The guy who quit medical school to become an NBA referee

Suyash Mehta was on the fast track to a successful career as a doctor. Then, he took an extreme pivot.

One day in 2013, Suyash Mehta was approached by a mysterious man.

The guy who quit medical school to become an NBA referee

Mehta, then a 22-year-old pre-med student, had just finished refereeing a high school basketball game in Maryland. It was just a part-time gig to help pay for school — a step on the path to becoming a doctor.

But he was about to hear 3 words that would change his life. 

“He came up to me and said, ‘You’ve been identified,’” recalls Mehta. “It was like something out of The Matrix.” 

Mehta later learned that this mysterious man was an NBA referee scout. And the encounter would set him off on a bizarre, 7-yearlong career pivot.

Referees are arguably the most hated professionals in the modern workforce. They’re berated by fans, lampooned by athletes, coaches, and owners, and held to impossibly high performance standards. NBA refs are correct on >95% of their calls, but defined by those they get wrong.

Although NBA refs enjoy financial upsides — full-time salaries start at ~$200k — the job can be thankless and extremely high-pressure.

Why would anyone, nonetheless an aspiring doctor, want to pursue this career path? What does it take to make the cut as a pro? And what does the lifestyle entail? 

This is the unlikely journey of one newly minted NBA ref.

A pre-med student goes rogue

Born in 1991, Mehta grew up in a humble household in Baltimore, Maryland.

His father, a doctor in India, immigrated to America in the mid-’80s and worked at convenience stores to support himself while getting recertified. His mother, a botanist in her home country, joined him a year later and took on a job as a part-time teacher.

Mehta (second from right) with his family at Ellis Island in 2000 (courtesy of Suyash Mehta)

Growing up, Mehta was inspired by his father’s work ethic and vowed to one day become a doctor.

“My mom would drop me off at the hospital for sleepovers and I’d stay in the physician lounge in a little twin bed,” he says. “That was my way of spending time with him.”

Mehta’s parents were supportive, but education-oriented. They enrolled him and his 3 siblings in tutoring sessions and piano classes. Sports were a foreign language to them.

But by elementary school, Mehta developed a love for basketball.

Like most kids in his neighborhood, he idolized Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant and would spend long afternoons daydreaming about the sport. He successfully lobbied his mom to enroll him in a local summer basketball camp, where he honed his skills.

Basketball, though, was always strictly a hobby; Mehta’s “ordained path” was to become a doctor like his father.

He went on to study neurobiology with a focus on pre-med at the University of Maryland.

It was here that Mehta had the first of a few life-changing encounters.

During his sophomore year, he sublet a room in a house full of strangers, which happened to include a guy named Gediminas Petraitis (“G” for short).

G, who was a few years older than Mehta, was involved with reffing intramural basketball games. When Mehta mentioned he was looking for a job to pay his way through school, G suggested he give it a shot.

“I was like, ‘Nah, man. Nobody likes refs,’” recalls Mehta. “I’d always booed the refs during games.”

But Mehta needed the money. So, he studied up on the basic rules of basketball and started officiating intramural games on campus for $10/hr.

“It was a chore at the time — not a passion,” he says. “I thought of it strictly as a way to help pay for college and get me to med school.”

Mehta (center) with G (right) and another official during an intramural college game at the University of Maryland (courtesy of Suyash Mehta)

By his senior year in college, Mehta had gotten good enough at the basics to try his hand at officiating high school basketball games, which paid $70/game.

G and the intramural sports director helped Mehta get certified, a process that entailed reading a 62-page rule book, taking a clinic, and passing a written exam.

Maryland basketball — especially the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, where Mehta reffed — is no joke. It’s known as a powerhouse for talent and has produced dozens of NBA players.

“I was used to intramurals with average Joe Schmos running down the court,” says Mehta. “My first high school game was JV, and these 14-year-old kids were like 6’6” and incredibly good players. I thought, ‘Geez, this is the real deal.’”

While balancing a full pre-med course load, Mehta decided to get more serious about his hobby, eventually progressing to varsity games.

He spent hours watching videos of high school, college, and professional refs, carefully studying their movements and calls. He read mechanics manuals and practiced his runs down the court. At night, while brushing his teeth, he’d stand in front of his mirror and work on his signals.

When he watched NBA games, he found himself fixated on the refs, memorizing their names and individual quirks.

“It was only high school games, but you never know who’s watching you,” he says. “I figured if I always worked as if someone was watching me, I’d be successful.”

