AFTER 264 matches and 22 seasons officiating the pinnacle of Australian basketball, Tim Mills knew it was his time.
It was late 2016 when he sat down to have ‘that chat’ with the National Basketball League (NBL).
It’s something that comes about in every facet of the sport – whether as a player, coach or an elite referee and for Mills he knew it was time to hang up the whistle after an amazing NBL officiating career stretching back to 1995.
Mills felt it was time to bow out and contribute to the game in other ways. Most importantly, it’s time to let the next generation contribute their own beliefs and set new standards.
“I had a mid-season chat with the NBL about where to from there about the following season – at the end of the day it was a mutual decision to part ways,” Mills said. “You always want to continue refereeing but the game evolves and so does refereeing and you need to keep up with those.
“The athletic appearance of being physically fit and as you get older that gets tougher… you don’t want to end up when you start streaking yourself to the nth degree just to maintain that level.
“It’s good to finally put the handbrake on so to speak and know that I don’t have to train at that level anymore but that’s really what it comes down to.
“When you’re struggling to keep up with the game, errors start to occur and concentration starts to go and you’d rather go out on a high rather than deteriorate and people start saying that you were around too long rather than them saying you were a decent ref.”
He took the biggest road-trip in the NBL – the Perth to New Zealand flight – which proved to be his last as Mills packed away the kit one last time on 22 January 2017.
While the NBL gear hasn’t come out of storage this summer, as the 2017/18 season has tipped off without Mills heading interstate or abroad, it feels strange for him to not be part of the amazing whirlwind that is the NBL.
“It feels pretty different,” Mills said. “I’m still transitioning from one side of the fence to the other when it comes to refereeing and now the referee coaching and development side with Basketball Victoria.
“22 seasons doing the NBL and refereeing at that level, where some people will either not make it or just make it and only last a couple of years, is pretty amazing.
“The fact that I’ve got to experience 22 of them is pretty good.
“Still working through the emotions of the change but getting used it slowly but surely.”
It’s impressive to know at 12-years-old what you want to achieve in life… even more so when it’s a lofty aim like officiating at the elite level. The opportunities began in earnest in 1992 as he started climbing the refereeing ranks after moving down to Melbourne from Bendigo. After time spent cutting his teeth in the SEABL and CVIBL (now Big V), Mills was tapped on the shoulder to step up once more.
“There’s a gentleman called Neil Bradbury and he would come out to the country regularly – he asked me three times to come move to Melbourne when VBA State League was running at the old Albert Park,” Mills said. “At 17 years of age I decided to move to Melbourne with a clear ambition that I wanted to referee in the NBL so I had to follow the pathway to get there… but I thought you have to be in it to win it and really once I moved to Melbourne that was really the kick-starter.
“CVIBL days were magnificent – not even just as a social league but social on and off the floor, they were really fun times.
“NBL is an amazing status – being there and refereeing and being part of that world.”
It was 1995, he was 25 and the league was flying.
Basketball was buzzing in Australia as the NBL flourished on the backs of stars like Andrew Gaze and Lanard Copeland. It was the peak league experiencing its peak moments in its history and Mills was ready to throw himself headlong into it.
“I reached the NBL when I was 25 years of age, so I was quite young at the time but I always had this dream when I was 12 years old that I wanted to referee the national league,” Mills said. “So once I got onto the NBL floor it was really 13 years of hard, solid work to make it.
“When you finally get out there it’s such a great achievement and the monkey off your back.”
Melbourne Tigers. South East Melbourne Magic. Sydney Kings. Strong sides, incredible characters and packed stands across the league to boot. These were the glory years and Mills was thrilled to earn his spot in the national panel in that era.
“Back in 95, that was when Gaze, Copeland and all those sort of guys were playing and you see the eras change – players become coaches and the new influx of people,” Mills said. “There’s no doubt the quality of playing gets better along the way as well but it’s always certainly been high-quality basketball.
“First game was Melbourne playing the Gold Coast Rollers at the tennis centre.
“There were some magnificent players in those years… the Andrew Gaze era was something special.”
From there it was business as usual for the analytical and meticulous referee who earned his status as one of the NBL’s finest refs. He stood by the league as it went through its rocky moments and for Mills it was about maintaining his standards as the league struggled through the early 2000s.
