How an NBA Referee Trains to Keep up With the World’s Best Athletes

John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards argues with NBA referee Marc Davis
Rob Carr / Getty Images

The NBA has some of the most talented athletes on the planet. Night in and night out, players like LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and Giannis Antetokounmpo pull off spectacular plays only few in the world can even imagine.

Referee Marc Davis has to keep up with all of them.

The veteran ref has worked more than 1,250 regular-season and playoff games during his 20-year career, including the NBA Finals and the All-Star Game. In his time, he’s watched the sport transform from a big-man-dominated battle to a fast-paced, uptempo explosion of athleticism. Davis has had to adjust along with it.

“The pace has certainly increased a lot—as referees, we’re running four to five miles a night,” Davis tells Men’s Journal. “It’s our job to be in the best athletic condition that we can be. Our players are just so athletic—their movements and their ability to explode with power and speed—and we have to adjust with that and how we officiate. I focus on mobility in my training; I do a lot of bodyweight squats, and I sprint in the off-season at least a couple times per week.”

As a referee—or what Davis calls the “third team” on the court—officials have much more to do than just stand around and blow a whistle. They have to keep up with the game action, call fouls in an instant, and mind what’s going on everywhere the court—not just with whatever player has the ball. Factor in loud fans in packed arenas, and incensed coaches and players trying to make their cases on calls, and you have an idea what it takes to keep up.

More than anything, though, Davis would like to clear up what he sees as a common misconception among fans who imagine that refs like him just show up with his uniform and whistle five minutes before tip-off. Far from it. As with the players, game days are full days for NBA refs.

Davis’s workday routine can include a morning training session, reviewing previous games’ foul calls with fellow officials, discussing rules interpretations, watching more film on upcoming teams, and an extensive pregame stretching routine. They then work the actual game, and even have to file post-game paperwork.

“The days can morph into each other,” Davis says. “We can be up until 3 a.m., finishing the game from the night before, then be on the first flight in the morning to the next city. It’s a physically demanding job—traveling between time zones, different hotel rooms, and still having to perform that evening. Nobody really cares about how much sleep you got that night—you still need to call the game.”

The “grueling” schedule leaves little time for getting to the gym, but Davis does his best to squeeze in training sessions any chance he can. He keeps a list of workouts on his phone, broken down by length of time and type of workout (mobility, flexibility, lower-body strength, and agility).

“I attack my workout based on the amount of the time that I have, whether it’s 15, 30, or 45 minutes or longer,” Davis says. “Kettlebell work is great because you can use it for a lot of different areas, and it helps you stay mobile through your entire body. Being in shape, being physically ready, and physically able to perform at all times is a big part of being a successful official.”

Davis spoke with Men’s Journal about how he works out to keep up with players like LeBron James, secrets about being a referee, how he finds time to train, and the loudest fans in the league.

Men’s Journal: How do you keep yourself in shape? What does it take to keep up with such talented athletes like LeBron James and Russell Westbrook?

Marc Davis: My lower body is an important part of what I do. I do a lot of bodyweight squats, and I’m working on getting my pistol squat down. I do a lot of bodyweight lunges too, in all the directions—forward, sagittal, side, back—because they kind of mimic the movements we do on the court. I do use an exercise bike and use the rowing machine, and I use the VersaClimber when I have access to one.

What’s it been like watching the game change over all your years in the league?

The speed of play has really increased a lot over the last four to five years. It’s really amazing what our athletes can do. They’re so elegant in their movements, and their ability and athleticism is really being captured a lot by the way in which we officiate them.

One of the struggles that our younger players coming in…they say they’re getting the rookie calls. But our guys come from college or come from pro leagues, and now they’re playing against grown men. It takes younger players a while to adjust to that. They think they have to be stronger or more aggressive, but the reality is that they have to be more skillful and more agile to really perform at a high level in the end. So that’s one of the biggest things that I’ve noticed in the trend over the last 15 years. I think that that’s related to the betterment of the sport and why it’s so popular right now.

To fans, it can seem like players and coaches often have a contentious relationship with referees. What’s it like interacting with them on a nightly basis?

Generally speaking, the relationships are way less contentious than the public would believe. They are not very contentious at all, actually. Are there times when they become contentious in the moment? Yes. But I’ve also seen the Collins twins take each other out on the court, too. So, in the competitive moment, are there sometimes where there some tension? Yes, but, generally speaking, I would be hard-pressed to come up with an individual player that I wouldn’t be happy to see walking down the street. All of it really is a relationship thing. No one’s running around saying ‘hey Mr. Ref,’ it’s always on a first-name basis. We’re all professionals. Whether it’s Charles Barkley or Michael Jordan or LeBron James, it’s all about individual relationships, and they’re all relatively healthy.

