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Simone Jelks: From women’s hoops star to NBA referee

Jelks, the only African American woman who is currently a full-time ref in the league, talks about her unique career path

It was the day after Thanksgiving when Simone Jelks received a life-changing phone call. She was being promoted to a full-time NBA referee, making her the fifth woman and only African American woman to currently hold that title in the league. The call couldn’t have come at a better time for Jelks.

“That call brings goose bumps back to me,” Jelks told The Undefeated recently. “I remember that call like it was yesterday because I had just got out of a serious relationship. … So I was on an emotional roller-coaster ride thinking, ‘Man, like, what is going on? Can something go right in my life?’ I don’t know if the NBA is going to be starting again [due to the pandemic]. I don’t know if I’m going to have a job. I don’t know about my personal relationships. Like, ‘Lord, just give me a sign.’ Literally, within 24 hours, I got a call from my team saying, ‘Hey, just want to let you know, we’re hiring you to be a full-time NBA referee.’

“I was excited, but it’s so much more than that. It was like God was giving me a sign like, ‘I’ve never left you. I got you. And I got big plans for you.’ So, when one door closes, another door opens. You could see I’m getting emotional now because that call came when I was at a low point. So I was just very grateful, very excited and drove straight to my parents’ house and just broke down.”

Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner broke the NBA’s gender barrier among referees in 1997. Palmer, the NBA’s first African American female referee, officiated 919 games and became the first woman to referee an NBA playoff game in 2006 before retiring in 2016.

Jelks is the second African American woman to referee in the NBA full time. (Danielle Scott is also an African American woman who referees NBA games, but as a nonstaff official.)

A former University of Southern California women’s basketball star who played professionally in Puerto Rico and overseas in Croatia, Jelks refereed women’s basketball on the college level for three years, in the Mid-American Conference and the Horizon League, and then in the G League. Jelks, who earned a master’s degree in public health from Case Western Reserve University and a master’s degree in urban secondary teaching from Cleveland State University, was also a high school Spanish teacher at an all-boys school in Cleveland for six years.

The following is a Q&A with Jelks, 35, about her path to the NBA.

When did you first start dreaming about being an NBA referee?

When I got hired in the G League. When I was refereeing women’s college basketball, I really wasn’t thinking, ‘Hey, I want to be an NBA ref.’ It was just like, ‘Hey, I want to be the best ref I can be in women’s basketball. And in the position I’m at, I want to be really good at that.’ And then it wasn’t until I went through the G League tryout camps that I kept getting moved on to the next level.

How did you get to the G League referee camp?

Natalie Sago, who’s one of the current NBA female, full-time referees. I was at a women’s college camp [in 2017], tryout camp, in the summer. I never met Natalie before. And she came up to me after a game and took me aside and said, ‘Hey, here’s a card.’ And it was a card of the NBA officials’ scout. And she said, ‘You should really give him a call because he’s interested in female officials who want to officiate professional men’s basketball.’ …

They had three tryouts. And after the first one, they sent me an email saying, ‘You progressed to the second tryout.’ After the second tryout, they said, ‘You progressed to the third tryout.’ Final tryout, my luggage got lost in the airline and I went to the Men’s Wearhouse, bought some [black] men’s dress pants, cut the belt loops off. I was making it work. And through that camp, they were like, ‘We’re going to hire you to the G league.’

“Final tryout, my luggage got lost in the airline and I went to the Men’s Wearhouse, bought some [black] men’s dress pants, cut the belt loops off. I was making it work.”

What were you thinking at that point?

‘Why not?’ That is an opportunity that you don’t get every lifetime and just the challenge of both women’s and men’s officiating is challenging, but then you add that extra level of being a woman in a man’s world. That’s an extra challenge, and I wanted the extra challenge just to see if I could do it.

Have you had any conversations with Violet Palmer?

Absolutely. Violet is an incredible woman and she’s such an honest woman. She doesn’t sugarcoat things. And every time that I’ve reached out to her, she’s given me nothing but just honesty and transparency.

