Canada has a long-established imprint on the game of basketball, beginning with James Naismith, the Canadian physical education instructor credited with inventing the sport in 1891 while teaching at a YMCA in Springfield, Mass.
The Basketball Association of America, the precursor to the National Basketball Association, played its first game in Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1946, featuring the Toronto Huskies against the New York Knickerbockers.
Over the years, as the game grew in Canada, the country continued to mark its presence with roughly 40 players making their way to the NBA, by far the most of any country outside of the United States.
Notable Canadian achievements include a couple of No. 1 overall NBA draft picks (Anthony Bennett, Andrew Wiggins), an NBA head coach (Jay Triano), and an NBA most-valuable player (Steve Nash, who won the award in two consecutive years).
And this past season, for the first time in history, the league’s only Canadian-based organization, the Toronto Raptors, won the NBA championship.
But for all the home-grown accomplishments, there has been one surprising omission. In the league’s 73 years of existence, it appears there has never been a Canadian employed as an NBA referee.
That could be changing in the near future – perhaps even this coming season – if Matthew Kallio continues his rapid ascension through the NBA’s arduous officiating training program.
It has not been an easy road to navigate for the 32-year-old Edmonton native, who gave up a promising job in the health-care industry in his hometown to pursue his basketball refereeing aspirations full-time.
“I keep fighting for it because it’s my dream,” Kallio said in a recent interview. “But at the same time, you look back and you’re like, wow, you left it all for just an opportunity? I can say 100 per cent that [it] has been the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Should he make the step up into the NBA, he will likely be the first Canadian to be employed full-time as a referee.
George Toliver has been around the NBA for a long time. He worked more than 700 games during his stint at an NBA referee during a 15-year run from 1988-89 through 2003-04. He is currently the NBA’s associate vice-president, referee development.
Toliver said he cannot state with absolute certainty that there has never been a Canadian employed as an NBA referee. The league has not kept detailed records over the years on the birthplaces of its officials.
But Ron Foxcroft, the dean of basketball officials in Canada, said he is not aware of any Canadian referee who has ever worked in the NBA, a sentiment that was echoed by Canada Basketball.
Toliver has known Foxcroft for a long time and he said he trusts the 73-year-old’s insight into this matter.
Kallio was a basketball player growing up in Edmonton, but he decided to forgo that when he enrolled at the University of Alberta to study kinesiology. He knew he wasn’t good enough to continuing playing at the highest levels, but he wasn’t quite ready to give up the game completely.
“To be honest, I knew I didn’t have a future playing competitively,” he said. “And at that time, I just wanted to concentrate on academics so I kind of switched gears.
“I still loved the game and definitely missed it. And that’s why I started refereeing. I wanted to get back on the floor.”
After enrolling in the National Officials Certificate Program that provides education and development opportunities for those wishing to referee basketball in Canada, Kallio eventually advanced to the point where he started working games at the college and university level, primarily in Western Canada.
About eight years ago, almost on a whim, he decided to attend a basketball refereeing camp in Las Vegas, where he first got noticed by the NBA, and his officiating career suddenly took off.
Four years ago, he landed a job in the G League, the NBA’s official minor-league basketball organization, and began traipsing through such exotic locales as Fort Wayne, Ind., Grand Rapids, Mich., Sioux Falls, S.D., and Oshkosh, Wis.
The G League is the primary developmental stage, not only for players but also coaches, administrators and officials who one day hope to make the ranks of the NBA or the Women’s NBA, which is also operated by the NBA.
Of the 61 referees working in the G League last season, Kallio was the only Canadian. The rest were all born in the United States, including 20 female officials. He went on to work 43 games in the regular season, 24 of them as crew chief. He also did the first round of the playoffs and another game in the final.
After that, Kallio was hired to work in the WNBA (again, the lone Canadian), another indicator his star continues to shine brightly.
Toliver said he did not yet know if the NBA is going to add to its roster of officials for the 2019-20 season.
Last year, the NBA utilized 73 officials to work the 1,230 games that are played during the regular season. Of that number, three were women. According to the NBA’s website, all the officials were from the United States.
But Toliver made it clear the league has its eye on Kallio, whom he described as one of its bright, young refereeing prospects.
“Matt is extremely professional and devoted to the craft,” Toliver said. “His approach and his work ethic is top level. He’s very personable, he exudes honesty, he’s very accountable – I mean, when he’s wrong he admits that he’s wrong. But he’ll take that information and grow from it, develop it, and have situations where he’s not going to repeat it."
In addition to his hunger to learn, Toliver says, Kallio goes about his work “with humility." However, he adds that when a game starts to get heated, he’s not one for shying away from a challenge.
“When the intensity steps up or there’s a coach interaction, he will step up with courage,” Toliver says. “And he does so not in a reckless manner, but in a professional manner.”
On July 5, Kallio will head to Las Vegas where the NBA will stage its annual summer league, primarily for rookie, sophomore and G League-affiliate players.
It is also an important training camp for prospective professional officials, who will work the games before a cluster of NBA refereeing executives, consultants and past and current NBA refs who are on hand as supervisors and instructors.
It is here where G League and WNBA refereeing recruits such as Kallio will get to show their skills and blow their whistles as they try to prove they are ready to handle the rigours of the game at the highest level.
If there are any hires to made by the NBA, they are normally made in the fall prior to the start of a coming regular season, which normally tips off in mid-October.
Foxcroft is the only person in Canada to have refereed at the levels of Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union (now U Sports), FIBA and the NCAA.
He has a picture of himself at work on the court, whistle in mouth, watching Michael Jordan leaping toward the basket for a dunk in November of 1981. It is believed to be Jordan’s first game at the University of North Carolina, an exhibition contest against the Yugoslavian national team.
Foxcroft also worked with the NBA for 14 years as a refereeing evaluator, stationed in Toronto.
The Hamilton native officiated in more than 1,600 international games in 30 countries and also launched Fox 40 International, a company best known for manufacturing the pea-less whistles that are now standard in numerous professional sports leagues, including the NBA.
Foxcroft said he was once pressed into service to referee an NBA game, a preseason contest involving the Buffalo Braves at Maple Leaf Gardens in the early 1970s, when Jack Ramsay was the Buffalo coach. One of the officials took sick before the start of the game
“I went to the game just to watch, but I always kept my stuff in the trunk of my car,” said Foxcroft, who could not recall the Braves’ opponent that evening. “Ramsay knew me and when one of the refs got sick he asked me to step in.”
Two years ago, Kallio said he found he could no longer juggle the demands of working in the G League along with his regular day job as a kinesiologist at an Edmonton primary-care facility. He decided to quit the health-care job to see how far his career path as a basketball official would take him.
“And it’s been a grind, definitely financially,” he said. “I did take a pay cut, and with my job I had benefits. I had kind of the Monday-to-Friday job that was 9-to-5, had the benefits, loved what I was doing. And there was a lot of security to it.
“With basketball, at any moment I could get hurt, and we get paid on a per-game basis, so you’re definitely taking a risk.”
It has been reported that WNBA refs can earn roughly US$16,000 a season. Only when you hit the NBA does the compensation dramatically increase, with entry-level officials making around US$150,000 and senior NBA referees US$600,000.
Kallio said there are plenty of personal sacrifices he has had to make in order to try to follow his basketball dreams. He’s on the road – a lot – and it does not make life easy for himself and his partner, Robyn Fleckenstein, with whom he shares a home in Edmonton.
Fleckenstein is the women’s basketball coach at Augustana, a satellite campus of the University of Alberta that competes in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference.
“I would say, time away from family is the biggest drawback,” Kallio said. “You’re on the road and again, this is not just me being Canadian, it’s everybody in the program. I have a very supportive girlfriend who is a college basketball coach and we get along great. We understand each other’s schedules so that helps me out. But being away from my mom and dad … .”
At this point, Kallio’s voice starts to break as his emotions start to get the better of him.
“It is [hard], but it’s so great,” he finally continued. “I’ve got such a good support network. I’m so fortunate to be able to pursue this. But at the end of the day … again, the only word I can use is fortunate.”
Kallio said he is aware he is on the verge of treading into foreign territory as far as a Canadian possibly working in the NBA is concerned. He said it is kind of neat, but it is not what drives him.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter that I’m Canadian,” he said. “It has everything to do with: Can you make it on the floor and can you be just as good as everyone else? And can you be better than everybody else to get a job?”
Kallio is on the verge of finding that out.