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Amy Bonner on refereeing, adventures with FIBA
KANSAS CITY (Missouri) - Scaling the heights and becoming one of the best referees in all of basketball wasn't a burning ambition for Amy Bonner when she started blowing her whistle in recreation league games while a student at the University of Missouri.
But here she is, just over 25 years later, one of the most recognized officials in the world.
She's worked at FIBA Women's Basketball Cups, FIBA Women's Olympic Qualifying Tournaments and the FIBA Women's EuroBasket and numerous other FIBA events. Meanwhile in America, she has refereed in NBA G-League, WNBA and NCAA Women's Division 1.
This season, she's refereeing games in the NCAA Division I men for the first time. She made history as the first woman to referee an Atlanta 10 men's basketball game.
There is one sporting event at the top of her bucket that she wants to experience.
"I've wanted to represent my country in the Olympics since I was eight," she says. "It would be my greatest honor, professionally, to work the Olympic Games."
Earlier this year, Bonner received a nomination for the Tokyo Games.
"Probably one of the proudest moments of my life was getting that (nomination) email last March," she says. "I've got a family history of military service. My dad was in the Marines, my grandpa a World War II vet, my mentor growing up a Vietnam vet, so I have this attachment. This is the way that I can represent (my country)."
Bonner refereed the hotly-contested Serbia v Spain FIBA Women's EuroBasket 2019 Semi-Final
Then the coronavirus pandemic got in the way and all nominations for the Olympics were canceled after the Men's and Women's Olympic Basketball Tournaments were postponed until 2021.
"I'd sacrifice my left toes to go to Tokyo," she says. "If that happens, I feel like my career is complete. Anything else is icing (on the cake)."
Bonner's had, she says, a rich and fulfilling experience in international basketball. She has made friends for life at FIBA events.
"At FIBA, you share cultures, sit down and exchange - see how different we are and how much the same we are," she says. "There is no one going to a FIBA tournament because they kind of like refereeing. We all come together for this love of officiating and have this passion to go out and get plays right."
Bonner first got a taste of refereeing games while a student at the University of Missouri.
"I was in college, needed spending money and they were paying $10 a game at a recreation center and I could do ten games a day," she says. "I thought I was rich."
“AT FIBA, YOU SHARE CULTURES, SIT DOWN AND EXCHANGE … WE ALL COME TOGETHER FOR THIS LOVE OF OFFICIATING AND HAVE THIS PASSION TO GO OUT AND GET PLAYS RIGHT."
Her mission at Missouri was to become a physical therapist, which she accomplished.
Several years into her career in physical therapy, her mother discovered that someone she worked for also had a job as an assigner of referees for games. She immediately put her daughter's name forward as someone that could be a referee and the rest is history.
Bonner juggled both jobs but eventually stopped practicing physical therapy and became a full-time official.
By 2001, she was refereeing NCAA Division 1 women games and six years later, she was offered the opportunity to officiate at the FIBA U19 Women's Basketball World Cup in Bratislava.
"It was my first big tournament and I went in with this blissful ignorance," she says. "I was still pretty young as a referee. I thought it was super cool that someone was flying me to Europe to referee. I thought, this is pretty amazing, but I didn't know what to expect.
"I had done one little FIBA tournament in the States, an Under-16, and I just loved meeting people and sharing the experience."
Those days as a beginning FIBA referee were in stark contrast to today.
"FIBA had a different mentality," she said. "It was foreign to me, I'd have to just go and call what I knew to be a foul. I had to quit worrying about the little mechanical differences.
"When I started in the Americas, if there was no blood, there was no foul, and just play on," she said. "That has certainly changed. I think European and American styles are as close as they have ever been in terms of officiating."
These days, the referees are constantly receiving instruction and evaluation from the FIBA Referees Operations.
The learning never stops, even this year, during the coronavirus pandemic.
“With COVID, there were a lot of Zoom calls this summer with referees sharing how we break down plays, how you evaluate illegal contact," she says. "Any topic of officiating was covered, from Korea to Ireland to the States to South America, it really had a global reach. If there was something positive to come out of COVID, this was it.
"The thing about FIBA I love is I like seeing what other people do. I feel like in the past six to seven years across the world, we've become more consistent."
Bonner was among the referees to work in the WNBA bubble this year. It was a long, hard but rewarding time.
It has helped Bonner in her career that she was an athlete herself. She was on the track and field team in both high school and at Missouri, specializing in the triple jump. In high school, she played basketball as well.
"I was a 5ft 6in (1.68m) center and we were horrible," Bonner laughs.
Bonner refereed at the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cups in 2014 and 2018 (above)
Because of her experience as an athlete, she understands how players have highs and lows, and that seasons are long.
"I think you understand the heat of the moment, (player) reactions, you understand winning and losing," she says. "I think most people don't realize that most referees are ex-athletes, not all of us, but a great majority of us played college sports. We're a competitive group of people.
"So we understand. You still don't tolerate bad behavior, but as an athlete, you can appreciate a gut-wrenching moment when you miss a free-throw, or you turn it over, or you punch a stanchion. Those kinds of things. And certainly for those who were basketball players, you have, at least initially, a little bit better feel for the game and what teams are trying to do and what players are trying to do."
For those aspiring referees that dream of one day calling high-level games as Bonner has done for so many years, there is no path that guarantees it will happen. But Bonner has some advice.
"I always tell them, 'You've got to get into the rulebook, especially as a young referee,'" she says. "You can control how much time you spend understanding the rules. Also, look at video.'"