NBA referee Marc Davis and LeBron James

You’ve gotten into some fun back-and-forths with fans before. Which team has the loudest, most involved fans when you’re calling games?

The most knowledgeable fans, in terms of knowing when to boo and when to clap, although they never clap for a referee? [laughs] I’d say Madison Square Garden and Knicks fans. From a perspective of having the most knowledgeable fans, and being into the game, the Garden is the best. They’re just really fans of basketball, and they’re about to root hard for their Knicks and still be supportive of the athletes on the other team—of the great moves or the great skill, without crossing the line of being a Knicks fan. And the same holds true when they’re getting after you: There’s a strong sense that you’ve probably made a boo boo on the court [laughs].

NBA courtside seats make the games such an intimate event. It’s probably the best ticket money can buy for a sporting event. I mean, you’re right there on the floor. Some of our seats are adjacent to the coaches, sit right next to the coaches, right next to the TV announcers, or they’re standing right next to a referee. It’s a very intimate environment, and many of the people have been there forever. They don’t give those seats up. It’s another relationship, but with the fans.

With the busy life of an NBA referee, how do you find time to train and go to the gym?

The life of an NBA referee is not quite as glamorous as it might appear on the outside [laughs]. I’ll say this: We know we are attached to an athletic event that has importance for these players, fans, and teams. And as such, we need to be in the best athletic condition that we can be. There’s a lot of down time and a lot of travel. We’re not 20-year-old young men—we’re more mature gentlemen who have families and grandchildren on top of our NBA responsibilities.

From the perspective of our fitness, you don’t have a lot of time to do it, so you have to be smart about finding times to get it in when you can. We’ve tried to carve out and consistently meet that time, even if it’s a short workout, just to make sure we’re always doing something. It can come quickly, and you have to adjust to your schedule.

NBA ref Marc Davis and the Sonics mascot

What are some of the workouts and exercises you use that are most effective in keeping you in shape and ready on the court?

I would say kettlebell work, I really enjoy that. I started to work on some Olympic moves lately, because I think you have to be mobile through your entire body. I am not trying to overhead squat 300lbs or anything like that, but I want to get everything in my spine and my ankles in a mobile position to where they can function.

My overall fitness goal kind of goes like this: I have an eighth grade son, so I’m just trying to make sure I can get him though the end of school and keep up with him.

What do refs do on game days that people don’t realize?

Every game day can be a long push. It’s an entire day for the preparation from in the morning when you get up, and then you’re working the game into the night and dealing with post-game responsibilities, so it can be 2 or 3 a.m. before you get to bed.

I need to exercise as soon as I get up. Some guys have nagging injuries that they need to tend to before the next game. There can be pregame morning meetings. Getting to the arena, doing security briefings, making sure our communications with the replay officials are sound and working in order. Being on the same page is so important as an officiating crew. Even in pregame, we need time to get ourselves together. We have a stretching routine, a mobility routine, ankle taping, wraps and braces that have to be applied for some guys.

What do you do in the off-season to keep up with your fitness? Have you dealt with injuries or physical issues through the years?

Right now, I’m trying to be able to do a pistol squat on each leg, because as I’ve gotten older, I start to recognize some mobility issues that I’d like to overcome. I try to find myself a different exercise for each quarter of the year that I can’t do, and then try to work on that for three or four months until I can do it and do it well. I did muscle-ups last year, and now I can do that.

The overhead squat was difficult because of my mobility. I always try and keep my mobility and flexibility going, because very few people consistently run four to five miles a night running one direction, looking over their shoulder [laughs]. I’ve had some issues arise with my spine mobility, so that’s something I’ve been working on. My ankle mobility is something I’ve been working on after a calf injury about five or six years ago. Little things pop up like that, and then I just try to focus on those things and get them as right as possible.

What advice do you have for guys who want to stay consistently in shape like you do?

Consistency matters. Doing something five, six days a week is much better than doing a whole lot once or twice. Stay accurate every day. Just do something daily—whether it’s 30 minutes, a five- or 10-minute workout, just get moving. Your body wants to move, and the more it moves, the better it moves. In our country now, just in our society now, there’s very little physical activity that’s required to be successful man. You’re not moving cattle—you’re riding on an airplane and then going to your hotel. My crew makes fun of me, but we always walk for an hour after lunch. It’s cold, but so what? We need some fresh air.

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