Former Los Angeles Lakers point guard Smush Parker says he was “born with a basketball.” Both of his parents were ardent players, so Parker has been around the game since he was an infant. Now, though, he’s more likely to have a whistle in his hand. Yes, the 41-year-old is looking to become just the fourth former NBA player to referee in the league. But he says it’s no easy task to master the ropes.
“I never liked referees when I was a player,” says Parker, with a laugh. “I was an up-and-coming player, I wasn’t one of the stars. So, there were a lot of calls that didn’t go in my favor.”
Parker says if he makes the NBA as a ref, he won’t engage in the “unwritten rule” that the big stars get the calls. He knows everyone in the league is playing for a job, much like he was back in the day. The former guard, who signed initially with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2002 after going undrafted out of Fordham University, says he remembers the day he got his first NBA contract and how meaningful it was to him. He ended up playing for both LA teams – the Clippers and Lakers.
“The coolest thing about playing in LA is playing for Hollywood,” says Parker. “You’ve got Jack Nicholson sitting courtside. Denzel Washington, who is also a New York guy from Fordham, sitting on the opposite side of the court. There are famous actresses, stars. You look around and you’re like, ‘These are the entertainers of the world and they’re here to be entertained by us.’ It was a pretty cool atmosphere.”
After his six years in the NBA, which ended in 2008, Parker played in China, Russia and Greece. On his travels, he took note of the different styles of play, from the athletic NBA to the more physical foreign offerings. He wasn’t so much watching the referees then, he says, as learning the different approaches to the game. But when Parker decided to pick up a whistle, he found clarity.
“Heading towards the end of my playing days,” Parker says, “I started to realize I wasn’t going to be able to play basketball forever. So, I gave thought to what I was going to do for the next 20 years of my life – I gave it a lot of thought. I knew I didn’t want to go directly into coaching, I knew I didn’t want to go directly into training. Then the referee idea just popped into my head. I was like, ‘You know what? That’s it!’”
Parker remembers being paid $15 a game to referee youth basketball as a teenager in his hometown of New York City. Today, the career is a little more lucrative – top NBA referees make more than $250,000 a year.
“For a 13-year-old back in the 90s, getting $15 a game, that was a lot of money!” Parker says.
With his experience as a player (and now official), the former floor general knows that no matter what, one team is going to be happy with a call and the other team is going to be upset. “Officiating is a thankless job,” he says. “It’s not for the weak-hearted.”
But he also knows violations like fouls and traveling invariably happen and one team has to inevitably lose, even if their fans think that it’s often the refs’ fault when that happens. He’s given out technical fouls, he’s garnered complaints and mean-mugging. It’s all part of the job. But Parker also stands out. In a profession that often features anonymous people, he is a known quantity.
“For me,” he says, “it’s different. Everybody knows who I am. That takes a toll sometimes, when players, coaches and fans can make it more personal because they know your name.”
Parker, who was given the nickname Smush by his mother when he was a baby, began to put in work for his new profession as soon as the refereeing epiphany came to him. He took the requisite written classes and passed. Then he passed the on-court tests, which quiz a hopeful ref on where they’re supposed to stand, how certain calls are made and the like. Then he got into real games to build up his experience level. “Every game is a learning experience,” he says. To date, he’s officiated in a semi-pro competition, The Basketball League. He’s also refereed junior college games, varsity and junior varsity high school games and high-level AAU games. He’s been to several NBA referee camps, too.
“I’m leaving it all in God’s hands,” says Parker. “Nothing is guaranteed. It’s very competitive. I tell people all the time, it may be harder for me to make it to the NBA as an official than it was even as a basketball player.”
In the NBA, there are between 450 and 500 roster spots but only 70-80 full-time officials. Even as a former player in the pros, Parker says there was a lot he didn’t know about the rules, regulations and nuances of the game – things he’s learning about much more today in his ref studies. He also says he has more patience when it comes to the players he officiates, because he knows what it was like to be in their shoes. But Parker says he can’t think like a basketball player anymore, instead he has to think like an official.
“I have to retire ‘Smush Parker’ and move on as ‘William Parker, the referee,’” he says.
To do so, he says he’s talked with several standout referees, including Haywoode Workman, one of the three former NBA players to become refs (the others are Bernie Fryer and Leon Wood). Parker, who has the highest career scoring average among the four, has also talked with NBA referee Zach Zarba, who he calls a “mentor.” Although he has access to these accomplished officials, Parker says his journey to ref in the NBA still won’t be easy.
“It’s not going to be handed to me just because I’m a former NBA player,” he says. “That’s been loudly spoken to me. It’s not just going to be given to me.”
Parker is part of the NBA Grassroots Referee Program. With progress, he will be elevated to more competitive games. Future benchmarks include top AAU tournaments, NBA Summer League games and those in the developmental G-League. “It’s a matter of being consistently great at play-calling, [being] sharp on mechanics, and being fit,” he says.
As he continues, Parker says he has “a lot more empathy and sympathy” for referees. It’s not an easy job. As he says, it’s a thankless one. The referee is never 100% right in any situation – at least, if you ask fans and players. But Parker is OK with that because he appreciates the work. It’s not for the faint of heart. But it is for him.
“We as referees jokingly say all the time when we’re getting trash talk from fans and family members, ‘Here’s a whistle, if you think you can do a better job, come out here!’” he says.
Parker explains that he’s enjoying the full support of his family on his new journey. They give encouragement and help him believe in himself, even when shreds of doubt may creep in along the way. He doesn’t spend a lot of time with former teammates these days, but he believes he’d have their support, too. Officiating is his calling now.
“Officiating gives me a chance to still be out there on the court,” Parker says. “Every time I walk out there, I feel part of the game. It’s fun to see the glee on some of these kids’ faces when their coaches tell them who I am. That respect level hits a little bit different.”