Michelle Johnson's path from Air Force general to NBA head of referee operations

Paul Morigi/Getty Images/Fortune/Time Inc

Michelle Johnson worked her way up from copilot to lieutenant general and eventually became superintendent of the Air Force Academy.

Michelle Johnson needed to fight through a sandstorm, a broken engine and gunfire to leave Sudan. She had returned to the Air Force in her 20s after she, a Rhodes Scholar, went to Oxford for grad school.

She had worked her way up from copilot to aircraft commander and now needed to lead her crew out of Khartoum, where civil war had broken out, to Nairobi, Kenya.

"We needed to take off with no visibility and a damaged engine and people shooting," Johnson says. "That was an exciting day, but it was also a day of real focus and teamwork with my crew."

Her flight engineer helped figure out how to get the most out of a bad engine and have enough altitude to avoid surface-to-air missiles. The loadmasters kept an eye out for the hazards. She was in charge, but she trusted the rest of her staff to make sure everyone made it to Kenya safely.

This was in 1988, and Johnson calls it "a real growing and learning experience" that shaped her as a leader who went on to become a three-star general, a superintendent at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and, now, NBA senior vice president and head of referee operations.

"Days like that were pretty trying," Johnson says, "but when we got safely to Nairobi, it was a feeling of real accomplishment with the team."

After 36 years in the Air Force, where she served as Air Force aide to President Bush and President Clinton, lieutenant general and superintendent of the Academy, Johnson retired in October 2017. Two weeks later, she joined the NBA, leading the recruitment, training, development and evaluation of the league's officials.

She grew up in rural Iowa, first playing six-player basketball -- essentially two sets of half-court 3-on-3 in which she would focus only on offense.

"My jump shot had a really nice arch to it because there was an electrical wire that hung right in front of the basketball hoop that was on the corn crib," she says.

She graduated from the Academy in 1981, playing four seasons with the Falcons -- "I had to work on shifting my feet on defense and not calling for help on all the screens," she says jokingly -- and held the program record for points until 1990.

Although now far removed from her playing days, she regularly draws parallels between her time at the Academy and her work with the league. For as disciplined as she might be, she said a meeting with Pat Summitt at the 2008 Final Four in Tampa showed her what real intensity is.

Johnson didn't get here by herself, of course. She met her husband in July 1987, when she was an instructor pilot sent to Jordan to help upgrade a copilot named John Hargreaves. They've now been married 28 years and have twin teenaged sons together.

"My life is a team effort at home and at work," she says.

My colleagues in the Air Force would joke around with me because I was pretty intense, but I said, I've met Pat Summitt, and I felt like she would want me running wind sprints immediately.
Michelle Johnson

Johnson talks about what it has been like for her as a woman in two male-dominated fields, how she balances her career with her family and how she transitioned almost seamlessly from the service to the NBA. Here is her story, in her words:

Becoming a leader

I think one of the things that was really formative to me was I was in the second class that was co-ed at a service academy, and it was really shocking that not everybody liked that. In fact, most people seemed not to. They said pretty hateful things to us every day about challenging why we were there. It was about 10 percent women back then -- it's closer to 30 percent at the academies now -- but every day to be told, "You're ruining the place, you shouldn't be here" and questioning you. That crucible to go through did a couple things for me. It really steeled me in terms of being tough. But it also helped me know I don't want other people to have to feel like that. So as a leader, I could be tough, and I could hold people to standards, but it was time to make sure that it's fair to everybody, and that it's respectful because of what that felt like those decades ago.

And people still do it. For some reason, human beings in large groups get into these dynamics, and that's why as leaders, you have to ward against it and not let it be systemic and try to stop it. The appeal of the referees to me is they're about restoring the integrity of the game, about fairness and about making sure it's a fair platform for the best athletes in the world to be fabulous in a fair setting. Sometimes it's the challenges and the adversity and the negative experiences that make you more empathetic and more savvy about what human beings can do and how to make sure they're their best.

The NBA's inclusiveness

Last year, (NBA Associate VP of Basketball Operations) Shareef Abdur-Rahim, (VP of Referee Development and Training) Monty McCutchen and I visited all the teams to talk about respect for the game and to build a conversation and dialogue around the teams, and I had a minimal speaking part. I'm behind the scenes, doing process and trying to align the good pieces of what we have. I'm the wiring behind the wall, and you just want the light to come on.

