Anyone who’s developed a skill into a career can appreciate Nate Green’s opportunity.
It doesn’t happen overnight. It happens over many nights, through many years. It takes practice, repetitions, mistakes and adjustments. As Ringo Starr sang, “You got to pay your dues.”
Tonight, when the Brooklyn Nets walk onto the floor of Barclays Center for their NBA preseason opener, Green will be on the court, too. It will be his debut as a full-time official in the National Basketball Association. Fewer than six dozen living humans have that job title.
“To be one of 69 people on the entire planet that get to put that jersey on is definitely special,” Green said Monday morning.
It’s a long way from a night, years ago, when Green reluctantly accepted his brother-in-law’s request to fill in as a referee at a men’s rec league game in West Vigo Community Center. Green had played hundreds of basketball games — including many as a star guard for the Indiana State University Sycamores from 1997 to 2000 — but had never officiated one, until then.
He was hooked and the Terre Haute resident hasn’t stopped since.
Green studied the Indiana High School Basketball Association rules, got his license and began his formal officiating career with a middle school girls game at West Vigo. He climbed to the high school ranks and felt excited after receiving his first varsity assignment. “To see ‘Terre Haute North’ or ‘Terre Haute South’ pop up on your schedule, that was great,” Green recalled. He earned an NCAA license and officiated small college action, then mid-majors and finally elite conferences with the likes of Kentucky and Florida.
Four seasons ago, he cracked the pro ranks, calling games in the NBA G League, a developmental circuit for pro prospects. Last season, the NBA invited Green to officiate nine of its regular-season games as a non-staff referee. That opportunity put Green on the brink of full-time NBA status, though that next step was never guaranteed.
One day this summer, he was hanging out with friend Kareem Richardson, an ISU assistant coach during both Green’s playing days and currently. An incoming call on Green’s phone carried a New York City area code. It was from Michelle Johnson, the NBA’s head of referee operations. It was Aug. 8, “a date I’ll never forget,” Green said.
Johnson began by telling Green he’d been accepted into the NBA as a full-time ref.
“And then I didn’t hear another word she said,” Green recalled. He was stunned. After the call ended, Richardson looked at Green’s grin and said, “Was that it?” Green nodded yes.
“And we were just like two kids that won their middle school championship, jumping around,” Green said.
Green’s NBA aspirations, as a player, go back decades from his boyhood in Iowa, and college days at ISU. After graduating, he played a handful of preseason NBA games as a free agent for the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat, just missed the final cuts, and continued for seven years in pro ball overseas and in the G League. After retiring as a player, Green worked six years for an insurance brokerage and the past year as director of the Terre Haute Boys and Girls Club, while also officiating at every level below the NBA.
He resigned as Boys and Girls Club director in July to focus on reaching the NBA, as one of its 69 refs, rather than one of its 390 players.
Now, his breakthrough has come.
”To look back on all the ups and downs, successes and failures, and to get that call, I feel such gratitude for all the support I’ve gotten” from family, friends and colleagues, he said.
The chance arrives for Green at age 41. The other two new full-time referees promoted by the NBA this fall are John Butler, 33, and Evan Scott, 27. All three worked several seasons in the G League. The NBA also grooms its other talent in the G League — players such as Toronto’s Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam, New Orleans General Manager Trajan Langdon and six current head coaches.
“It’s like any professional career,” Green said. “You’ve got to get your degree first.”
A statement from the NBA’s head of referee development and training, Monty McCutchen, said the new full-timers will officiate five G League games this season, in addition to their NBA assignments. That policy lets newcomers to continue getting experience as crew chiefs in the developmental league and “develop as leaders,” while also breaking into the big league.
This season’s class of three new full-time refs is smaller than last season’s class of five. The number varies yearly.
“John, Nate and Evan have achieved their promotions through the quality of their officiating being at the standard for working NBA games on a regular basis,” McCutchen’s stated. “Our NBA G League is a great tool for officials to earn the right to rise to the NBA ranks and continue to grow at their craft.”
For Green, that growth began in Terre Haute. He’ll remember all that as tonight’s game in Brooklyn approaches. “I just reflect on the journey,” he said.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.