By Scott Tittrington
Basketball has taken Ka-Deidre “Didi” Simmons around the globe. After a stellar collegiate career at Seton Hall University that saw her graduate as the program’s career assists leader and No. 2 all-time leading scorer, she spent the summer of 2015 in training camp with the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun, traveled overseas to Finland and Iceland in 2016 to continue her professional career, and moved on to Romania in 2017.
Being a basketball nomad had its advantages. It allowed Simmons to immerse herself in new cultures while getting paid to play the game she loves, a dream she had from the moment she first picked up a ball in elementary school.
“It was a great experience,” she said. “(But) I didn’t want to play overseas. I’m a Jersey girl.”
Which got her thinking about her interactions with Debbie Williamson, the coordinator of women’s basketball officials for a handful of NCAA Division I conferences on the Eastern Seaboard. While Simmons had the innate ability of all great athletes to tune out officials when it suited her needs, she recalled a handful of occasions where Williamson casually mentioned to players that a career in officiating might be a great way to stay in the game once their playing days came to an end.
“I remember a couple of times when they would call for the captains at the center circle (and mention it),” Simmons said. “I always said maybe, but nothing ever came out of it.
“I had a lot of time to think. I reached out to Debbie, then when I came back to the States she told me she was thinking about doing a Player-to-Ref camp. I wouldn’t say I nagged her, but just letting her know if she was going to have this camp, I wanted to be a part of it.”
The idea became reality in the summer of 2016 when Williamson made good on her informal discussions, creating the inaugural Player-to-Ref camps designed to help former collegiate basketball players transition into the officiating world. That first year, Williamson sent out invites for anyone interested to join her at team camps at Villanova University in Philadelphia and DePaul University in Chicago for a crash course, basically a Basketball Officiating 101.
“No one funds this. I charged them $25 just to make sure they would come,” said Williamson with a laugh.
When it came to her sales pitch, Williamson — herself a former D-I player at Louisiana Tech under storied head coach Leon Barmore — appealed to the players’ desire to remain a part of the game long after no one wanted to pay them for their ability to sink a jump shot.
“Just remember, there are only 13 people on the floor. So your next step is going to be to put stripes on,” she would tell prospective recruits.
She was also quick to point out that step doesn’t necessarily have to immediately follow the last ones taken as a player.
“I did not start officiating until after I coached nine seasons, had three kids and was completing my doctorate degree. It wasn’t until then that I realized that officiating would allow me to be involved in the game I loved so much and still raise my family and pursue my career in academia,” Williamson said. “Unlike coaching and playing, I wasn’t tied to a team so I could say no to basketball when my family needed me and no one knew the difference. How often I officiated was my choice and afforded me more flexibility while allowing me to be on the floor and in the game I loved.”
The initial turnout for Williamson’s first Player-to-Ref camp, while not overwhelming, was encouraging. About 15 campers showed up for the first camp at Villanova, and another eight showed up at DePaul. The camps opened with two hours of classroom work, where Williamson and her camp staff covered the basics of officiating, including rules, mechanics and floor coverage. After taking a break for lunch, the new charges were handed stripes and a whistle, and it was out to the floor to work camp games and get an initial feel for being a part of a basketball game from a completely new perspective.
“That way, when they leave us that day, they have already made connections with the staff that I have in those cities,” Williamson said.
“They have a great feel for the game,” she added. “They know the game in a way that someone who has never played doesn’t.”
What they don’t know immediately — and in many cases, don’t know they don’t know — is how to translate what they have been taught and practiced as a player into becoming an official and performing that distinct role on the floor.
Take Simmons for example, who despite being a basketball lifer had, by her own admission, an eye-opening experience when she arrived at the Villanova camp.
“This was the first referee camp that I ever went to. I entered the camp with no experience at all,” Simmons said. “I didn’t know the proper mechanics; I didn’t know where to stand on the court. I’ve played the game since second grade, but you never pay attention to the refs.”
She proved to be a quick study. And just as important, she was immediately hooked. While she did return overseas for that one final season as a player in Romania, the evolution had begun from Didi Simmons, basketball player, to Didi Simmons, basketball official.
A series of basketball officiating classes began about a month before Simmons returned from Romania, so she worked overtime to hone an understanding of the rules and mechanics before passing a test that allowed her to officiate summer AAU basketball. She made a strong enough impression on the summer circuit to secure a couple dozen high school varsity girls’ games and four state playoff contests during the 2017-18 season as a member of IAABO Board 33 in New Jersey, while also working several freshman and junior varsity boys’ games. And due to her proximity to New York City, she also worked some games in the Empire State.
“I like going to New York to work games to get experience so that when I go to the camps I am already aware of NCAA women’s rules,” Simmons said.
Through it all, Simmons has remained in steady contact with Williamson, firing off emails when she has questions, and discussing possible camp opportunities in the future that will help her reach her goal of one day not only working collegiate basketball, but also at the professional level.
“It drives me,” said Simmons about her long-term goal. “That’s what I want to do, get to the professional level. Back to the professional level, just a different side.”
Of course, not every former player who trades a jersey for stripes will reach the pinnacle of the officiating world. There is a constant need for qualified officials who have a passion for the game at all levels, and that is where Williamson and her camps continue to fill what is still a very specific niche.
In 2017, two Player-to-Ref camps were again offered, at DePaul and at St. John’s University in Queens, N.Y. The original plan was to congregate at the same sites again in 2018, but there was such strong interest in the St. John’s camp that Williamson decided to funnel all her resources into that one camp rather than splitting them among two locations.
“I know there is a bigger demand for more than just the two I’m doing,” Williamson said. “I haven’t really had the time to build it as much as I need to. … It really is my favorite camp of the summer. It’s like coaching. You’re coaching referees who just have to decide if they want to do it. It’s really pretty funny to see them discover the game in a totally different way. It turns the page on their basketball career, just a new chapter.”
Scott Tittrington is an associate editor at Referee. He officiates high school baseball, basketball and football.
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