When you talk to people who know Michael Stephens well, they’ll tell you he learned at the feet of the masters — from big-time Division I college basketball officials like Jim Burr, Tim Higgins, John Cahill and Ed Corbett. Those that saw him take his early steps in the Division I arena remember a young, athletic, fast runner who was a quick study. He listened and learned. He took advice well. He worked on his game. And he came back for more.
That boded well for his future, which has since taken him as an official to the NCAA Division I men’s basketball championship game three times, and to many other high impact contests in his three primary conferences — the Big East, Atlantic Coast and Southeastern (he also works in the Atlantic 10, Big 12 and American Athletic conferences). Seventeen years ago, he got his first shot from Art Hyland, who assigned the Big East at the time, and is widely considered a guru at identifying and cultivating talented basketball officials.
Even Stephens isn’t quite sure why he got his first shot. He didn’t have much experience, having just begun officiating, finishing his first year. He went to the Hoop Mountain Officiating Camp that summer. Charlie Diehl, supervisor for the America East, was in charge of the camp, along with Joe Mingle, who assigned D-II and D-III games in western Massachusetts (Northeastern 10, Commonwealth Coast and Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic conferences). “I was told to go to a camp. I didn’t know what I was doing,” Stephens recalled.
Two weeks after the camp ended, he got a letter from Diehl with an America East Conference contract — Division I. “I thought something was wrong and they’d made a mistake,” Stephens said with a laugh. “Charlie told me to just sign it and send it back. So I got into Division I before Division II or III. I got contracts for II and III later in the summer.” They saw something in Stephens that Hyland and others would see down the road.
“Nothing is given to you in life,” Stephens said of that early opportunity. “It’s what you give to those things you believe in.”
Stephens gives it his all, whether it’s on the court, at his job as the recreation director for the city of Providence, R.I., or as a family man.
“I worked hard at that camp, and I think they saw my work ethic,” said Stephens, who felt that was a big reason he got picked up.
Growing up in Providence
His family played a big role in establishing that work ethic. His mother, Katie Stephens, raised him, along with nine brothers and sisters (two brothers died in a house fire). Stephens cited his mother, along with sister-in-law Melissa Holland, sister Melissa, brother Bennie and brotherin- law Moussa Cissoko, as his biggest fans and supporters.
Stephens’ father was there in memory, but not physically. His mother imbued in him respect and love. By age 13, Stephens was working locally stocking beer and liquor for “an Italian guy, Dominic Tamaruso, who took me under his wing. He asked me if that was what I wanted to do with my life. He was hard on me, but it gave me the opportunity to play basketball,” Stephens remembered.
Another mentor at the time, Armand Sabitoni, coached his son and Stephens in AAU, and served as a father figure. “With my father not around, I was looking for guidance and he gave me guidance to help me get where I am today,” Stephens said. From there, he worked other jobs — at a laundromat, a drug store — sometimes starting at 10 in the morning and not finishing until 9 at night. It kept him out of trouble, and he was tired when he got home. His mother struggled, the household struggled, but he made it to community college after graduating from Central High School. Then he faced a decision: finish school or help his mom build a house. He chose to go to work for the city of Providence to help his mother. His paycheck helped her with bills and now he’s been with the city for 22 years.
By age 22 or 23, he was running the youth rec programs for the city. The last three years, he’s served as director after being appointed by Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza.
“Mike could be a success anywhere, but he chose to come back to Providence. That means a lot to us in the city and the kids here,” Elorza said. Rather than take his talent, experience and leadership elsewhere, Stephens stayed in his hometown Providence, choosing to raise others up.
The two grew up on the west end of Providence, a “tough neighborhood,” as Elorza described it. “Mike’s done amazing work for the city and we’re proud of him.”
Elorza calls Stephens the right man for the job to head Providence’s rec department: “He’s the guy in charge. There’s more gusto in the department than there has been in a long time. Participation in activities is the best ever and it’s due to his leadership and energy. We’re proud of him and his story. He’s come back and connected with the kids and keeps them successful and on the right path.”
Elorza said he sees Stephens connecting to the kids in special ways — communicating, playing basketball, being tough when he has to be and demonstrating credibility.
