Richard Stokes: The “Head Coach” of EuroLeague Referees

Are you curious about the work that Europe’s top referees and referee coaches put in night in and night out to deliver a fair and professional performance to Europe’s number 1 basketball league? You need to wait no more.

We shed the light on EuroLeague’s top-class education system and along the way, we might also debunk some myths surrounding the top European league.

This is an interview with the man in charge: Richard Stokes – Director, Refereeing at Euroleague. Mr Stokes was involved with the League at its inception in the 2000-01 season and he even officiated the first and last games of the inaugural season and he recently succeeded Costas Rigas to become Director in 2015.

A Top-Class Feedback System

Richard Stokes
As we start our conversation, Mr Stokes tells us that there are not too many people in the world with the type of job he has.

He is not only the Director, Refereeing at the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague but also at the 7Days EuroCup alongside with the Adidas Next Generation Tournament – the continent’s top-level competition for U18 club teams.

Every week, he travels around Europe and watches 2-3 EuroLeague and/or EuroCup games live on the spot. Over the weekend, he finds time to review the other EuroLeague games and selects the key plays of the week for referees – similar to a Top 10 dunks compilation, yet from a refereeing perspective.

Besides that, every referee receives a personal assessment after each game and is provided with videos to further help their personal improvement.

“Almost every EuroLeague game has a referee coach and not referee observers, which is an important distinction to make. They are not there to grade them if they did good or bad that night. They are there to help the referees improve and to coach them. This is a relatively new, different approach as in this way, the entire crew can work as one team.” – tells Mr Stokes.

Coaches’ Clinic Before Refs’ Pre-Season Clinic

Each summer, the pre-season begins with a coaches’ clinic: All 16 current EuroLeague coaches meet with the Euroleague Refereeing Department to discuss the last season from an officiating point of view. Stokes praised all of the coaches as highly knowledgeable and very helpful professionals.

“Many rule changes that happened in the past 15 years were initiated by the coaches. It is also a good opportunity to present the coaches the newest rule changes and guidelines, that help to avoid some conflicts in the first days of the competition.”

After the coaches’ clinic comes the referees’ pre-season clinic. To prepare for the next season, they review and analyze a great amount of video footage. Thanks to the EuroLeague’s platforms,

they have every single call from every game available to review.

Coaches Clinic

Coaches’ clinic

A Brand-New Replay System

From this season, every arena has been supplied with a brand-new replay system. Replay is available from up to 11 camera angles to help officials make the correct decision.

“We have had good cooperation with the NBA in the use of the Replay System. We are very open to their methods and are always taking a look at how we could further improve our system in the future.”

Stokes believes that the future of officiating lies in the effective relationship between the 3 on-court officials and the replay system.

“Obviously, we are always looking to improve when it comes to 3PO, but I think that if we are working the right mechanics, 3 officials is enough right now to cover the floor. I’m interested in the NBA’s new experiment with 4 and 5 officials, but we need more data on that to see what the goals and objectives would be, as well as the deIivery of such a system. IRS (Instant Replay System) is a great tool when it comes to confirming decisions for example at the end of the game, or at some crucial moments during the game , but we need to find a balance: It is the on-court referee who should be the primary to make the call first and then we can see what we can do to confirm or improve the decision, depending on what it is.”  

Education During The Season

As mentioned above, referees receive top plays as well as personal feedback weekly. But the work does not stop there: these bulletin points serve as next week’s education material.

These might be video tests or rule knowledge tests or reconfirmation or reinforcement of the guidelines.

“The video test is very important to make sure that we are all on the same page. Most of the time, we can unanimously decide the situations. The interesting and problematic point is when the ‘votes’ are split – take a difficult block/charge situation as an example. At times, referees might be 50-50 over a play, or even 30-40-30 when there are 3 possible answers to a selected clip. If, after further discussion, we are still unsure, we take it to the next level and we can also show and discuss these in the off-season with the coaches as well as the officials to make sure we have the correct criteria that are understood and applied.”

His Personal Biggest Challenge

Richard Stokes“With more games, this season and fewer referees, the teams and the refs will meet more often. Therefore, my biggest challenge is to ensure that all 63 EuroLeague referees apply the rules and interpretations in the same way. Referees are coming from various countries and national competitions and may have different top-level officiating experience. However, my job is to make sure that official #1 interprets plays the same way as official #63.”

The EuroLeague requires a great effort from its referees, and in return, they want to provide them with everything to meet these criteria. It is a sense of care: they can provide nutritional advice to the referees, they monitor their key health points, in preparation for the season, just to mention a few.

The officials also need to submit a self-evaluation report after each game. It helps them identify their own areas of development and they can access coaching in a more focused way.

It is also important that the officials are well-prepared for the teams, however, it should not lead to any kind of prejudice.