But thankfully for Mills the league turned the corner quickly and continues to rise once again as attendances balloon and the old rivalries start to reignite.
“It’s always difficult to see your sport go through a bit of pain but I was refereeing around when the tennis centre was selling out in the Magic and Tigers days and to see it slump after that was difficult,” Mills said. “It’s like anything, you support and stay strong with the basketball side of things.
“Throughout that we saw some peaks and troughs and then obviously in the last few years it’s returning to its glory days.
“Walking into Perth Arena and seeing 13-14,000 people in a full house is pretty exciting; Hisense Arena is the same as well with 10,000 people.”
The on-court action was incredible but for Mills some of the highlights were the simple moments away from the court. It was about his fellow refs too; the camaraderie of catching up with mates across the country, doing a good job on court then spending time afterwards to savour a hard night’s work… it’s a level of satisfaction that’s hard to replicate.
“The thing about the NBL… I’ll always remember every drink I had with my mates,” Mills said. “The off-court relationships I built with the other referees, becoming friends over the years and the travel… you get to travel every weekend interstate and catching up with your mates – those guys you referee with are your best mates – so when you’re removed from that and realising you won’t catch up with your mates anymore is daunting.
“But there’s nothing better than walking out in front of full houses and refereeing those games.
“You miss walking out on the floor and being a part of the camaraderie of the sport and the people that you meet along the way.
“It’s everyone you get to know throughout the journey and the people that you meet along the way.”
His FIBA badge proved the next stage of an elite refereeing career as it took his craft even further afield to Europe and Asia to officiate internationally.
“FIBA badge is the icing on the cake – reaching the international level with your senior FIBA badge opens you up to international trips,” Mills said. “It’s all changed now as there are more international trips than ever, especially this year, but the FIBA licence not only gives you recognition in your national competition but also when you travel as well.”
He’s still officiating in SEABL, but for now Mills’ mind is focused on improving the next generation through his work as Basketball Victoria’s Metropolitan Referee Development Officer.
He’s a face many metro referees will get used to seeing over the next few years as he helps enhance the pathway and create better opportunities for those following the same journey he took.
“Very much focused on Victorian referee development – there’s work to do in that space at the association level but also at the leagues level as well,” Mills said. “It’s everything from green-shirt to getting referees onto SEABL; that’s my main focus at the moment.
“Improving the pathways and the quality of officiating and referee coaching at the state level is the main priority at the moment… if I can advance through that through BV that would be great as well.
“Outside of that being involved with the WNBL, would like to referee coach in the NBL one day. Be involved in FIBA Oceania – that’s a goal now. FIBA has an instructors course as well so they’re sort of the goals I’d like to tick off and I’ve got plenty of time.
“I achieved everything I wanted to achieve and I’m really happy.”
Mills wanted to thank Bill Mildenhall, Ray Hunt, Neil Bradbury and Mal Cooper for their efforts supporting his development and especially his family for their support.
ADVICE FOR THE NEXT REFEREEING GENERATION
Mills’ advice for those coming through the refereeing ranks remained simple – enjoy the small moments and absorb everything.
You never know where it might end and you have to keep an eye out for those subtle things to help improving your officiating.
“My advice to everyone and I’ve tried to spread the word – you have to stop and enjoy the journey along the way to smell the roses,” Mills said. “Everyone has these goals that they want to reach but you’ve got to stop and enjoy the moment as well.
“They’ve got to evolve with the game – have to evolve with the techniques and the calling.
“You have to watch as many games as possible and we always say you’ve got to be a student of the game and be able to get out there and watch not only your games but other games.
“Learn from elite referees at the elite level as well and try to emulate or follow what they do.
“We’ve got a lot of great kids coming through and not all of them will make it but that’s about the numbers available at the top level.
“There are 100 referees who are vying for 6-10 new spots a year on the national panel so it’s difficult that way but it’s about self-assessment and finding the edge on your competitors to be able to make it.
“It’s tougher now because of the amount of numbers and the level of those referees trying to make it.”
And finally, don’t be an island. Support those around you and help the next generation take your place when the time comes.
“I’ve always had a belief that it’s one thing to make it to the top but always pave the way for others to follow,” Mills said. “It’s not just about being the best referee yourself but making sure there are others behind you who can achieve the same.
“Develop the kids that are coming through so they can take your spot one day.”