The NBA is short of referees

An update to Tom Haberstroh's story

Earlier today, Tom Haberstroh published a story about the NBA’s referee shortage. Some games have been played with only two referees, many others have featured officials from the G-League.

We bring you important updates to that story below. But first, for context, an excerpt:

For Magic coach Steve Clifford, this was a long year before April 22, when he tested positive for COVID. 

The result shocked Clifford. For one, he felt fine. No symptoms. Secondly, he had the second dose of his Moderna vaccine the same day he tested positive. The CDC doesn’t consider people fully immunized until two weeks after the second dose, but what were the odds that this wasn’t a false positive? …

When you test positive for COVID, people tend to ask if you know where you could have been exposed. 

This is where referees come to mind. Multiple sources with knowledge of the situation tell TrueHoop that one of the referees in the Magic vs. Hawks game on April 20 reported feeling chills during play—and tested positive for COVID-19 after the game. …

The three officials from that game have yet to work since that April 20 game. 

It isn’t clear how Clifford got infected with COVID-19. But he shared the court with a referee shortly before his positive test. 

Sources close to Clifford say that he has continued to be asymptomatic in isolation and hopes to return to the sidelines soon. Though the vaccine did not prevent Clifford from becoming infected, it may have reduced his chances of hospitalization or severe illness. It may have even saved his life.


We have learned a lot more about NBA officials and COVID since publishing this afternoon’s story:

  • The NBA tells TrueHoop they conduct genomic sequencing (a process of analyzing DNA with the potential to determine how the virus spread) on all positive cases. That means they have the DNA of positive tests from referees, coaches, and players. Sources tell TrueHoop there have been no known or suspected cases of COVID spreading from a referee to any player or team staff member all season.

  • NBA officials are tested at least once a day. On a game day, an official will take the court after a negative test from the day before, another test from the morning of the game, and a negative “point of care” test before the game.

  • In a regular season, referees and NBA teams ordinarily do not stay in the same hotels—to avoid the appearance of fraternizing or favoritism. Sources confirm that this season that practice has been suspended, in the name of making the league’s extensive testing easier.

  • Scott Foster has been out with an injury. Many other absent referees are not working because they are in the league’s health and safety protocols.

  • Four veteran referees will return to the court in the coming days.

  • To clarify Monty McCutcheon’s comments to ESPN about inexperienced referees not calling big games: Newer referees, the league says, will not be working games in the playoffs, nor in games in the final week of the season which have playoff implications.

Thank you for reading TrueHoop!