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After 32 years as a referee, stepping away isn’t black and white

Referee Dwayne Gladden worked his final NCAA tournament game in Orlando on March 16, a dramatic Furman win over Virginia. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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When the NCAA men’s basketball tournament’s round of 16 began this past Thursday night, Dwayne Gladden was in front of his television at home in Virginia Beach, watching every minute.

Given a choice, he would have loved to have been at one of the four sites, working as a referee, but he was also at peace being a spectator.

This month, Gladden refereed in his 16th NCAA tournament, knowing that the Furman-Virginia first-round game in Orlando would almost certainly be his last after 32 years, beginning with high school games that featured a young Allen Iverson and including games in the top collegiate conferences.

“I was really ready to retire a year ago,” he said last week after finishing the daily two-hour gym workout he plans to continue. “I called my supervisors and told them I was ready to get off the road and spend more time with my family. I was 63. I felt like I’d had a great run and it was time.”

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Two of his supervisors, Bryan Kersey (ACC) and John Cahill (Big East), urged him to give himself time to exhale at the end of a long season. Travel has been more difficult for officials after the pandemic shutdown, and with fewer flights and smaller airplanes, Gladden found himself driving to games more often.

“I didn’t enjoy it,” he said. “Once I got to the games and got in the arena, I’d feel the adrenaline and loved the work. It was getting to and from the work that I didn’t enjoy.”

He finally decided to come back this season, but by mid-January he had decided this 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 enough was enough. It was time.”

He began quietly telling people, starting with his wife, Cynthia, and his three grown children. By the time he reached 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 a point of congratulating me on my career when I went over for pregame handshakes,” Gladden said. “Anthony wouldn’t let go of my hand. He kept telling me how much I’d meant to the sport. By the time he finally let me go, I was crying.”

Perhaps Grant was making a point about how far Gladden had come. He was one of the first Black officials to work in a big-time league when then-supervisor Fred Barakat started assigning him ACC games in 1995.

Gladden had grown up on the west side of Chicago and, at 6-foot-4, was recruited by a number of Division I schools. He landed at Southern Illinois but decided after two years he wasn’t going to play professionally and needed to look around for what was next. It turned out to be the Air Force.

“I didn’t want to go home like a lot of my friends had,” he said. “Too many of them ended up on drugs or in the streets. Honestly, I was afraid of that. I thought the military would give me a kind of discipline I needed. My father wasn’t around when I was a kid, and I needed authority figures in my life. I got that in the Air Force.”

He started out as a security officer and ended up as a nurse. He spent 22 years in the Air Force, retiring in 2004 with full benefits.

“By then I was starting to get a lot of games in a lot of leagues,” he said. “The money was getting better and better, and I really didn’t want to deploy again” — he had been sent to the Philippines and Korea — “because that would derail my career as a ref. So I got out.”

He had started working as a referee to pick up some extra money while stationed at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va. He earned $40 per game working high schools, then moved up to work the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference at about $200 per game.

“I honestly never thought about working the ACC or any other big-time league,” he said. “I knew it was tough to move up when you were a Black official. I was thrilled to get a chance to work the CIAA tournament. That felt pretty big time to me.”

But Kersey saw Gladden work and suggested he attend Barakat’s summer camp for officials to get more experience and exposure. Barakat liked what he saw and hired him to work Big South games. A year later, he began using him in the Colonial Athletic Association. Then came the ACC.

His career was moving ahead quite nicely when he made a mistake. Walking into a CAA game, he forgot to take off his earring. Barakat was strict about how his refs looked walking in and out of arenas, and when one of the other officials told Barakat what happened, Gladden was in trouble.

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“Fred Barakat was the father figure I never had,” Gladden said, laughing. “But he was an absolute stickler. A week later at the CAA tournament, he read me the riot act. The next season, I went from 15 CAA games to no CAA games. It hurt, and it set 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 slew of important Big Ten games.”

It was through the Big Ten that Gladden got into the NCAA tournament for the first time in 2007. When John Clougherty succeeded Barakat as the ACC’s supervisor, he began giving Gladden games again — including in the conference tournament.

Gladden worked as many as 84 games in a season and every NCAA tournament until 2022, when then-NCAA officiating coordinator J.D. Collins called and told him he wouldn’t be selected. Gladden was disappointed. He had had both knees replaced in July 2020 and had worked fanatically to be ready for the start of that coronavirus-stricken season.

“Never missed a game,” he said. “I honestly think I’m in better shape now and running better than ever. When J.D. told me he wasn’t taking me, I just said, ‘I understand.’ I didn’t, but what was I going to say? It was his call.”

Referees don’t get a lot of glory, but Gladden went out exactly the way an official would want to. After the A-10 game in Brooklyn, he found all the refs working the tournament waiting for him in the locker room. His good friend and fellow referee Les Jones presented him with the game ball — signed by all of the officials.

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

His last three games came down to the final seconds. The key play in the Virginia-Furman game arrived when the Cavaliers’ Kihei Clark tried to force a pass out of a double team, leading to the winning three-pointer for the Paladins. “I felt terrible for the kid,” Gladden said.

When the game ended, Gladden and his partners, Jerry Heater and Michael Greenstein, left the court as Furman celebrated and Virginia grieved. They were completely unnoticed as they departed. Gladden wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.