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Chasing NBA dreams, Bay Area native thriving as summer league referee


Most days or even weeks, Vallejo resident Jason Alabanza has a full-time job as a manager at a dental group, working in a typical corporate environment. But for the last 10 days, Alabanza has been in Las Vegas working on his side hustle. By day he’s in development meetings, and by night? He’s right where he desires to be, standing on the basketball court, in a crowded stadium, whistle in hand.

Alabanza is a G League referee, currently working the NBA 2k23 Summer League. His goal is to make this side hustle his predominant gig by earning a move as much as the NBA, but for now he’s locked in on his summer league assignments.

“I’m having fun with on daily basis of the event and the trail and the journey that’s going to get me there,” Alabanza said. “There is no other place that I can find where you possibly can test the training that you simply get and exposes whether you are learning it or not in that variety of environment. When the brilliant lights are on, you’ve got to be a choice maker, you’ve got to be a frontrunner and a team player.”

Until Alabanza makes it to the NBA, he’s keeping his day job. Fortunately for his big-league dreams, his company affords him the pliability to travel to events just like the summer league, which serves as training and development for your entire G League staff.

It took Alabanza 10 years to turn out to be one among two referees from Northern California currently within the G League. The opposite is Sha’Rae Mitchell, a Sacramento native. Each are attempting to assist more referees from Northern California get to the G League by going to highschool and college referee associations or training camps to tell younger referees in regards to the opportunity.

“Hopefully we are able to create a system where any young referees which are curious about (refereeing) are shown that pathway much quicker,” Alabanza said. “If I used to be shown this pathway in yr one or two, possibly I’d have gotten (to the G League) in five or seven years moderately than getting here at ten years.”

But Alabanza’s journey to becoming a referee is for much longer than a decade and starts with a life-long passion for basketball. He was born in Oakland but raised in Richmond, where he began playing basketball. His parents didn’t have the resources to send him to a youth club, so Alabanza played in his free time before joining El Cerrito High School’s team.

After graduating, Alabanza put pursuing his profession over basketball but couldn’t give it up entirely, playing in adult leagues. In 2010, while playing ball, Alabanza tore his ACL — the identical injury Klay Thompson sustained in Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals that kept him off the court for a yr.

Alabanza knew he desired to be lively and involved with basketball after the surgery, so he followed a highly structured and aggressive physical therapy. Eight months later, he was near 100%.

Getting back to the sport, nevertheless, could be different. The best way Alabanza saw it, there have been three options: playing, coaching or refereeing. After the ACL injury and a few time-consuming experience as a coach, Alabanza decided to try being a referee.

“I went to a camp simply to learn the way to referee and really fell in love with it,” he said. “It was on the court, so you actually felt such as you were still playing in the sport.”

From there Alabanza followed the standard path to turn out to be a high-level referee: starting out at local youth leagues, attending more training camps for top school and junior college games, then with more experience — and more training camps — DII and DIII college games. In 2018, Alabanza was scouted from a pool of three,000 to 4,000 referees to hitch the G League’s trial camps.

In 2021, Alabanza became an element of the G League staff with just ten other candidates. He jumped right in, working several games within the 2021-22 season, including a couple of Warriors games. In between G League assignments, he works with San Francisco’s Pro-Am League to remain sharp and get reps. Now, there’s only another thing left to do: turn out to be a referee for the NBA. That’s the goal for all G League referees.

But what does it take to face out? That’s where Alabanza’s job as a referee gets very just like the company management position he works in.

“I feel the intangibles are all the identical, someone that is dedicated, knowledgeable, shows ambition towards their craft, really has experience, has confidence within the job that they are doing and someone that management can trust,” Alabanza explained. “There’s similar intangibles that the NBA is in search of: trust, experience, knowledge, a team player and a heck of a referee.”

Besides his love for basketball, there’s several reasons Alabanza has pursued refereeing this far. One in all those reasons is that he enjoys the pressure. The cameras, the fans, the players and the coaches are all watching him, auditing every decision he makes. He’s been on the rough end of a couple of ‘ref you suck’ chant while working. That’s to not say he doesn’t get nervous, he just sees the nerves as a part of the fun too.

“I get nervous each time I get on the market, but once the ball goes up and it’s tipped and we’re running up and down one or two times, then those nerves are gone,” Alabanza said. “Nerves may creep back in, however the training tells you the way to suppress that and the way to overcome that. So that is the part that is fun is to see if, when the gang does come crashing down they usually all chant, ‘ref you suck,’ are you going to fold under that pressure?”

Fans aren’t the one ones who criticize Alabanza’s work. He says that the upper the extent of play, the more dialogue there may be with players. Understanding that it’s not personal is essential to managing those situations but it might take some time to learn.

“I’m working on it on daily basis, the way to improve communication with these players and coaches,” Alabanza said. “All three of us — coaches, players and referees — are so dedicated to the sport and have a lot passion for the sport that it’s never personal.

“You simply need to have the option to reply their questions, speak to them with respect and hopefully, throughout the years of seeing certain players, you construct that trust and there is not a lot yelling. It’s a pleasant skilled conversation about what happened at the sport or certain play.”

But what Alabanza loves most about refereeing is the chance to use the talents he uses on the court to his each day life. When he has to seek advice from indignant players or coaches a few call in front of 9,000 people it’s a lot easier to do it at work with just five other people.

“I find it so useful in my outside world that keeps me — except for the love of the sport — so dedicated to absorbing all the talents which are being taught within the referee world,” he said. “I just keep coming back for more.”

Kikue Higuchi (she/her) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff author. Email: kikue.higuchi@sfchronicle.com; Twitter: @kychiguchi

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