The man making the calls, Bob Delaney, came to the NBA from an unexpected place. Bob spent three years infiltrating the Genovese and Bruno Crime Families and authored the bestselling book Covert: My Years Infiltrating the Mob. After working in covert operations with the New Jersey State Police, Bob made a name for himself as one of the most respected NBA referees.
“The game of basketball has always been a big part of my life since I was 10 years old. When I was doing covert work, I couldn’t play anymore. But it was just something that drew me to the inner peace that comes from being on a basketball floor, the only way I could get back on that floor was to referee,” Bob said.
He began working for the Jersey Shore Summer Pro League and City Pro League in New York before landing a job with the NBA. Bob played basketball through his school years and said that refreering was his way to find inner peace.
“It was my ability to be able to manage a game, because I could start seeing problems happening before they happen because of the training that I had within law enforcement plus, all the stuff that I learned on the street, about being aware and having to be sensitive to what’s going on around you,” Bob said.
“I never had the intention of being an NBA referee, I thought I’d be a state trooper and retire from there and maybe referee at the college level,” Bob said. “But I got into the league, I share it with people all the time, ‘find your inner peace, what gives you inner peace, and then put yourself in that position to be in that environment.’ It’s going to help you in so many ways.”
Bob has worked more than 1,700 regular-season games, 200 playoff contests and nine Finals, including the 1994 Opening NBA Games in Yokohama, Japan and the 2010 NBA China games. He received the prestigious Gold Whistle Award from the National Association of Sports Officials in 2003.
Having retired from his career on the court, Bob now makes it his mission to work with veterans and frontline workers to understand and identify symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He also works with coaches and players who get unexpectedly fired to help them process their sudden career changes. Bob has authored two books on the subject of PTSD: Surviving the Shadows: A Journey of Hope into Post Traumatic Stress and the upcoming Heroes Are Human: Lessons in Resilience, Courage and Wisdom from the COVID Front Lines
“It’s like what Popovich always talks about: the rock doesn’t break on the last time you hit it…It’s all those strikes that took place before. And so that’s the same thing here. We’ve got to continue to have this conversation, open conversations honestly, where people feel comfortable,” Bob said.
While the link between covert operations and basketball may not be apparent at first, Bob explains that there are strong connections between both of his careers.
“What’s interesting about Dr. Naismith’s game of basketball, he was actually doing work with soldiers. And there’s a lot of belief that this was a game that we started to help during the winter months to be able to help them process their post-traumatic stress. So there’s so many levels of what this game does for folks…I think that there was this part of me being undercover.Being a referee, you’re still in the midst of all the action, yet, you’re not the focal point,” Bob said.
As a referee, Bob has worked alongside many athletic legends and had the chance to get to know players personally. He shares a memory of Kobe Bryant and sums up a common feeling regarding his death.
“I think that Kobe’s death struck us in such a way because there was such an identity. We were fortunate to know Kobe. But a lot of folks felt like they knew him because he was in their living rooms. He created memories with their families when they sat around and watched. And then, while his death was through a vehicle that was taking kids to a game, we’ve all either driven kids or have been driven as kids to games with family members. So there were so many connections, subliminal connections to what took place there, that there was a feeling of connection in so many ways with Kobe.”