What’s the best advice that she’s given you?

Be yourself. Don’t be anybody else out there because you can only be you. And that goes a long way. And it helps you in a lot of different situations, whether that’s with management, whether that’s with the coaches, with the players, just be yourself.

What was the first NBA game you refereed?

My first game was a preseason game and it was the first NBA game [Oct. 5, 2019] at the new Chase Center [in San Francisco] between the [Los Angeles] Lakers and Golden State [Warriors]. It was really cool because our assigner at the time assigned me to do a couple of the Lakers scrimmages before the actual game. I was able to just get my eyes adjusted to the speed of play.

I did not tell anybody at the scrimmages that I would be officiating that first game. So it was funny that when the Lakers walked out, they kind of look like, ‘Hey, aren’t you all a couple G League referees? You were just doing our scrimmage.’ And then I remember [then-Lakers guard] Rajon Rondo came over and he just looked and he was like, ‘Congratulations. See you out here.’ And I know that meant a lot to me.

Referee Simone Jelks (left) and head coach Nick Nurse (right) of the Toronto Raptors have a conversation in the second quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Moda Center on Jan. 11 in Portland, Oregon.

Abbie Parr/Getty Images

How would you describe being an NBA referee so far?

I love the fact that I’m an NBA referee. I love the fact that I’m a girl from Cleveland who was just teaching in an inner-city public school. And now I’m on a platform where my former students can see that. When I was telling them, ‘Guys, just work hard, do the right things, be patient.’ I kind of see some of the things I was talking about with them coming into fruition. So, I love my job because of what it means on a larger level. What it means for what I’ve accomplished personally. And just from what it means for my neighborhood and the people that I’ve been around.

How does having played at USC and internationally help you in this job?

It helps me with the mindset. First of all, with travel and being isolated a lot. A lot of times in officiating, we’re on the road for 20 days and then go home for a few days and then get back on the road. So it helps me with understanding that you’ve got to just find some type of mental balance, some way to keep yourself grounded on the road. It also helps me understand the players’ frustrations. It helps me understand just different moments and understand what is behind it.

Everyone’s out there just trying to do their best. And I think that helps me with my communication.

What is the biggest thing you learned as a part-time referee?

I’m never going to be perfect. There is no such thing as officiating a perfect game. And when you’re a former athlete, you’re really competitive with yourself. Some nights you can’t sleep well, and you go back [mentally to the game] and you get so mad. You’re like, ‘Dang, I could’ve done this better. That better.’ Sometimes that strive for perfection is like paralysis. It’s paralyzing. It doesn’t give yourself the freedom to just work.

And that’s what I continue to learn and I continue to try to implement every night. Give yourself permission to work, to make mistakes, to grow. And that has helped me tremendously.

Your last non-refereeing job was as a teacher at Ginn Academy in Cleveland, which is an all-boys public high school. Did that prepare you at all for officiating in the NBA?

Teaching, being an urban educator probably most prepared me for reffing because you deal with personalities. You deal with students that come from all different types of backgrounds and they bring their baggage into the classroom. And before I could even start teaching, I had to listen. I had to observe, I had to just understand, ‘OK, what is it today that is preventing this young man from doing his work in the classroom?’ And every student is different.

You can’t react to every student the same way. Kind of like coaching. Every player doesn’t react the same way or respond the same way to criticism. So my patience level went from zero patience before teaching to a hundred thousand percent because you really have to learn how to be a good communicator when you are an urban educator. And that prepared me significantly for officiating in the NBA.

What advice would you give to others who wants to be like you?

The same advice that Violet gave me, ‘Be yourself,’ because that’s the only person you can be. It’s not your job to make people comfortable with you. It’s 2021. It’s your job to work hard, to be good at your job, to always realize you have room for growth, to be confident, to be strong and just be you. Don’t try to fulfill some type of stereotype. Just be you.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.