The would-be doctor who became NBA’s first Indian-origin referee

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Back in 2013, when Suyash Mehta decided not to head to the medical school after studying neurobiology at the University of Maryland, USA and instead go on an educational training camp with the National Basketball Association (NBA), it did not go down well with his parents.

It was the first major step that Mehta had taken as part of his decision to join NBA as a referee. It was not easy for him to convince his parents. The opposition was expected. His father, Joginder Pal Mehta, originally from Chandigarh, is a retired physician specialising in internal medicine while mother Sarita Mehta is a botanist. They had immigrated to USA in 1980s. Like other Indians who move to the US, they too had an American dream and wanted their son to pursue his dream of of becoming a doctor.

The 29-year-old, who became the first full-time Indian-origin referee to officiate in NBA League for the 2020-2021 season in December last year, has been part of the NBA referee roster since then and has officiated in more than 20 games this season.

“While I had played basketball in high school and at the University of Maryland, I could not have thought in a million years that I will become a referee, let alone a NBA referee, some day. After my college, I was preparing for MCATS before this opportunity to try out the referee programme came up. When I got selected for the minor leagues and later the then NBA D-league, I had to sit with my parents and had to explain to them about this dream. It was definitely not the easiest decision for myself or my parents and it was only when I took then to watch me officiate in a Las Vegas Summer League in 2015 that they realised how big it was. And now to see them watching me officiate in NBA and see all the relatives talking about basketball instead of cricket in India has been quite a journey for me,” shares Mehta.

A native of Baltimore, Maryland, Mehta, who is one of the four children of his parents, would be interested in officiating in a basketball game with his roommate at University of Maryland, Gediminas Petraitis. While Petraitis is officiating in his fifth season in NBA as a referee, Mehta would first officiate in NCAA Division 3 matches before joining the then NBA D-League in 2015 apart from Summer League. The Indian-origin referee officiated in five seasons in the now NBA G League and also officiated as a non-staff official during the 2019-2020 NBA season held in bio- secure bubble in Florida, Orlando. “I would say that the most any person helped me in being a referee was Petraitis. He was my roommate and having been selected for the NBA, he was my mentor and role model. On TV, I would also watch NBA referees like Zach Zarba and Scott Foster. Having interacted with the likes of Zarba and others, the general consensus has been that never stop learning. That’s what most of the successful people do and it’s the same with the referees. Whenever I get time with the referees, my aim is to listen to all the talk and absorb everything like a sponge,” shares Mehta.

The first time Mehta officiated was the game between Chicago Bulls and Golden State Warriors at the United Centre, Chicago on December 27 last year and the 29-year-old is quick to share about that experience. “Though I treat each and every game the same and tell myself that I have to give my best, one of the things which my mentors told me when I got to my first NBA game in December was to take a look at the arena and that’s what I did. The only thought which came in my mind was that I hope that I will be part of such memorable games in the future,” recalls Mehta.

Though he was not part as a official during the bio-secure bubble in the last season, this season has seen Mehta spending time at different venues. It also means that Mehta is officiating without the presence of fans, a thing which he has done almost all his career and he is quick to share about the experience. “Standing in the bio-bubble has its challenges mentally as well physically. It tests your will and players and staff have talked with life coaches and therapists during this time. But we understand that this has taught us a lot of discipline. Officiating without fans is almost bit funny. As referees, we are so used to booing by fans and the criticism of fans. It’s something that has never influenced me but we would focus on the core ability to block what we called white noise and it sometimes helped my focus,” shares Mehta.

Being a referee also means that Mehta is officiating and dictating rules to some of the biggest names in the world of basketball but the Indian-origin referee sees this as an important aspect of the game and has a human approach to this. “I guess one of the things which we constantly work on the floor is the communication aspect of each role and I think the best approach has been to humanize everyone. It is a very competitive sport and the focus is to deescalate the situations and to have conversations with the players that remains conversations and not a yelling match,” shared Mehta.

Though Mehta does not have any current plans to pursue medicine, he draws some similarities with the medical profession. “I always wanted to be an emergency room physician and when I worked in an emergency room for clinical experience before applying to medical school, there were instances where we had to take decisions in a split second. So referring is no different than that. Obviously, I am not saving lives here but to make that split decision — that whether it’s a charge or a block — requires the same instant decision making and I believe since I was used to being able to handle such situations in medical room, it helps me here,” says Mehta.

Though Mehta recalls having some bad experiences growing up in USA as a child in terms of racial abuse at school, the referee believes it has been a welcoming move by NBA for him. “It was not easy growing up as there was always a sense of non-inclusion whether in high school or sport. But the experience of NBA has been a welcoming one. Yes, there is a far way to go where we are now but so far, it has been nothing short of a welcome for me,” says Mehta.

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