Potential Referees and National Instructors from the 51 FIBA Europe federations.
The long-time referee gave this interview to Jeff Taylor.
Jeff: Alan, what is the biggest challenge for a referee during a game of basketball?
Alan: Keeping concentration for 40 minutes, and that's why it's essential that referees are in good physical condition - healthy body, healthy mind. Fatigue is the enemy of everybody. Once you get tired, decision-making starts to decline. That's why it's so important that referees are in great physical shape because to me, sound body means sound mind. Concentration is the biggest thing. Also, managing people. Game management.
Jeff: What about the challenge of maintaining your cool in a heated situation? How do you do it when a coach is getting on you, or a player is complaining?
Alan: I think it's down to the individual personality. Referees need people skills. I say, ‘You cannot control the outside until you are in control of the inside'. When you have a coach, or a player, in your face, you can never allow that to get to you because if you get emotional, that's when the fireworks start.
Jeff: You have some important clinics coming up, in Mannheim, Germany, this week and then in Las Palmas in June?
Alan: The one in Mannheim takes place during the Albert Schweitzer Tournament. It is a candidate clinic. The guys who come through that successfully will qualify as the next bunch of referees in FIBA referees from European countries. The Albert Schweitzer Tournament is an unofficial world championship for junior teams. These referees are going to be really put under the microscope because the quality of games in Mannheim will be very high. The guys who come out of the end of the clinic and succeed will really, really deserve that badge. Believe me. They will referee the games and be assessed on that. They will do a physical test, a rules test. It's a very intensive week for them and the staff. It's not just a turn up, referee, pass-or-fail job. It's ongoing education. Instruction every morning, debriefs after every game.
Jeff: And Las Palmas?
Alan: The Canary Islands is the one we have annually for potential referees, and national instructors. It's a great opportunity to work on the instructors. The one in Las Palmas is over a weekend. We have input from a sports scientist, coaches and from the FIBA Europe Referee Department staff. It's a highly intensive weekend.
Jeff: What else do you emphasize to aspiring referees, or veterans, when you see them at clinics?
Alan: I tell guys they need to go to coaching clinics because when something happens on the court, you can anticipate where problems may occur. The big issue with me is that they don't just need to learn about the rules and interpretation, but they also need to learn about the game. And the best referees do that.
Jeff: What are the other advantages of going to a coaching clinic?
Alan: All of the big championships that I went to, I went to the coaching clinics. I remember 1995 in Athens, there was a huge coaching clinic at the European Championship Finals. I used to go there and rub shoulders with some of the best coaches in Europe. And that's why I got on so well with so many coaches in the Euroleague because we used to have these regular meetings with the top coaches. You can sit and talk to them at their level. You can talk to them about issues they have.
Jeff: And also if referees go to coaching clinics, their tactical knowledge will go up, right?
Alan: The best referees are the ones that have a feel for the game. They understand what is going on in front of them. It's not just about rules and interpretations, it's about what kind of defences are being played. What kind of offences are being played.
Jeff: One of the reasons why a referee would like to hear what you have to say is because you have worked at the highest level. What game did you officiate that you remember best, or the one that was the most important?
Alan: The 1986 World Championship Semi-Final, USSR versus Yugoslavia. USSR were losing by nine points with 59 seconds on the clock. They tied it with three three-pointers, the game went to overtime and the USSR won in overtime. I'll never forget it.
Jeff: When did you start refereeing?
Alan: (laughs) I got into it by accident. I got into refereeing in 1970. I was playing semi-professional football at the time for Guilford (England), in what was the Southern League at the time. Now it's the Conference. I was combining PE teaching with playing football. And because I was a school teacher, I couldn't train during the day so I used to go to the university that was across the road and I used to train every night with various groups for physical fitness. Basketball was one of them. The guy who ran the basketball, Brian Naismith, told me to go and referee a scrimmage. And I said, ‘I don't know anything about the rules'. And he said this, which I've never forgotten, ‘Hey, neither do the guys who say they do'. I've never forgotten that, and that's how you keep humble.
Jeff: So then your career just took off?
Alan: Over the next seven or eight years I just went up and up and up through the various levels. Then from 1978 to 1998, I had a wonderful international career with many finals and tournaments and trips all over the world.
Jeff: But you also became an instructor?
Alan: In 1989, as a teacher, I became very interested in developing my skills as a referee instructor. I went to the States, and that was my introduction to three-person officiating. I was disappointed that it took so long for us in Europe to have three-person officiating but now that we've got it, nobody wants to go back to two referees. So, I owe the States a lot. I still keep in touch with (referees) Hank Nichols, Don Shay and Ronnie Nunn. You talk and mix with these people and it rubs off. It's about communicating, mixing and learning from each other, because you never know everything. I'm always looking at a DVD of a game and see something and say to myself, ‘That's interesting. I'll have to remember that one'.
Jeff: If there is one aspect to your career that you keep bringing up, it's the fact that you like to teach. Is that what makes working at the clinic in Las Palmas so special for you?
Alan: I was so happy when FIBA Europe asked me to get involved. It's like a duck taking to water. After nine years in the Euroleague, I was beginning to feel I was redundant as a teacher. I find that guys get to a certain level and either they don't want to hear because they think they know it all. This opportunity to work with potential referees was like going back to school. I lapped it up. I enjoy working with my group. The young guys in Europe, the present generation, are really hungry. There is a skyscraper of DVDs on my desk that young guys send to me. They say, ‘Tell me what you think about this play, that play'. They are just insatiable. They can't get enough. I get hacked off when people criticize them. These guys are at the bottom of the ladder and are trying to get better.
Jeff: Talk about education offered to the referees.
Alan: We are concentrating on coaching game knowledge. Teaching referees by video replays, teaching them by going on the court with coaches. We're just improving the knowledge band. The teaching materials being produced by FIBA Europe are among the best I've seen. As an educator, I'm just delighted to be involved. The quality of the material is superb.