Tyler Ford makes his living running up and down NBA courts from coast to coast, refereeing games featuring pro basketball’s top players — LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry.
Every night during the 82-game season, he oversees some of the most athletically gifted athletes on the planet.
During those 48-minutes when he’s working up a sweat, Ford ’07 MS ’09, aims to make the right call with every blow of his whistle.
“Without a doubt, it’s the highest level of officiating,” said the 32-year-old Ford, who recently completed his second season with the NBA. “You walk onto the court before the game to 20,000 people in the stands and you feed off that energy.
“But, when the game starts and you’re on the court, you don’t think about them or the millions watching on television. You just try and get every call correct and do your best for the game. That’s the top thing.”
Lucky break started career
Ford admits he owes his fledgling career to hard work, dedication to detail and a lucky break before his freshman year at Ball State.
He was touring campus during orientation when he overheard a guide mention that intramural sports always needed referees.
“I turned to my mom and told her that sounded fun,” Ford said. “I was a three-sport athlete in high school and wanted something that was very competitive.
“Once I started referring my freshman year, things just clicked. From the start, I was very passionate about the game. I wanted to get every call correct and I worked hard on my skills. Ball State was a great place to start my career.”
Ford not only spent time on the basketball court, but picked up assignments in football and volleyball as he learned how to manage highly competitive games.
His ambition and potential were evident early into his freshman year, said Dan Byrnes, the university’s director of sports facilities and recreation.
“Tyler was an outstanding student employee,” Byrnes said. “Right away, we recognized his excellent work ethic along with his desire to learn as much as he could about officiating. He excelled quickly as an intramural flag football and basketball official.
“Tyler also exhibited great leadership qualities, and continued his career in our department as a graduate assistant for two years. He was well liked, and we stay in touch regularly.”
After graduation, Ford went to nearby Purdue University, overseeing intramural sports operations for the Big Ten school across the river from his hometown of Lafayette. There he spent six years sharpening his skills as a high school and then college basketball referee.
Hard work pays off
Ford believes he owes his success so far to the work ethic he fostered as an 18-year-old college freshman, officiating games late into the night in the old Irving Gym — once home to many of Ball State’s athletics programs.
Working in an intramural sports program is one of the more challenging environments for an official, said Jason Adamowicz, who recently left Ball State Recreation Programs to become vice president of operations for the Muncie YMCA.
“You’re officiating your peers who are not managed by a coach,” he said. “So there is a tendency for them to challenge officials in many cases. Intramural officials quickly learn if they are cut out for the job.”
“We used to ref basketball games from 9 p.m. to midnight and then go over the contests, breaking each of them down for another 90 minutes,” Ford said. “There are a lot of great memories at Ball State. It helped make me what I am today.”
From college to the pros
In 2010, Ford was invited to join the refereeing crew for the NBA’s Development League-commonly known as the D-League — and then spent his summers with the WNBA.
He honed his skills for five summers in the D-League, including 11 playoff games and the 2015 D-League final.
Now, the former Ball State intramural official has made it to the top level of professional basketball where every game is different and the speed of play can be intimidating to many young officials.
“It’s a very emotional game where the pressure to be successful is incredible,” said Ford, who’s next step is officiating NBA playoff games once he works another season to earn his seniority status. “Players and coaches get excited, but we try to handle every situation in an emotionally controlled way.”
Traveling to officiate NBA games in arenas before packed houses with celebrities on the sidelines may seem glamorous, but Ford attests it is not all it’s cracked up to be.
“The travel is difficult to say the least,” said Ford, who has a wife, Danielle, and young son back at home in Lafayette. “There are months when I get home one day do laundry, repack, see my family and am out the door early the next day. It’s grueling, but I love it.”
Ford plans to spend his summer preparing for the 2017-18 season, working as hard every day on his conditioning and officiating skills as he did when he was a Ball State freshman. He’s already hitting the gym and watching tapes of the previous season as he looks forward to summer league games.
“The regular season is over but I’m still learning by watching games on TV or video. My goal is have a video reply system in my head that allows me to recognize a play as it happens and then make the correct call.”