Basketball and India

Suyash Mehta: NBA referee discusses Indian origins, journey to the league and experiences in debut season

Nov. 27, 2020. That's when Suyash Mehta got the news.

After officiating for five seasons in the G League and working as a non-staff official in the 2019-20 NBA season, he was one of three to be promoted to the rank of a full-time official at the start of the 2020-21 NBA season.

The bump-up made him the first-ever Indian origin referee in the NBA.

"I'll always remember it like yesterday," Mehta shared in his media availability with the Indian press on Thursday, April 8. "It's [Nov. 27, 2020] exactly when I got the call from our direct supervisor, Monte (McCutchen, NBA Senior Vice President, Head of Referee Development and Training) ."

"I mean, I know exactly where I was when I got the call. I knew exactly what time it was, everything like that. So, I remember getting the call and just completely freezing and melting down and saying is this real? You know, did this really just happen?"

Indian origins

Mehta's connection with India lies with his parents, who were born in India and migrated to the United States in the 1980s.

His father, a native of Chandigarh, Punjab, is a retired physician who specialized in internal medicine. On the other hand, his mother - a native of Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh - was a botanist.

One of four siblings, all of whom were born in Baltimore, Maryland, Mehta does mention visiting India a few times for family events and weddings.

"Our entire route system is based on my parents teaching us the Indian values," Mehta shared. "And I'm very, very blessed with that. Very fortunate. I'm very happy that I had that upbringing."

The journey so far & parents acceptance

Mehta, who played basketball in high school and some club basketball at the University of Maryland, never 'thought in a million years' that he would become a referee, let alone an NBA referee.

"It was something that I was doing as a part-time job in college," Mehta shared. "And then, we had this opportunity after college that allowed me to pretty much try out for the minor league, which was the NBA D League at the time, which is now the NBA G League."

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Despite the opportunity, transitioning to refereeing was one of the 'toughest decisions of his life' because that same year, he had taken the MCATS (Medical College Admission Test) to go to medical college having studied Neurobiology & Physiology at the University of Maryland.

Although he made the cut to become a referee in the G League, Mehta recounts there being a lot of pressure the first few years.

"Every year that passed after I was in the G League, my dad would remind me that, you know, hey, you said you were going to give this a shot, you should still be considering medical school."

However, with a lot of refereeing experience to fall back on from his college days - Atlantic 10, Big South, Colonial Athletic Association, NCAA Division III, junior college and Conference USA - Mehta had confidence in himself and this journey.

The real acceptance from his parents, who weren't exactly aware of his refereeing experience before the G League, came in 2015 when he saved up everything he had from his first year and flew them to the Las Vegas Summer League.

"I remember they were able to sit courtside," Mehta recounted. "I remember just seeing their faces from one year to the other, they were so happy to see me out on the court and they kind of understood that it was a big deal because the way they put on Las Vegas Summer League is no small feat. It's almost like coming to a regular-season NBA game."

During his time in the G League, Mehta would work in the development league's playoffs thrice (2017-19) and also serve as a Finals alternate in 2019.

Mehta's parents, having seen the fruits of their son's hard yards in the development league, have accepted his career and very supportive. They have gone from not being aware of his referring games early on to now watching every NBA game he's officiating irrespective of the teams involved.

"I remember the first calls that I made to my parents, telling my mom, and then my dad, that I was hired as a full-time NBA referee, and hearing the joy through the phone of their voices because they were also there for the entire journey of me putting back med school, you know, going through the five years in the developmental league, and you know, it finally paying off."

Experiences of first season

Mehta's first game as an official full-time NBA referee came just days after the announcement was made public. It was a game between the Golden State Warriors and the Chicago Bulls at the United Center on Dec. 28, 2020, IST.

"I just went out and walked right down to the Chicago Bulls floor and took a quick five-second, 360-degree turn around the arena," Mehta shared about his first game, doing exactly as a mentor had told him." And said, wow, you know, we're in an NBA arena. I'm in the center of the floor. And this is a really, really cool, humble experience."

Since that debut, until his availability with the Indian press, he has refereed over 20 games including a couple of notable ones - Nets @ Cavaliers and Warriors @ Mavericks.

Mehta's first season is one of the most unique ones the league has ever witnessed, with nearly every team playing the first couple of months in empty arenas with no fans.

"It's almost funny because this year it's almost unnatural, like we [referees] were so used to hearing the fans and all the boo's and the 'refs you s**k' but this year when there's no fans in the arena, sometimes you're like, wow, I missed that. I missed the criticism." Metha shared when asked about his reaction to any criticism.

"It's something that never really fazed me too much," he continued. "Sometimes it even sharpened my focus and it allowed me to say, you know what, there's like 20,000 people here that think I'm not good. And I know I'm great."

Discussing more from his rookie season, he also shed a light on the lifestyle of an NBA referee mentioning how it's not too far off from that of an athlete.

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"I don't think I can say that I can dunk the ball just as well as some of the All-Star athletes, but I can say that I take my training pretty seriously. Our diets, we don't just eat fast food and things like that."

The constant year-round cycle for a referee needing to stay fit has changed Mehta's perspective on health for the better.

"Especially because you may be doing it twice as long as some of the players, so it's everything from working out to staying conditioned to doing cardio to doing weightlifting, and in the offseasons particularly, it's not necessarily an offseason because you're always preparing for the start of the next season."

A witness to numerous family conversations on cricket, the most popular sports among Indians worldwide, Mehta insists that he would love to participate and get involved in anything that helps put more spotlight on the sport of basketball in India.

What he might not know is that for Indians across the world, he's already done plenty by simply putting a very familiar name among the list of the NBA's full-time referees.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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