Billy Mildenhall was the type of referee every player loved to have controlling the game. A fair and professional referee that was, and still remains today, one of the most respected figures in Australian basketball.
Mildenhall began refereeing in 1979, the inaugural season of the NBL, and after 945 appearances on the hardwood, hung up the whistle in 2011. He won an unprecedented 16 consecutive NBL Referee of the Year awards from 1988 to 2003, a record that is as close to unbreakable as possible.
He officiated the biggest games week in, week out, and never backed down from the challenge of making the right call – even when that call was often against what the crowd, players and coaches wanted, and of course with them all letting him know what they thought of the decision. He took it all in his stride and became the figure the NBL needed in its early days to gain not just high-quality officiating, but respect.
His prowess was not limited to the NBL however, as he officiated at multiple Olympics and World Championships, including an appearance at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The chance to referee at his home Olympics was a great honour, but the most memorable game of his refereeing career was at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Mildenhall describes the experience of refereeing the USA ‘Dream Team’, led by Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson as a “daunting experience”. But once the game got underway it was business as usual. “They were no different from anyone else, they still question you, abuse you, and have a go at you even though they were winning by 40-50 points a game.”
Today, Mildenhall has turned his focus to contributing to basketball in roles off the court. He is a member of the FIBA Technical Commission and will travel to Geneva in June to attend the FIBA Technical Commission Meeting. At the meeting, 20 Commission members, made up of referees, coaches and ex-players, will discuss the rules and regulations of basketball for FIBA competitions.
Mildenhall was elected to the role in 2009, taking over from Australian basketball legend, Lindsay Gaze. In 2014 he was re-elected, which will see him stay in the Commission until at least 2019. The importance of the Commission is growing, with new responsibilities granted to the group in 2014. Not only does it oversee the rules and regulations, but it must also monitor the state of the game for participants all over the world.
His travels don’t finish in Geneva; he will then be jetting off to Rio for the Olympic Games as a representative of the FIBA Commission. In Rio he will take on the role of Referee Supervisor; a great opportunity for Mildenhall to pass on his knowledge of the game to the referees of today.
Mildenhall enjoys the coaching side of the role “[I’m] basically a referee coach. Even at the very highest level, at the Olympics, referees still want to be given feedback on how they’ve performed.” He does admit it can be challenging at times – “Initially it’s a little intimidating; telling these guys that are really at the top of the tree that I think you’ve made a mistake. But having been in that role for a period of time now, you do get a bit of credibility and they seem to accept what you’re saying.”
There was a time in the late 70s and early 80s when Mildenhall was juggling two sporting careers; playing for St Kilda in the VFL and also refereeing in the NBL. While it certainly served up some challenges, “there were times when I was playing on a Saturday and [I”d] then race off and referee a game that night”, Mildenhall had a love for both and believes playing helped his officiating. He states, “I think it really helped my acceptance from basketball players. They sort of acknowledged the fact that you were playing sport at the highest level, mind you another sport; that helped my officiating enormously.”
Many see refereeing as a thankless job, but Mildenhall’s love for the sport meant it was an obvious option for him. Mildenhall jokingly states, “I was a player up until about under 20s and I realised I wasn’t going to be good enough or tall enough, that was my excuse, to play at a high level.” But his passion for basketball was untarnished – “I still really loved the sport and wanted to remain involved and one of the ways in doing that was take up officiating.”
As Mildenhall continues to educate referees all over the world, he has simple advice to those aiming to follow in his footsteps. “Work as hard as you can. And also be open to what everyone has to tell you, and take that on board.” Mildenhall adds, “I always recommend to remain playing or coaching for as long as possible, because I think [those referees] tend to have much more understanding and empathy for what people are trying to achieve.”
To say Billy Mildenhall was a trailblazer would be an understatement. He didn’t just show the world how basketball should be officiated; he also took it upon himself to improve those around him. Australian basketball, and basketball all over the world for that matter, is much richer because of Mildenhall’s continued involvement.