Bryan Kersey refereed his first game as a 10th grader and was physically assaulted afterward by the losing coach, who had to be restrained by police. Undeterred, by the time he was in his early 20s the son of a highly regarded NBA ref was officiating in the Colonial Athletic Association and Big South.
By age 26, Kersey was working ACC games as well. For the next 27 years he was one of the best officials the conference had, advancing to 21 ACC tournaments, seven finals among them, and 20 NCAA tournaments, topped by the 2015 Final Four.
Now, after officiating the 2016 ACC tournament championship game, and later Duke’s defeat by No.1-seed Oregon in the Sweet 16, Kersey has retired permanently to the sidelines.
“There’s nothing better than standing in front of 20,000 getting ready to throw the ball up,” Kersey says. “Nothing can duplicate that. That will be the hardest part of not refereeing. I loved refereeing. Loved it. Thought I was good at it, but I had a lot of help getting to that point.”
He’s not wandering far from the role he embraced, taking a job he’d long considered an intriguing possibility – last week Kersey formally started work as the ACC’s coordinator of men’s basketball officiating. “I never would have thought I would come off the court at 53,” he says. “I thought I would work eight or nine more years and then ride off into the sunset.”
Quick with a quip, laugh, or mildly self-deprecating remark, the product of Newport News, Virginia, clearly enjoyed what he was doing. Perhaps too much in the eyes of some, given that big-time basketball is serious business, with calls instantly analyzed and rebroadcast in one form or another. “You have to live in a house with mirrors, I guess is the best way to put it,” Kersey says of contemporary officiating.
While not a fan of the NBA’s “two-minute report” on calls made or missed in the late going, Kersey does want ACC officials at their best as a game reaches its climactic moments. A play in the first few minutes ultimately counts as much as one while the clock winds down, yet Kersey recognizes end-game decisions will be closely scrutinized. “I think from the last media timeout on, we have to be perfect,” he offers. “We’re not going to be, but we have to strive for that.”
That’s not to say he buys assertions that effectively relegate officials to anonymous ciphers constrained by a tightly edited script.
To be sure, Kersey dismisses antics like those employed by the late Lou Bello, who wore knee pads so he could slide along the floor while delivering a call. Don’t mention Dick Paparo ostentatiously whistling a violation from halfway across the court, or the hard edge of Karl Hess, who saw the verbal tug of war between ref and coach as a battle of “power and control.” Preferring public anonymity, Kersey regards respectful pregame introductions of officials, once routine, as a gesture belonging to the distant past.
I got in trouble a lot for laughing on the court, joking on the court. Smiled too much. But I was never going to change, and I was successful by doing that.
ACC coordinator of men’s basketball officiating Bryan Kersey
Just don’t expect him to admonish a ref for sharing the ball with a youngster during a timeout, as veteran ref Roger Ayers did at a recent game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, or to stifle other sparks of humanity that animate the work of those wearing black and white. “I think if our guys have fun doing this, I think they’ll be better. If they have as much fun as I had,” Kersey says. “I got in trouble a lot for laughing on the court, joking on the court. Smiled too much. But I was never going to change, and I was successful by doing that.”
The lightness of Kersey’s manner was part of his effectiveness and charm, and it promises to stand him in good stead as a supervisor.
“He’s a social animal,” says Paul Brazeau, the ACC’s Associate Commissioner for Men’s Basketball. “He enjoys life.” The role of successful boss is nothing new to Kersey, either. He’ll be throttling down his involvement in an insurance agency he’s run for 24 years, which encompasses two offices and 11 employees. “Anything you see insured, I think I sell, except for horses and dogs, and that’s only because nobody has asked me to insure horses and dogs,” he says.
Flexible employment is a prerequisite for basketball refs, who travel to games five months of the year and work as independent contractors. Kersey doesn’t expect or want that diffuse arrangement to change despite persuasive arguments for a centralized system fostering more consistent officiating nationwide and guaranteeing employee benefits. Nor is he bothered by officials traveling with the frequency of airplane flight attendants. Last season Kersey recalls working 94 or 95 games.
“I think we need to teach our guys how to travel,” he offers as an adequate approach. He insists veteran officials do learn to manage time to stay fresh – arriving early in town on game day, engaging in a workout, sleeping five or six hours before heading to the arena. (Personally, Kersey is unable to sleep while the sun’s up, and hates everything about air travel.) He also intends to coordinate with other leagues’ officiating supervisors to shorten the distances traveled when refs hop from game to game in different conferences.
Seeking “fresh blood”
Kersey vows to circulate often throughout the league during the basketball season to observe his charges in action. Although he won’t be on the floor, he relishes remaining immersed in the rhythms of college basketball, especially the electric atmosphere accompanying ACC contests, a major factor in his embrace of the pseudo-amateur product over the life his father, Jess Kersey, led in the NBA.
Bryan Kersey repeatedly uses words such as excitement, passion and energy to describe the qualities he intends to cultivate in ACC officials, veterans as well as the younger group he’s keen on recruiting and training. “I want our staff to be excited about every game,” he says. “I think that’s the beauty of sports – it’s not 9-to-5 where every day is the exact same. Every day is different in what we do. I think that’s what makes our job so great.”
Word is out he’s seeking what he calls “fresh blood,” and officials young and old are eagerly offering transfusions. “Everybody in the country wants to work in the ACC,” Kersey says. “I can’t tell you how many phone calls I’ve got from people that are wanting to come. I have more friends right now that I’ve ever had in my life. The league is the best, in my opinion, and we’re going to honor the league by getting the best referees we can get.”
Taking up where retired predecessor John Clougherty left off, Kersey has steered promising young officials to three summer camps where they’ll receive instruction in the mornings that adheres closely to NCAA standards. Then comes hands-on experience working games in the afternoon and evening while he and senior ACC referees offer guidance. “Our main goal now is to develop some guys,” Kersey says. “We’re just trying to revamp. Not that our staff is bad.”
Certainly not as bad as many fans and media members insist, whether or not they understand the rules and reasoning behind the calls they critique.