“He has a great way about him,” Elorza said. “He’s mentored a lot of kids down the right path. What more could you ask for?”
Stephens gives a special shout of appreciation to the mayor for making his dream come true working for the city of Providence.
Stephens played basketball in high school and loved the game, but said if he did it over again, he would run track. He coached AAU basketball before officiating, including at the high school level. Tony Robinson, who played at the University of Connecticut and coached at St. Andrews High School in Connecticut, winning three prep school championships, was officiating one of Stephens’ JV games.
“I was yelling at the refs,” Stephens admitted. “Tony told me since I knew so much, why didn’t I come down and ref. I told him thanks and that I could do a better job.” That was Stephens’ start. He joined his local International Association of Approved Basketball Officials (IAABO) board, where he began his journey to the Hoop Mountain camp, which led to high school varsity, D-III, D-II and D-I games.
John Cahill, who currently assigns the Big East and shares responsibility for assigning the A10 and Colonial Athletic Conference with Bryan Kersey, met Stephens when he first broke into the Big East and Cahill was a veteran official. “He was young,” Cahill said of Stephens. “Art Hyland hired him with big hopes for his future. After a few years on the staff, Mike was getting high quality games and often working with myself and Eddie (Corbett). Mike’s a good quality official and person. He listens to criticism, learns and handles pressure well. He could run like the wind when he came into the league and is still a great runner.”
But sometimes he runs so well he’ll actually overrun a play, and “we had to calm him down,” Cahill joked. “Mike will be going the speed limit on the court, and I’ll tell him to slow down, that he only needs to keep pace with the game.”
Now that Stephens is on Cahill’s staff, John sees him as one of the top officials in the country. They have a close relationship as friends and through their officiating relationship.
“Mike was fortunate to be on the floor with many of the top officials in the Big East,” Cahill said. “Even as a younger official he was looked up to as a leader on our staff. Younger guys look up to him now. He’s well respected in officiating circles.”
Cahill related a story about Stephens that shows how focused Mike was as he broke into the D-I ranks. Cahill, Burr and Stephens were driving to an airport through a snowstorm after a game at Notre Dame. Burr drove. All three were using their cell phones trying to change flights. Burr stopped to get gas, and Stephens was so frustrated with not being able to get moving on the travel plans that he grabbed his bag out of the car and walked across the street to the hotel to get a head start. “Mike is headstrong, with strong beliefs, “ Cahill remarked.
“Art Hyland had a knack for picking guys with really good potential,” Corbett said. “He would sandwich those guys in games with guys who had NCAA experience and strong rules knowledge. Mike was one of the guys Art picked in the Big East to work with those veteran officials. He would often be paired with me and (Cahill).
“Mike would listen closely before the game, at halftime and after the game, absorbing everything,” Corbett continued. “As the years went on, he’d do the same mentoring for other officials in the Big East, ACC and other conferences. It was cool to see him pick up on the mentoring.” Mike became
“Mike Stephens, the referee,” Corbett said, when he learned to take care of his area. “That’s one of the things that stands out about him — he takes care of his area, the coaches, the players. He has great communication and game management skills. After four or five years of being the U2, he became the referee very quickly in the SEC, Big East and ACC. Coaches don’t need to worry about Mike Stephens. They know the game will be taken care of.”
Driscoll’s early recollection of Stephens included working a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference game in Buffalo, when Mike took a train from Rhode Island to the game. “That was a long way and showed the young man’s desire to work hard,” Driscoll said. “He’s a tailor in the officiating craft, and a heckuva talent with great energy.”
An early Big East game with Stephens also stands out to Driscoll. Virginia Tech and Seton Hall were playing. The two were paired with Burr. “Jimmy was taking Michael to town, chewing him out in a fatherly way to help him get better,” Driscoll said. “Michael took off from there. He thought his career was over, but I told him I’d been through it with Jimmy too.
“The older guys in the Big East want the younger guys to succeed. That talk fired Michael up. Art Hyland gave him another league game with Jimmy soon after that. He had great desire and got the job done. That’s Michael Stephens.”
