Last season, his first in the big leagues, Phenizee Ransom refereed 32 NBA games. That’s roughly half the regular-season output typically assigned to the league’s most tenured officials, names that hoops heads will recognize like Marc Davis, Tony Brothers, and Bill Kennedy. But Ransom, 44, wasn’t doing half the work of those refs—quite the opposite.
Before Ransom is able to referee on the NBA circuit full-time, he and others in his position are required to complete a four-year “probationary period,” officiating 30-ish pro games and 15-20 G League games per season. (Ransom is currently in year two of the probationary period.) That often entails traveling back-and-forth from some of the biggest cities and basketball arenas in the world to smaller venues, with almost zero downtime. One night, he might be officiating a matchup of title contenders in Los Angeles. Soon after, he might find himself in Grand Rapids, Michigan, or Portland, Maine, or Des Moines, Iowa, without all the bells and whistles that come with the NBA.
Ransom, born and raised in Atlanta, has a basketball-heavy background himself. He played in college at Winston-Salem State, followed by the University of Georgia. Refereeing wasn’t really on his radar until some adult-league trash talk gave him a newfound respect for the profession.
“I originally didn’t even think about officiating until I lost a pick-up game, and told one of my good friends, ‘I could do a better job than that ref!’ My friend was an official at the time, and he said, ‘Well, let’s see,’” Ransom recalls. “That led to high school referee training, and from the first time on the floor I thought: This is a little more difficult than I anticipated. I have to get with it.”
Ransom ended up reffing at the high school level for six years and then at the NCAA level for eight years. Now, he’s reached the top. Last week, at the very beginnings of the 2019-20 NBA season, he spoke to GQ about the strenuous exercise routine he maintains (including his very early wake-up time), the importance of meditation and naps, and what percentage of NBA players he thinks he could beat in a footrace.
GQ: Can you walk me through your pre-game routine when you’re scheduled to referee that night?
Phenizee Ransom: I usually get up at 4:45 a.m., and I’m in the gym by 5:15 for about an hour. I’m doing some stretching, a little cardio, and focusing on different body parts to get a workout in and get the blood flowing.
Around 7, I go and grab breakfast. I try to have a bigger breakfast, because I’ve usually burned so much from the night before. After breakfast, I’ll come back and handle anything that’s needed at home, which puts me around 9:30. At that point, I'll start getting ready for the game itself. I’ll look at any kind of NBA memos that came out from the previous night, and I’m also looking at different rules, interesting plays that may have happened in any of those games.
Around 11, we have a day-of-game meeting, and that’s typical in both the G League and the NBA, where we get together, talk about what we need to do, go over our fundamentals, and begin bonding as a crew. We’ll typically all go out and get something to eat for lunch, and I’ll have something light—maybe a caesar salad. Then I’ll go back to my room, iron my clothes for the arena, and take a nap. I also like to meditate to get my mind calm and ready for what I have to undertake in the evening for the game. Around 5, we leave for the arena as a crew, and when we get to the locker room, it’s just business as usual. Stretching, doing our check-ins, going over what we went over earlier in the day.
There’s a lot going on there, starting with you waking up at 4:45 in the morning. How long has that early wakeup time been part of your routine?
I’ve always been a morning person. When we did two-a-days in college, they started at 5 or 5:30. I’ve just kept that going. I wanted to add more hours to the day. By getting up that early, I’ve added, on average, another two or three hours for things I need to get done. And I like having the gym as the first thing I knock out.
Also, a lot of times when I’m going city to city, I usually catch the first flight out of the city I’m in. What that usually means is a 6 a.m. flight, which puts me up super early anyway. It’s a combination of both of those things, but it’s definitely the norm now.
What about the days when you’re not working a game?
It differs a little, but I still get up at 4:45 and hit the gym pretty soon after that. The rest of the daily preparation is pretty similar too. You never know what may have occurred the night before in a game, any kind of memos that may have come out, and you want to stay sharp with that stuff. You’re always learning in this profession. If you’re not trying to get better and learn, the game will get so far ahead of you.
I’m curious how the rigors of playing basketball compare to reffing it. What are you doing during the game to stay physically and mentally sharp, and what’s your post-game plan?
You’re pretty tired during the game. I try to drink at least one bottle of water in the first and third quarters, as well as halftime. In the second and fourth quarters, I’ll usually mix it half-and-half with Gatorade. After the game, I continue to hydrate and watch tape in the locker room. Sometimes, the crew will go and have dinner together; I try to have a pretty heavy meal at that point, because I ate light earlier in the day and want to replenish what I’ve expended, since we usually run around for 2-4 miles per game. After that, I head back to the room, watch a little more tape, and get ready for the next city.
One of the things over the last few years I started thinking about is, okay, what do we really do as officials? What kind of athletes are we? I think we mimic marathon runners more so than anyone else. So that’s how I changed my whole outlook of how I go about my physical fitness. I’m not alone there—I’ll go the gym early in the morning and see other referees working out too, doing a lot of treadmill and elliptical machines. Running is more important than bodybuilding for us, and that’s how I’ve totally changed my workouts.
You mentioned meditation, which is something many NBA players have picked up as well in recent years. When did you choose to incorporate that?
It was around 2011, when my mother passed. Just trying to find a center, that’s really where it began on a personal level. But in the last three or four years, I started thinking, The players use meditation for their games; why am I not implementing this from an officiating standpoint? It’s actually done wonders. You’re getting yourself in a really even-keel mindset, and it truly helps. When those tough situations come about, and you’re trying to stay calm, sometimes you’ve already played those conversations in your mind. You’re mentally prepared.
What’s one thing about the rigors of being an NBA ref—physically, mentally, emotionally, whatever else—that people don’t think about?
I don’t know if people know how passionate officials are, especially NBA officials, about the game itself. There’s so much studying and talk amongst ourselves about getting better. It’s not a job that anyone can just show up and do.
Dick Bavetta once famously raced Charles Barkley, which did not end well for him. How many current NBA players do you think you could beat in a race right now?
I would say probably 20 percent.
That’s sufficiently humble.
Yeah, I’ve got to give myself a fighting chance. I can’t just bow down there. I might have to jump across the finish line, make the Superman pose like Dick Bavetta did.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Real-Life Diet is a series in which GQ talks to athletes, celebrities, and everyone in between about their diets and exercise routines: what's worked, what hasn't, and where they're still improving. Keep in mind, what works for them might not necessarily be healthy for you.
“When I’m wrangling big crocs, or carrying a leopard, training definitely helps.”
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