After 21 years on the road as an NBA referee, Joe DeRosa can finally settle in and spend more time with his family
Joe DeRosa ’79 spent 21 seasons in the NBA. It’s not what you might think, though. He spent his career in the league as a referee, not as a player. What started out as a hobby while at John Carroll University unexpectedly turned into a stellar career refereeing games played by the world’s most talented basketball players.
As a junior at Carroll, DeRosa started refereeing grade-school basketball games at the suggestion of his father, who was a high school referee. After earning a B.S. in Business Administration with a focus on accounting, DeRosa went to work for The Babcock & Wilcox Co.’s construction division as an office manager at various job sites. However, when he took the job, he couldn’t continue to referee for a while because he was traveling so much. At the time, DeRosa was progressing into the high school and junior college ranks of refereeing.
“I always knew I wanted my own business by the time I was 30 because having my own business would allow me to ref college games,” he says. “At the time, I had no interest in refereeing in the NBA.”
DeRosa quit B&W in 1983 and bought a liquor store in Paducah, Ky., where he was living at the time, achieving his goal of owning his own business before he was 30. During the next several years, he and his wife, Patti, bought three more. Eventually, the family started selling the stores off one by one, and in 1991, sold the largest (6,000 square feet) and moved back to Ohio.
In 1985, DeRosa started attending referee camps, and in 1987, he was hired to ref his first Division I college basketball game. Then in 1989, while attending a referee camp in Indiana, Darell Garretson, NBA supervisor of officials, noticed him and invited him to an NBA referee camp where everything – rules, mechanics, etc. – was different compared to the college game.
Being an NBA ref required DeRosa to live out of a suitcase. He was on the road 24 to 26 days a month. When he moved back to Ohio after living in Kentucky, he was gone less – 22 days a month – because he was closer to major airports.
“The travel took its toll,” he says. “The demands off the court were more than the ones on. I missed a lot of the things my kids did growing up. Eventually, my wife would come on one trip a month, and the kids would come every so often when they could. Now, my son, J.B., who’s 19, wants to be an NBA ref, but I discourage him because it’s rough on your family.”
Being on the road so much was one reason why DeRosa retired from the NBA this past summer and why he started a business, Smitty Official’s Apparel, in 2007. Smitty Official’s Apparel designs, manufactures, and sells accessories for sports officials throughout the country. DeRosa’s daughter, Valerie, works for the company.
“This wholesale business was doing well enough that it was time to retire from the NBA,” he says. “I wanted to spend more time at home with my family.”
But DeRosa isn’t completely retired from refereeing. He’s back to refereeing some Divison I college games. And just because DeRosa was an NBA ref, doesn’t mean he has salacious stories about players to tell. One reason for that is the NBA kept referees and players apart. There was very little interaction between the two off the court.
“We weren’t allowed to ask for autographs,” he says. “The only time we could do that was during an all-star game. I couldn’t ask anything from anybody. The league didn’t want any link to, or cause for, preferential treatment when it came time to ref a game.”
However, that didn’t stop Tim Donaghy, a peer of DeRosa’s, from giving the profession a black eye when he was caught fixing games amid a betting scandal in 2007.
“It’s unthinkable to do that,” DeRosa says. “You wouldn’t think about doing that if you were a person with any integrity. I never got close to him. None of us had a clue about what he was doing. He did some jail time, got out, and wrote a book. It’s ridiculous.”
Contrary to Donaghy, DeRosa was ranked as one of the best refs in the league. Of the 60 refs, the league chooses the top 32 (based on ratings and performance) for the first round of the playoffs and ultimately the top 12 for The Finals. DeRosa worked in The Finals from 2003 to 2010.
Working in front of all the NBA crowds throughout the years, there were always JCU alums in the stands who would shout out and let DeRosa know they attended Carroll, too.
“Even Don Shula called out to me one night about our Carroll connection,” he says. “That stuff was cool.”
– John Walsh