Let’s get straight to the point. Crystal Hogan — former athlete, mother, parole officer — is also the only female official in the country working men’s Division I basketball games. One of the few to ever do it. But before going any further, a question must be answered.
What’s that lady doing, pulled over to the side of the road, crying behind her steering wheel?
This would have been during the late summer in southern California. Hogan can even be more exact: “August 15, at 1:02 p.m, I got a call from Mr. Bobby Dibler. I was leaving my mom’s house and driving on the 91 freeway, and I told Bobby I had to pull over. I will never forget that.
“It was an extremely life-altering phone call.”
Bobby Dibler? Coordinator for the Western Officiating Consortium, managing referees for six D-I leagues. He had an offer for Crystal. Wanna come work men’s basketball games?
More than three months later, Dibler still remembers the reaction.
“I thought she was going to wreck her car. I said, `Crystal, just pull off.’ I know there were some tears coming from her eyes, and quite frankly, my eyes were a little watery.
“I wasn’t driving a car, so I didn’t have to pull over."
And so came the latest turn in the road — literally and figuratively — for Crystal Hogan. That started as a little girl in Compton, when “I look back and all my childhood friends were the guys who I used to play football in the street with, from light pole to light pole. As a basketball player, I enjoyed playing with the boys (including James Harden in pickup games at a fitness center). I guess it was a natural progression, when I started officiating men’s basketball.”
She was a multisport athlete in high school, took her basketball skills to Compton College and Long Beach State, then was introduced to officiating by a friend. Liked it. No, strike that. Loved it.
She preferred working the guys’ games for the challenge, but the high schools were hesitant about that sort of thing. “They weren’t very willing to allow me to do boys basketball.” She ended up officiating the Drew League, the famous summer league in California that attracts gobs of talent, including NBA players.
“The word up and down the street,” Dibler said, “is if you can work the Drew League, you can work any league.”
Hogan still remembers the day she called a foul and counted a basket. The foulee was Harden. The fouler was Kobe Bryant. “He gave me a look,” she said. Every day, every second in the Drew League prepared her for what was to come. Even getting scowled at by Kobe Bryant.
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Hogan was good enough, and strong enough and committed enough to work the Drew League for years, even through some zig-zags with her day job as a parole agent. Transferred, laid off, hired back. And a daughter to raise. But through it all, there was officiating, and the goal of one day maybe working men’s college basketball.
Then came the past summer. She was invited to a camp in Las Vegas to work a high-level boys AAU tournament with other candidates. Dibler and many other decision-makers in the officiating community were in the stands to evaluate, looking for new referees. Let him take it from there, about the first time he watched her work.
“They’re fast-paced, up-and-down-the-court games, they’re very competitive, the emotions run very high. Through that, she pretty much took that game over relative to game management and control and composure and enforcing the rules, that it just caught me when I was least expecting it. There was no doubt on that particular crew who the lead official was, and that was Crystal.”
Dibler studied Hogan’s presence and demeanor, on and off the court, liking what he saw. He wasn’t alone.
“She was just a natural at what she did. She fit right in. I had six of our best officials in our Consortium there, mostly Final Four officials, and to a man they came up individually during that camp and said, `Bobby, if you hire Crystal, I’ll certainly work with her, put her on one of my games.’ That was a stamp of support.”
There were certainly no worries about her toughness; not a woman who spends the day as a parole officer. “She deals with felons,” Dibler said. “I think she can deal with the challenges of our game.”
And so, at 1:02 p.m. on August 15, he picked up his phone to call Crystal Hogan. Big deal to her. Big deal overall? A smattering of women have worked men’s games before, but she would be getting the full exposure, in a half dozen leagues all around the West.
“On that platform, it’s probably a bigger deal than I’m giving it credit for,” he said.
“My philosophy, when people ask me about officiating, I say black white, purple, gold, male, female, it doesn’t matter,” said J.D. Collins, NCAA national coordinator of officials. “What matters is they can officiate. And the reason Crystal is working is she can officiate.”
Her first game was Puget Sound at Seattle. “Initially I was nervous, until I threw the ball up, and my partners were so awesome. I was in my element. I felt extremely good and confident,” she said. She kept no mementos from the night. “But the feeling is there, how I felt walking out on the floor.”
Things seem to have gone well. “She’s had opportunities in all six leagues, and there have been no negative comments come back,” Dibler said. Hogan report her fellow officials have been great, and reception from the stands respectful. Well, as respectful as referees are going to get. “I heard one comment I knew I was going to hear sooner or later. This isn’t women’s basketball.
Collins foresees no issues on the response to a female official. “I don’t think there will be any difference, based upon her abilities. It doesn’t matter, you will earn respect. She’ll go through the same path that other officials go through, in earning that respect. If I had say one thing to say, I think with her being in the first year of being a men’s basketball official, we ought to give her some space, to allow her to grow in that process.”
On this particular day, Hogan had just left work, where the bosses have been cooperative, allowing her to flex her schedule. “Everybody is aware of what I’m doing, and my passion for it and how big this is for me.” There is even a connection between her two working universes. “The communication, the respect, which is a two-way street. The professionalism that’s required. The biggest thing is the management, the game management vs. how I manage my case load.”
Hogan was on her way to the airport to work a game at Weber State, remembering that other day on the freeway when her phone rang, and what it meant.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that failures lead to success. Through my journey, there’s been ups and downs. It just shows that if you continue to be persistent, if you continue to work hard and stay positive and just keep going, good things happen. And this happened.
“If I can just use one word, it’d be humbled.”
She has one fervent wish — that kids are watching, learning something about the power of dreaming.
“My No. 1 goal is to bring out these little girls to know whatever they want to do, they can do it. I have a daughter and I try to let her see that nothing’s impossible. When I see little girls on the sideline — when I see little boys on the sideline — I make it a point to either talk to them, give them a high-five or let them hold the ball. Hope is a major thing for me. Growing up in Compton, you see things.”
One other goal for Crystal Hogan: There’s a thing called March Madness. She yearns for the day she walks into an NCAA Tournament site, with a game to work.
“That would be amazing. I’d probably keep a memento from that.”