I looked at Shareef, and I said, "Shareef, why are they so welcoming to me?" I'm this retired general, old lady who shows up talking to NBA teams. Beyond Gregg Popovich, whom I've known a long time, why are they so welcoming? And Shareef said, "You know what? They're athletes, they want to get better, and they know that we're trying to help things get better. And so they're for that." And I found that when people are focused on what you're trying to do together, it works out that way. Even with flying, the airplane doesn't care what you look like or sound like -- only if you make the right inputs or not.

Bart Young/NBAE/Getty Images

In 2013, Michelle Johnson met Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich when the team went to the Academy for team building. San Antonio won the NBA title that season.

Pat Summitt's gratitude

Her intensity was extraordinary. My colleagues in the Air Force would joke around with me because I was pretty intense, but I said, I've met Pat Summitt, and I felt like she would want me running wind sprints immediately. Not only was Pat Summitt intense about the game but a really loving and strong person. Her strength and what she did to be a proponent of the game was amazing. She was so generous, and that would be what I think struck me was her generosity. She said, "If you see something in the game, mention it to me, go ahead." I'm like, "I don't think that's going to happen. You're Pat Summitt, and I'm not." But her generosity of spirit, I think, was something that doesn't come through when you saw pictures of the stare and the intensity and everything. I think what maybe people didn't pick up was this other graciousness and this loving strength that really was there, that was really palpable.

Behind the replay center curtain

The official called a shot a 3-pointer rather than a 2-pointer, and they took it to the replay center to confirm it, and the replay center confirmed it, or they reversed it. We keep track of how that went. There are nine replay angles the replay center has in NBA venues to try to get it right, and we want to make sure the process in the replay center works out well.

We're working with the team over there to refine the way we train the replay center officials. They are court officials who cycle through, so we want to make sure we help them make quick and accurate decisions. We watch time a lot. If replays are taking a minute-and-a-half to two minutes in a game, we keep track of that because people want the game to flow fast. The teams want it, the fans want it, so we keep track of how long the game took. Are we administering the free throws fast enough? Are we getting the calls right? Do we have the right angles? Those are the kinds of things we review in the replay center.

How refs improve

The referees want to get better as well. They'll review their own plays. Depending on how you measure accuracy, it's in the upper 90s (in percent). We're not just chasing that, but we're looking at the way games are officiated and working with the referees to make sure that, obviously, we want to be fair, but we also want to be good communicators on the court. That's more and more important these days.

Courtesy of Michelle Johnson

Michelle Johnson was the first woman inducted into the Air Force Sports Hall of Fame after she retired as the school's leading scorer.

Referee wellness

We're working on wellness issues. We haven't always had the same kind of approach to referees' wellness as the teams have to the players, and we're doing better there in terms of physical trainers and some cognitive exercise that they can do and look at. We're talking about the kinds of things you do in big organizations of understanding yourself, personality measures to say, "OK, this is how I feel, so when the coach comes at me with his or her point of view, here's a way I can communicate with it and handle it better," so we're trying to expand the intangibles and support them with those kinds of tools.

When they live a vagabond life -- 1,230 games in the regular season, each referee does around 60-70 of them, they're on the road 10 months a year -- their families still stress. We're trying to let them know that we have their backs. We're trying to help them get better, but we have their backs. That's the emphasis we try to take. I think it's been well-received, and the referees are feeling better about that, that they have us backing them up.


It's never perfectly balanced. I feel like I have it all, but you don't have it all at the same time sometimes. My husband and I lived apart for seven of the first 13 years of our marriage, so we tried to keep communication going. This was before cellphones and GPS, so this was phone calls. But we worked at communicating, we tried to be creative about how we'd get together, and we'd meet places and turn it into an adventure, so we really tried to invest in our relationship so we could endure.

When I was a wing commander of almost 5,000 people, I had twins, and (John) hit 20 years as an Air Force pilot himself, and he said, "I got this." So my Eagle scout, outward bound, Virginia Military Institute-licensed engineer pilot husband became a stay-at-home dad in 2002. That's how we survived as a family.

I was at the Pentagon as a one-star general when the boys were in kindergarten. We tried to keep our sense of humor about this, but we arranged with my staff that I could have an hour off, and I'd run down the Pentagon corridor and go over to the kindergarten class and see them do the cute songs to be able to be there. ... I lived really close to the Pentagon, so I could walk, which is really unique, so I could be home for dinner and bath time and that cool stuff when kids are that age. It's not always worked out perfectly, and we still miss some things, but we try to work at it.

Related Content