Hyland knew what he was doing when he assigned Burr and Stephens together. “Jimmy went after Mike. Mike had his head hung between his legs. So I sent Mike the tape with 14-15 plays on it to show him how well he did. He still laughs about it,” Hyland said.
“I put him with Jimmy Burr in the next game. Mike was on his way after that,” Hyland chuckled.
“Today he’s one of the top referees in the country,” Driscoll said. “He did a number of things to get there. He worked hard, took advice to heart, he remained humble. He’s not dismissive. He’s an astute referee. He was put in very competitive games early in his D-I career and was successful. That’s why he’s where he is today. He gets the most competitive games, including the national championship. When you’re on the same game, you feel at ease,”
Hyland, who currently serves as secretary/editor for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Rules Committee, noted that the concept of selecting referees is not an exact science. When he assigned for the Big East, he set up a small camp — 18-20 officials were brought in — to invest in officials. Attendees didn’t pay anything. The goal was to find talent for the future.
Knowing Stephens’ basketball playing background and his AAU coaching, Hyland felt there was a strong core there. “Mike was a terrific kid,” Hyland said. “He really wanted to learn from me and the camp counselors. He wanted to be a great official. He worked hard for himself and for other officials.”
Hyland termed Stephens a “wonderful official, man, father and human being. He’s the kind of guy you root for. He could be one of the great referees of all time.”
Tom Lopes, who is executive director of IAABO, saw Stephens get his start in IAABO, move up through the ranks and now giving back —– through assigning games for high school and small college, as well as mentoring and helping younger officials. “He’s giving breaks to new young men and women to help them move up in the game,” Lopes observed.
Good friend Mike Roberts, a high-level D-I men’s basketball official who made it to the Final Four in 2014 as an alternate, echoes many of the accolades from Cahill, Driscoll and Corbett. Both are referees in the Big East, so they rarely work games together these days.
“Mike developed his makeup from the veteran refs at a very early age, was given an opportunity and met the challenge,” Roberts said. “He’s a perfectionist who allows no negativity on or off the court. If he sees it starting, he cuts it off right away, whether it’s coming from a coach or player.”
Roberts knew Stephens had something special on the court the very first time he saw him, while serving as a clinician at a summer camp in Chicago. He was evaluating, and saw Stephens had the “it” factor. “I can’t define ‘it,’ but I know it when I see it and I saw it in Mike Stephens,” he said. “Two other officials who served as clinicians at the camp also saw it.”
“I was so blessed to be able to come up in the era of Cahill, Corbett, Burr, Bobby Donato, Hyland and Higgins,” Stephens said. “If not, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Art Hyland made his group a family. If you were in the family, you had to mentor. You taught what was right and wrong, how to get better.
“John Cahill was the best official in the country when he retired. His communication, judgment and skill at teaching younger guys was amazing. He made you comfortable on the court,” Stephens added. The Big East culture preached teaching the younger officials on “how” to officiate and act as an official, while dealing with great and often difficult coaches. One of the keys to success was honesty. “Johnny Cahill and the other top officials taught me that — be honest,” Stephens said. “Don’t lie. They’ll see the game tape. They’ll trust and respect you if you tell the truth. Always tell the truth. Never make something up.”
Stephens gave special thanks for his officiating opportunities to Hank Nichols; John Adams; J.D. Collins; Dave and Dan Gavitt; Dr. Kenneth Walker, a great mentor; Richard Hazard, high school assigner; Cahill; Mike Tranghese, former Big East commissioner; and mentors Curtis Shaw, Reggie Greenwood and Gerald Boudreaux.
Passion off the Court
Cahill and Driscoll both observed how Stephens’ passion in general extends beyond the court. Both see his work at the Providence Parks and Recreation Department as an extension of his personality — being involved, helping others, putting himself passionately into projects. His work with children in general also stands out to both. It’s one more part of his “Rhode” to helping others.
“Mike does fundraising for underprivileged kids. There’s nothing but positive things you can say about him on and off the floor,” Cahill said.
As Driscoll and Stephens developed their friendship, Driscoll noticed similarities in
their background — both raised by single mothers; both going to work for their local parks and recreation departments (Pat in Syracuse, Mike in Providence); both working with kids to help improve their lives. “We both look for ways to serve young people in our respective communities,” he said.
