December 22, 2015

NEW YORK (AP) Gediminas Petraitis performs before thousands of people as a full-time NBA referee.

A much smaller crowd watched him realize another dream Tuesday.

The NBA official from Lithuania was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in Maryland, where his road to the hardwood began when he swapped his Sports Authority uniform for a referee's shirt.

The 26-year-old was one of 71 people who took their oaths in the ceremony in Baltimore, and he was selected to lead them in the Pledge of Allegiance.

''How cool is that?'' said Bob Delaney, the NBA's vice president of referee development and performance, who attended the ceremony along with Petraitis' family. ''From my standpoint, it was just a proud to be an American moment as well as the pride of another NBA referee being in front of that room.''

Gediminas Petraitis (get-uh-MIN'-ees pet-RY'-tis) followed his parents and older sister in obtaining citizenship. Family members who remain in the European country sent him congratulatory text messages.

''The U.S. is a great country and any time you have the ability or the option to, it's something you cannot pass on, I believe,'' Petraitis said before the ceremony.

Born in 1989 in Kaunas - Lithuania's second-largest city - Petraitis first came to America in 1994. His parents were physicians who had moved to Maryland, and Petraitis and his sister visited during summers.

He moved for good a few years later, graduating from Northwest High School in Germantown, Maryland, and later the University of Maryland in 2011. He seemed headed for a career in business, earning dual degrees in accounting and finance and working for PricewaterhouseCoopers.

But basketball is a passion for Lithuanians, and soon it would become a profession for him.

Petraitis' father, Vidmantas, had begun officiating games in Maryland and encouraged his son, who was working at a Sports Authority to earn some money during school, to do the same.

''Instead of working there, just start refereeing. Exercise, set your own schedule,'' Petraitis said of his father's message. ''And he really pushed me to start and he's been one of my mentors, one of the people that I talk to and really he's the one that got me into it.''

Vidmantas Petraitis officiated women's college basketball and eventually switched to the men's side.

''I passed him a little bit,'' Gediminas Petraitis said.

His parents left the issue of citizenship up to Petraitis. When his green card was first set to expire while he was a student, he chose to renew it rather than seek naturalization.

''At that point, I don't think I was mature enough to make a decision and my parents never forced me to one way or the other,'' Petraitis said.

This time, Petraitis, not living in Long Island City, New York, decided that being American would be better.

He already had one big accomplishment this year when he made it to the full-time NBA referees roster, having worked last season's NBA Development League Finals.

Now, he's added another achievement.

''One thing led to another and I ended up in a very good spot,'' Petraitis said.

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Follow Brian Mahoney on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/Briancmahoney

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