NBA referee Suyash Mehta, the first person of Indian origin to become an official in the world’s most prestigious league for basketball, discusses his journey
He gets to rub shoulders with some of the all time greats of the sport of basketball, and works in the top tier of the game — the NBA; but Suyash Mehta has something unique that he can lay claim to.
Born to immigrant parents in the US, Suyash is the first person of Indian descent to become an NBA referee. “My parents came to America in the ‘80s and my father pursued a career in medicine. My mother was a botanist but later raised four kids, she had her hands full. Our whole upbringing was based on our parents educating us about Indian values; our first language was Hindi and then we ended up learning English,” he says, over a Zoom call from the US.
Suyash was a medical student, but pursued refereeing part-time. However, when there was an opportunity to take it up full-time, he grabbed it with both hands. Excerpts from an interview:
Tell us about your journey from being a medical student to becoming an NBA referee?
I used to play a bit of club basketball during my time at the University of Maryland. It was quite an untraditional path for me because I never thought that I will be a referee. It was something that I was doing as a part-time job in the college. I had this opportunity after college that allowed me to try out for the minor league, and it was the toughest decision of my life because the same year, I had taken my MCAT to go to medical school.
I remember sitting down with my parents and having to explain to them that I may not be going to medical school and that I will be pushing back my decision till the time I pursue this dream of becoming an NBA referee. Luckily for me, it paid off. I would not trade it for anything in the world.
What sort of a pressure situation it is to officiate in an NBA game?
It’s an entirely different realm of players; their athleticism, and ability to play basketball is unmatched and they are the best in the world for a reason. It takes a while to get used to it and am still learning at every game through my mentors.
It’s an internal competition with myself and each time it pushes me to get better. You are on the court with the best players in the world and you have to make right decisions.
Referees are one of the most criticised group in all sports. How do you handle the criticism?
We are so used to hearing the fans and all the boos. However, this year, when there are no fans in the arena, sometimes you tend to miss it. But honestly, it has never really fazed me too much. Especially, pre-pandemic when the arenas were packed, it was always in the background. It was a cool ability to block it out and sometimes it really sharpened my focus.
What sort of physical and mental preparation is required of a referee officiating an NBA game?
The lifestyle of a referee is not too far off from athletes. I don’t think I can say that I can dunk the ball (laughs) but I take my training pretty seriously. We don’t eat fast food. We take health very seriously because it’s the only way you can have longevity in this career, especially because you may be doing it twice as long as some of the players. So, it’s everything… from working out to staying conditioned, to doing cardio, to doing weightlifting. In the off-season, you are always preparing for the start of the next season. It is a constant cycle.