The two exchange ideas, seeing what works in one community, sharing it, then seeing if it could work in the other city. One of Stephens’ projects, according to Driscoll, is the Angel Tree, which goes up during the Christmas season to help raise gifts for young people who are less fortunate.
“He’s a resilient guy,” Driscoll said of Stephens. “He had a lot of risk factors in his youth. But he rose up from that in his professional life and as a college basketball official.
“His headline should read, ‘Local Kid Does Good.’ He’s developed into a fine man, and great dad. Michael’s a terrific referee and even better partner,” Driscoll said.
The Brothers He Gained
Though Stephens lost two brothers growing up, Roberts believes Stephens has gained two brothers from the officiating ranks — himself and Lamar Simpson. They are like brothers, talk basketball daily during the season, going over the rules and what happened in games, then taking a break over the summer. They’ve developed a tight bond over the years.
It started at a summer camp at Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., when a number of the clinicians and campers were going to catch the “L” downtown for evening entertainment at the Taste of Chicago. Stephens was hanging around, looking a bit lost, and Simpson, who was with retired Big Ten official Eugene Crawford, said, “Why don’t you come along?”
“Lamar invited this young kid, not knowing him, and it’s evolved into this long-term friendship for all of us,” Roberts explained. “Mike adopted us to fill the gap, so to speak, of the two brothers he lost. He’s got a great heart and is always giving to others.”
Both Simpson and Roberts serve as clinicians over the summer at various camps. Typically they get some compensation, perhaps a travel fee or a small stipend. Both come and serve at Stephens’ Move to Improve Officiating Camp, for free. They wouldn’t think of asking for compensation. They do it for their brother and to give back, as Stephens sets his own example for others to give back.
“We’d do anything we can to help him. He’s a positive influence on Providence,” Roberts said.
Not having a father around while growing up, Stephens looked to others, and found father figures in John Lombardi, Hyland and Reggie Greenwood, supervisor of men’s basketball officials for the Ivy and Patriot Leagues.
Two Referees in the Family
Stephens salutes his wife, Fatou Cissoko, for helping to make him the man he is today. They have been together 13 years, married for five and have one son, Michae l, age 10. She, too, is a big-time college basketball official, and officiates in the WNBA and G-League. “She’s a strong woman who supports me and it’s my job to support her. She’s given me so much love and support,” he said.
“My wife and I could not officiate if it wasn’t for my mother-in-law, Roberta Cissoko, taking care of Mikey and supporting me, my wife, and our careers,” he said.
Stephens knew Fatou as a local high school basketball player. “She is a great, great person and hard worker, and she is blessed and happy to be where she is now,” he said. Stephens encouraged her to take up officiating, along with Barbara Jacobs, Denise Brooks, Bonita Spence and Dee Kantner, who also mentored Fatou.
Because of their respective officiating levels, Fatou and Stephens have a unique ability to encourage, share and help each other. For example, they will pick apart plays together. “She wants to be the best in her craft, and she wants me to be as well,” Stephens said. “She doesn’t understand how anyone can’t want to be the best at what they do. That’s the way my wife does things.”
If Stephens could run a highlight reel, it would include, 1) marriage to a wife he loves, 2) having a beautiful son, and 3) blessed to work two Final Fours and three national championships. Close behind is giving back to the city of Providence.
“I’m an example that it doesn’t matter how you grew up in life. I’m an example of making it,” Stephens said. “Any guy can stand up and say, ‘My father was not there for me,’ but my mother was. I would not be where I am today without her. I could have gone down the drug path, but I had an angel looking over me. She’d tell me, ‘Mike, you’re not going to do that.’”
Fatou tells Stephens now that he can’t assign and work college games unless he looks the part, so she keeps on him to stay in shape. “I want to represent myself well to the guys. I do it for my wife. If you think you’re in shape but your wife says you’re not, you know you’re in trouble,” he said.
Stephens knows that’s one more lesson of giving back. Take what others have given you — tough love, lessons to improve, working hard to stay in shape and set a good example for others — and pass them down to the next generation. “When people support you, it’s your role to then support others,” he said.
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