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Column: Why NBA referee Matt Boland credits the military for straightening out his life

Referee Matt Boland officiates the Raptors-Clippers game Nov. 11 at Staples Center.
Referee Matt Boland officiates the Toronto Raptors-Clippers game Nov. 11 at Staples Center.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Taped on the wall next to a white board in the Clippers’ locker room are three pieces of paper containing a short biography about each of the officials working Monday night’s game against the Toronto Raptors. On Veterans Day, the center sheet was about Matt Boland, a veteran of 17 NBA seasons.

Toward the end of the profile, after fun facts such as his favorite TV show (“Seinfeld”), app (Dark Sky) and bucket list item (golf at Augusta National) came this:

“Boland served in the Connecticut National Guard from 1987-95. He was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in 1990 before being promoted to 1st Lieutenant in 1991.”

Yes, Boland is, indeed, a veteran NBA official.

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NBA officials Marc Davis, Rodney Mott and Leroy Richardson also are veterans. As Boland sat down to prepare for the game, he couldn’t help but think back to his military service on a day when his fellow veterans were being honored at Staples Center and around the country.

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“On a day like this I’ll always reach out to Marc, Rodney and Leroy and we’ll thank each other for your service,” Boland said. “We have a common bond. We all went through a unique situation and appreciate each other.”

Boland, 53, grew up in a military family in Manchester, Conn. His father Dave, 82, and brother, Tom, also served in the Connecticut National Guard.

“My dad was a general and my brother was a full colonel so it’s in our blood and it means a lot to work on a day like this,” Boland said. “It’s nice to be recognized. That’s not why we joined, but it is nice when people recognize what you sacrificed for the country.”

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Boland not only followed in his father’s footsteps in the military but also as a high school basketball official, refereeing Connecticut state finals title games in 1997 and 1998 before working at the collegiate level for four years. He then spent 14 years officiating in professional leagues including the Continental Basketball Assn. and WNBA before being hired by the NBA in 2003.

“I would watch my dad and he was a high school basketball referee so I would go follow him around when I was a kid and I liked it a lot,” Boland said. “There was no pressure to do what he did and there was there was no pressure to join the military. I was in a point in my life where I was in college and not focused and not doing well and joined the National Guard in 1987. I came back a different person. I came back more focused, more aware and more appreciative of things. It had a big impact on me. It really opened my eyes to a lot of things I was capable of.”

Dave Boland traveled to Los Angeles to watch his son work the Clippers-Toronto Raptors game Monday and the Lakers-Warriors game Wednesday. Dave laughed when asked about Matt’s NBA career, which spanned 934 regular-season games coming into this season.

“I got him at 1,174 because I keep track of every one, but I’m counting preseason and exhibition games,” Dave said. “This is like a gift from heaven to have 17 years at this profession. We tape every game. I called my wife to make sure she taped last night’s game at Portland. I just want to see it. It’s the passion of a nerd who likes basketball, but I’m focusing on Matt.”

As Dave watched his son take the floor at Staples Center, he thought back to Matt’s time with the National Guard serving as the turning point in his life as he struggled as a student at Marianapolis Preparatory School in Thompson, Conn., and later at Quinebaug Valley Community College in Danielson, Conn.

“We never encouraged him to join the military, but Matt was a college student who didn’t understand the most important part of that was to be a student,” Dave said. “I think this settled his life down. It’s not for everybody, but it helped him get his life in order.”

Before Monday’s game, as he does before every game, Matt Boland stood at attention for the playing of the national anthem. His heels were together, his toes slightly apart, his chin up, chest out, shoulders back and his stomach is in as he stared forward.

“I notice [San Antonio Spurs] Coach [Gregg] Popovich, who is a former military officer as well, will do the same thing,” Matt Boland said. “My dad always did that too, and I always noticed that. No one else really notices that, but as former military people we notice that.”

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Boland’s two-game, three-day stint in Los Angeles was a welcome respite from his nonstop travel during the season. He was able to spend some time with his father and work on his golf skills — he is a PGA professional and has competed in several PGA of America events — but working on Veterans Day allowed him to reflect on the moments that shaped his life.

“It’s hard to believe some nights when I look back on it that I actually got here,” Boland said. “I’m from a small town in Eastern Connecticut and there’s not a lot of people from the NBA from there, but being in the military helped me get to this point. I knew I needed a kick in the butt at that time in my life and that was the kick in the butt I needed.”


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