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Blacked out: NBA referees discuss task of finding in-game sneakers

NBA officials discuss the tough task of finding in-game sneakers. 

NBA referees run up to five miles on the hardwood every game, making cuts and dodging cameramen. They wear sneakers, just like the players, except that they aren’t really anything like the players.

You see, NBA referees don’t have the same array of choices players enjoy. First off, you have those pesky NBA rules. Not only are referees forbidden from entering into any contract that compensates them for their footwear, but referees must wear black shoes that have the brand name, logo or trademark blacked out or removed. That makes the sneaker market tough for referees.

“There are a quarter of a million officials in the U.S., close to a million officials (worldwide) in basketball,” NBA referee Marc Davis tells “There is no manufacturer that specializes or makes a sneaker for basketball officiating. Guys wear different brands, but we are all scrambling for all black.”

While Davis says that he sees a market for referee sneakers, the options just aren’t all that robust. With NBA medical personnel recommending referees switch out shoes every 30 days, Davis says he can go through up to 10 pairs per season.

For Davis, that is a lot of boxes filled with the Nike Air Max runner.

“I did like sneakers as a child,” he says. “I played basketball. But right now, being a 47-year-old, 18-year NBA veteran whose children’s education and life revolves around me staying fit and being able to run around the floors, I have more perspective.” And plenty of Air Max shoes in all black. For now.

For NBA referee Brian Forte, his Air Max days are in the past, even as he struggles to find exactly what he wants. He currently wears New Balance’s M990 runner.

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Both Davis and Forte predict that about half of the league’s 60-plus officials wear a form of running shoe and the other half opt for a basketball sneaker.

But the dilemma presents itself often. Davis, for example, has gone back and forth in his career. He once wore basketball sneakers and then switched to the Air Max, buying 25 pairs at a time. “Over the last four or five years I’ve been getting them out of my garage,” he says. “This shoe I have now, they don’t make any more and haven’t for the last three years. I’m working on my last pair.”

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What is he going to go to next?

“Good damn question,” Davis says.

Davis, who prefers leather and likes the shine, is investigating his options. Forte recently went through a similar process, even visiting a New Balance store this summer to get fitted for a pair of running shoes.

The first couple years of Forte’s NBA days he wore the Nike Air Max. One year he wore a three-quarter-high basketball shoe, but it was too rigid for him. Trying out the New Balance this season has been a better fit. “I just bought one (to start),” he says. “I wanted to give it a shot. It has been great. I see going back and buying five at a time.”

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What Forte looks for in an on-court sneaker doesn’t differ greatly from the players. “We are doing very similar things as far as the cutting and lateral movement,” he says. With a unique crossover motion while in the “slot” position, referees make plenty of lateral, quick movement. Forte wanted something comfortable when making that move, as well as something that gave him “bounce” during the ample running. Davis agrees, saying that for him the Air Max has a wider last, giving him stability for stopping, starting, and turning.

That all-black rule does pose a quandary for some officials, but Forte says there is a positive side of not having a contract—he does say he’s surprised, like Davis, shoe companies haven’t targeted referees yet—in that if a referee finds a perfect fit they can lock onto that sneaker. Finding them, though, remains a challenge.

Although Forte enjoys chasing down sneakers, especially unrelated to his profession, “as far as the job is concerned, we run so much, the style takes a back seat to performance. When it comes to my job, I’m looking for something I can get through the season with and protects.”

Forte, though, found a little personality in his new look, pointing out how the suede upper of the New Balance M990 provides something different. “It is nice to have a little style,” he says.

Even if style does come only in all black.

Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and gear for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb