An NCAA basketball umpire walks away


When the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Round of 16 begins Thursday night, Dwayne Gladden will be at his home in Virginia Beach watching every minute.

Had he had a choice, he would have happily been at one of the four locations and worked as a referee, but he is also at peace as a spectator.

Last week, Gladden officiated in his 16th NCAA tournament, knowing that the first-round game between Furman and Virginia in Orlando would almost certainly be his last game in 32 years, starting with high school games that a young Allen Iverson played through Games involved at the top was collegiate conferences.

“I was really ready to retire a year ago,” he said Wednesday after finishing the daily two-hour workout at the gym, which he hopes to continue. “I called my bosses and told them I was ready to get off the streets and spend more time with my family. I was 63. I felt like I had a great run and it was about time.”

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Two of his bosses, Bryan Kersey (ACC) and John Cahill (Big East), urged him to give himself some time to breathe at the end of a long season. Travel has been more difficult for officials following the pandemic shutdown, and with fewer flights and smaller planes, Gladden traveled to games more frequently.

“I didn’t enjoy it,” he said. “As soon as I got to the games and the arena I felt the adrenaline and loved the work. I didn’t enjoy the commute to and from work.”

He eventually decided to come back that season, but by mid-January he had decided it would be his last. “I had a game at Bryant [in Rhode Island] and my flight was canceled so I had to drive,” he said. “It took about seven hours to get there. I just decided that enough is enough. It was time.”

He began quietly telling people, starting with his wife Cynthia and their three grown children. By the time he got to the Atlantic 10 tournament in Brooklyn, word had spread.

“I had the St. Joseph’s Dayton game and both coaches” — the Hawks’ Billy Lange and the Flyers’ Anthony Grant — “made it their mission to congratulate me on my career when I shook hands before the game went,” said Gladden. “Anthony didn’t let go of my hand. He kept telling me how much I meant to the sport. When he finally let me go, I cried.”

Perhaps Grant was showing how far Gladden had come. He was one of the first black officials to work in a major league when then-supervisor Fred Barakat began assigning him ACC games in 1995.

Gladden had grown up on Chicago’s west side and was recruited at 6ft 4 to a number of Division I schools. He ended up in Southern Illinois but decided after two years that he wasn’t going to play professionally and had to look around for what came next. Turns out it was the Air Force.

“I didn’t want to go home like a lot of my friends,” he said. “Too many of them ended up on drugs or on the streets. To be honest, that’s what I feared. I figured the military would give me some kind of discipline that I needed. My father wasn’t around when I was a kid and I needed authority figures in my life. I have that in the Air Force.”

He started as a security guard and ended up as a male nurse. He spent 22 years in the Air Force and retired on all accomplishments in 2004.

“By then I was starting to get a lot of games in a lot of leagues,” he said. “The money kept getting better and I really didn’t want to play again” – he had been sent to the Philippines and Korea – “because it would ruin my refereeing career. So I got out.”

He had started working as a referee to raise some extra money while stationed at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia. He made $40 a game by working high schools and then moved on to the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference at about $200 a game.

“I honestly never thought about working at the ACC or any other big league,” he said. “I knew it was difficult to climb the ranks when you were a black official. I was thrilled to get the chance to work at the CIAA tournament. That felt pretty great to me.”

But Kersey saw Gladden at work and suggested he attend Barakat’s summer camp for civil servants to gain more experience and exposure. Barakat liked what he saw and hired him to edit Big South games. A year later he began using it at the CAA. Then came the ACC.

His career was going quite well when he made a mistake. When he entered a CAA game, he forgot to take off his earring. Barakat kept a close watch on how his umpires entered and exited the arenas, and when one of the other officials told Barakat what had happened, Gladden got into trouble.

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“Fred Barakat was the father figure I never had,” Gladden said, laughing. “But he was an absolute advocate. A week later at the CAA tournament, he read me the riot. The next season I went from 15 CAA games to no CAA games. It hurt and it threw me back.”

Gladden decided to go in a different direction that summer and went to Rich Falk’s Big Ten camp. “Falk loved me,” he said. “He gave me a lot of important Big Ten games.”

The Big Ten got Gladden into the NCAA tournament for the first time in 2007. When John Clougherty succeeded Barakat as supervisor of the ACC, he began giving gladden games again, including in the conference tournament.

Gladden played up to 84 games in a season and at every NCAA tournament until 2022, when then-NCAA acting coordinator JD Collins called and told him he would not be selected. Gladden was disappointed. He had both knees replaced in July 2020 and had worked fanatically to be ready for the start of this Covid-stricken season.

“I’ve never missed a game,” he said. “I really think I’m in better shape now and running better than ever. When JD told me he wasn’t taking me, I just said, ‘I see.’ I didn’t, but what should I say? It was his reputation.”

Referees don’t get much credit, but Gladden performed exactly as an official would want. After the A-10 game in Brooklyn, he found all the umpires working for the tournament waiting for him in the dressing room. His good friend, fellow referee Les Jones, handed him the ball – signed by all the officials.

Three days later, he returned to his roots and worked on the MEAC title game. An email came the next day saying he was back in the NCAA tournament.

His last three games have been about the last few seconds. The key move in the game between Virginia and Furman came when the Cavaliers’ Kihei Clark attempted to force a pass out of a doubles team, resulting in a winning three-pointer for the Paladins. “I felt terrible for the kid,” Gladden said.

When the game was over, Gladden and his partners Jerry Heater and Michael Greenstein left while Furman celebrated and Virginia mourned. They walked away completely unnoticed. Gladden wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. An NCAA basketball umpire walks away

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