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‘Refereeing allowed me to go into environments I never dreamt of’ – Vassallo

Newly appointed FIBA commissioner BERNARD VASSALLO has been around the game of basketball for more than 20 years, having officiated games in various parts of the world until his international retirement over the summer. Vassallo spoke to Kurt Aquilina about his career…

Referees are an important part of the game, however, they are possibly the least to be discussed throughout the sporting world. Asked about this, FIBA commissioner Bernard Vassallo said that while officials are an integral part of the game, they are offering a service.

“Officials are not the game – they are part of the game,” he told the Times of Malta.

“Without officials there will not be a game but it is bad if officials look at the game in a sense that they are indispensable to it. They are part of the game and they offer a very important service for the game – ultimately the game is the players themselves who offer a spectacle for spectators and those watching the sport.”

Vassallo, who led the officiating for the final of the Commonwealth Games in 2006 among many other international commitments, believes that him moving from playing in the local first division to becoming an official opened doors to experiences which he had never dreamt of having.

“(In my playing days) I tore a tendon that joins the hip to the knee, which makes it almost impossible to jump on my left leg. I was a guard so, I definitely had to jump to continue playing in the first division,” Vassallo recounts.

“Doctors told me ‘it’s going to be impossible for you to play basketball’. It was a big blow for me because I missed the game immensely but then I got a suggestion of the then-president of the Malta Basketball Association Joe Farrugia, where he came up with the idea that I could referee.

“I had already done some work way before while coaching. But my first reaction was that I would never join those (officials).

“But eventually I changed my mind and things went by so fast. Probably the fact that I used to play in the first division also meant I had some knowledge of the game and that helped me

understand the players and what was going on the court.

“You are still involved in sport and if you take refereeing seriously and in the right way, you will see the game from a different perspective and it can also allow you to go into environments that I never dreamt of going when I was young.

“If nothing, the fact that I chose to become a referee, made it possible for me to go into certain arenas and smell and live the atmosphere. To be on the court with certain players, to see the game, to feel the atmosphere within a packed arena and thousands of spectators in an important game, it’s a pleasure. It might seem stressful, but life is stressful. I like to look at life positively, so stress is also good.”

Asked about the psychological aspect of the role within the game, Vassallo stressed that the mental element is vital, not only for a referee, but for any athlete.

“I was lucky to meet two important mentors as regards psychological preparation and I started applying visual imagery before the games which helped and improved my game.

“But when I came back to Malta and I talked about these things in the early 2000s, there were people – not only in basketball – who tried to make a mockery out of me,” Vassallo explained.

“We know today that this (psychological preparation) is very important – it is what is turning athletes into super athletes – this is the way forward. Gone are the days that you take a ball and start practicing.

“An athlete nowadays is the full package – fundamentals and sports science, which is the make or break if you want to improve or not.

A keen observer of the game, Vassallo has seen it all on the court. However, experiences like officiating youth international games like the 2013 Under-18 European Championships in Latvia have given him the opportunity to officiate for games involving today’s stars.

Buzzer-beater

“The best game I remember, because there was great chemistry (between the officiating team) both before and during the game, was in 2013 – Spain against Latvia when Spain won with a buzzer-beater three-pointer for a one-point win.

“In Latvia there were the likes of (Kristaps) Porzingis playing, and William Hernangomez for Spain,” he said.

“I remember being in the dressing room for games, hearing the supporters and there will be butterflies in your stomach. But obviously through experience, once you whistle your first call, sometimes the more people there are in the gym, the easier it is for you to keep focused.”

Asked about players he knew would be stars while watching them on court, Vassallo was quick to point out NBA players like Spain’s Ricky Rubio, whom he had officiated for during the guard’s Under-16 days, and Slovenia’s Luka Doncic.

However, for Vassallo, the player who made him work the most, was none other than former San Antonio Spurs shooting guard Manu Ginobili.

“I was refereeing a KORAC game in Italy and there were three players who eventually won the gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, but there was also Manu Ginobili playing,” he said.

“This was before he went to America to play in the NBA and I still remember his first step was amazing. I was still a 28/29-year- old referee, so quite inexperienced.

“But his first step was so fast – I had never seen anybody with a first step so fast and after the game, I was a wreck, having tried to keep up with the speed of Ginobili.”

Despite all of this, Vassallo’s refereeing career ended in an unfortunate fashion, after COVID-19 restrictions stopped him from achieving his 500th game in charge before retirement.

He recalled how while looking forward to such a milestone, he received a positive PCR test two days prior to his final tournament, the Small Countries Games in Ireland where Malta took bronze.

Due to local quarantine rules, Vassallo was forced to stay put despite taking another five tests which had resulted negative and while he said that FIBA had also offered him the chance to officiate in a later tournament, he was still unable to complete his target, finishing off his career with the Women’s Small Countries Games in Cyprus.

Vassallo now occupies a different role within basketball’s international association, instructing referees both locally and overseas as a video observer.

“Of course, it’s different than being on the court. I’m in my honeymoon period of my new responsibilities but I’m learning the trade,” he said.

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