Being ready and prepared does not mean that they are trying to guess the tactics and playing style for the night.

“Even though it might be well-known that a player frequently fakes a foul, we can’t focus specifically on that player and any possible fake during next game: it can lead to misjudgment or predetermination…

What makes a EuroLeague Referee…?

There might be some myths circulating about how Europe’s top referees are selected. Let’s clarify them with Mr Stokes. Let us show you the areas where EuroLeague Referees excel.

“Obviously, it is a combination of a number of things, but I would emphasize 3 key areas”, explains Mr Stokes.

  • Good physical shape.Contrary to some beliefs, we have no particular profile, body type, nor do we currently measure running speed. However, the pace of the game requires a top-class athletic performance from the officials, too. So good conditioning is essential.
  • Good judgment.It is difficult to measure but I would explain it as the correct recognition of all the plays a referee needs to identify while applying the correct criteria. To have played basketball is not an absolute requirement, but it certainly helps if you understand what the participants are trying to do.
  • Being a good communicator.If you are great at communicating, there is a fair chance that you are a good problem solver. However, if you are a good problem solver but can’t communicate it, it is unfortunately not the best match.

“I admit there are some referees with very average rules & mechanics knowledge who are still accepted because they are good communicators. It might bring with itself certain personality traits. A top referee might be more approachable, more empathetic, even at times more sympathetic. But communication is key.”

…and a Final4 Referee?

The Final 4 referees are also selected based on these criteria, yet, we have a number of other factors to consider.

“They not only need to be the referees who are in top form during that particular season. They, or rather we must also form the best team possible. We think about them as a group, meaning that their consistency in the application of the rules as a team is very important.

This year, for example, no referee came from the competing teams’ nations, which is always important from a neutrality point of view.

I also believe in rewarding the top younger referees who are in great form. They might not work the Final that season, but it is a great learning experience for them. The Final 4 can be a different world when it comes to game intensity.”

The Truth About U-Fouls

Mythbuster: Does The EuroLeague Have Its Own Rules?Richard Stokes

In short: No, there’s only one official FIBA rulebook. We have produced no other document.

However, the application of the rules might be somewhat different. Take the Unsportsmanlike foul as an example.

U-fouls are very clearly defined in the rulebook. But, as the years went by, we have realized that we had not been applying it correctly.

In the past 3-4 years, there was a change in tactics – tactical fouls became very common to stop a fast break. When you ask the coaches, why would they do it?, They’d say they had the right to do it – and this is true, but the fouls should be legitimate attempts to play the ball within the spirit and intent of the rules. We seem to have lowered the bar and criteria, in some way and in some plays, but this has changed. We showed the coaches which types of fouls will be called as UF’s starting from this season and, perhaps a little surprisingly, we have not seen and dramatic increase in the calling of UF’s compared to last year.

However, we have a more open, free-flowing, fast-paced game with lots of points scored. We have to respect the fans, too. They pay to see a spectacular game, but we have to balance the fans’ and the teams’ wishes, with the rules.

And, we don’t have so many interruptions now just because of a player trying to stop a transition play or a fast-break.

The key is that UF’s must be interpreted the same way in all parts of the floor, regardless if they are committed in the act of shooting or at half-court.

Refereeing as Personal Commitment

Mr Stokes started playing basketball when he was 12 and played in England’s National Junior League.

He got involved with officiating at the age 18 when his local club needed to send a referee to a course due to a lack of officials. Perhaps a little unsure about it at first, he applied for the course and the more he got into it, the more he started to like it.

He started to view officiating as a serious vocation rather than just a part-time job to make a little extra money. Climbing up the ladder, he took part in international tournaments and his experience also involved attending camps in the USAs and officiating NCAA games as well.

He became a FIBA referee when he was 25, and his personal highlights include working the 2001 Euroleague Finals game 5, and also the 2003 EuroBasket.

In 2005 he had to give up FIBA-level officiating after starting to work for FIBA Europe.

I feel very privileged as not too many people are able to work in this type of job in the entire world and I still believe refereeing is one the best jobs there is, as some have said it really is a very honourable job.

A message for aspiring officials

To help you become the best official you can be, we asked Stokes for advice. And he had some truly motivating words:

“Be in good physical shape. Work on it. Improve your communication skills. For some people, it does not come naturally but it can be coached.

Learn about the game because the more plays you know, the easier it is to identify plays. Take your time and go to a coaches’ clinic every now and then.”

“It’s no secret you’ll need a little bit of luck just like in all other careers.

Don’t get discouraged if someone doesn’t like you at first.

No one can ignore talent in the end. 

The harder you work, the luckier you get.”



About David

David Szots is an aspiring young basketball official who is passionate about studying the world’s top referees and is looking for quality content all over the web to help others and share information


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