For the first time in league history, the NBA will have a referee crew composed entirely of graduates of historically Black colleges and universities officiating Sunday's All-Star Game in Atlanta.
With the NBA supporting and celebrating HBCUs as a theme of this weekend's All-Star Game, Tom Washington will be the crew chief for the game joined by officials Courtney Kirkland and Tony Brown.
"It means opportunity," Kirkland, who is in his 21st season as an NBA official and is a 1999 graduate of Southern University, told ESPN. "To show and prove that we can do this craft. For many years before, it was believed that we couldn't do this craft.
"You can go back to the years when Bill Russell was playing, it was believed that African Americans couldn't play the game of basketball, it was believed that African Americans couldn't referee the game of basketball. To be able to fast forward to the year 2021, it is understood that we can do this craft."
Kirkland was part of last year's All-Star Game crew, which featured all Black officials. This weekend, the crew of three HBCU graduates will represent their alma maters and HBCU heritage; they also live in Atlanta.
For Washington, officiating this All-Star Game with his fellow HBCU grads will equal the proudest moment of his 30 seasons; he previously was part of the first three-person African American Finals crew for Game 2 of the 2012 NBA Finals.
"This is just as, if not more, a proud moment," said Washington, who graduated from Norfolk State University in 1978. "Actually recognizing the heritage of the HBCUs and me being a part of it and hopefully representing it in a most honorable way along the way."
"The fact that the NBA is taking time to honor and put HBCUs out in front is actually humbling," Washington added. "It is an honor and privilege."
During this weekend's All-Star events, the NBA and National Basketball Players Association will commit over $3 million in funds and resources to highlight the importance of HBCUs and raise awareness and support around the disparate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color.
All-Star Weekend will also feature performances and content by HBCU musical groups, distinguished alumni and students.
"First off, just being a Black man, in this current state and time," said Brown, who is in his 19th season and is a 1989 graduate of Clark Atlanta University. "It is very empowering to go out and continue to stay positive, encourage other people to get educated and do what's right and just try to reach one, teach one, and be a good human being."
"Because we work so hard at our game, our job is not to be seen. So when we do our job properly, they won't even know that there are three Black men out there officiating. They will know that the game went on without a hitch. But if they [tune in] before the game, that may be the only time they say, 'Oh, OK, [the crew is made up of HBCU grads].' And hopefully people from my alma mater will say he is one of us. That is the sense of pride that we will share together."