On that fateful day in 2013, that philosophy paid off.

Getting discovered

Unbeknownst to Mehta at the time, the NBA has a handful of scouts who scour the nation looking for professional referees.

These men and women sit in stands at high school and college games, looking for officials who demonstrate exceptional accuracy, integrity, positioning, and stamina.

In their eyes, Mehta checked all the boxes.

NBA referee scouts scour the nation for top professional talent (Illustration by The Hustle; stock images by Adobe and Getty Images)

Shortly after the NBA scout first approached him, Mehta received an email from the NBA inviting him to a grassroots tryout camp in Dallas.

Mehta had recently finished taking his MCAT — a grueling, 8-hour exam he’d spent countless nights studying for — and was accepted into medical school. To pass the summer, he’d found work as a scribe in an ER department.

While he was flattered by the invitation, he didn’t take it too seriously. He still fully intended to be a doctor. But the NBA offered him a free flight and lodging, and since it was summer, he figured, “Why not?”

“With all my studying, I never got to travel,” he says. “I figured it’d be fun to go to Dallas and eat some BBQ.”

There were 100+ refs at the tryout — many of whom were “big time” NCAA officials Mehta recognized from TV broadcasts. 

He figured he stood no chance.

But miraculously, he was one of 40 refs to make it through to the next round, a mid-level camp in Virginia Beach. There, the group was whittled down to 21 elite-level contenders — and Mehta survived.

At the elite camp, Mehta was told that only 10-11 officials would be selected to join the G League, the NBA’s minor league.

Zachary Crockett / The Hustle

After the final tryout, Mehta was told that if he didn’t hear anything in the coming days, it meant he wasn’t selected. He returned to Maryland, forgot about the whole experience, and went back to his ER work.

Then, one morning at 8am, after a long night shift at a hospital, he got a call: He’d been accepted into the G League.

“I kind of blacked out,” Mehta recalls. “And I just remember saying, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you, like 64 times in a row.’”

After the conversation ended, the gravity of the situation hit him.

Med school was set to start in August; the G League season would start in September. He had to make a choice.

When he broke the news to his parents, they were confused.

“They really had no idea I’d been involved in officiating to that extent,” he says. “And they thought I was about to throw my career away to ref the local rec league,” he says.

He weighed the pros and cons and decided that med school would always be there; pro reffing was a once-in-a-lifetime shot  — and he had to take it.

But he made a promise to himself: If he didn’t make it to the NBA within 3 years, he’d go back to med school.

The G League

In 2015, Mehta was invited to work the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, a preseason competition where teams try out different players.

He flew his parents out to his first game — a match-up between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Brooklyn Nets — and they sat courtside, next to Cleveland’s then-head coach, David Blatt.

“He turned to them at one point and said, ‘Your son is going to be a great referee one day,’” says Mehta. “I was like, ‘Of course he said that, mom!’ They were winning the game!”

It was his parents’ first-ever sporting event — and for the first time, they understood the magnitude of what their son was pursuing.

Mehta quickly ascended through the NBA’s G League (courtesy of Suyash Mehta)

With the blessing of his parents, Mehta doubled down on his goal of making it to the NBA. During his first few seasons, he spent hours in hotel rooms, analyzing footage of his calls and talking to other refs.

As his 3rd year drew near, he began to have doubts.

“Am I making the right decision? Should I go back to med school?” he said in a recent interview with The Hustle. “Every night, these questions were running through my head.”

But he stuck with it, and at the end of 2018 he was invited to work the NBA preseason. In the 2019-20 season, he became a nonstaff NBA official and was put into rotation on regular season games.

Then, on Nov. 27, 2020 — 7 years into his officiating career — Mehta was offered a job as a full-time NBA ref.

“I called my parents, and my dad bragged to all the nurses and doctors at the hospital,” he says. “It was a moment I’ll never forget.”

Life as an NBA ref

Mehta made his full-time debut on Dec. 27, 2020, officiating a tightly contested, early-season game between the Chicago Bulls and Golden State Warriors.

Now in his 2nd season as one of the league’s 75 full-time referees, he has officiated nearly 50 games.

The NBA, he says, is a whole different ball game.

Mehta in action in 2021 (Getty Images)

For starters, all officials are a part of the National Basketball Referees Association (NBRA), a union for officials formed in the 1970s.

Marc Davis, a member of the NBRA executive board and a veteran NBA ref with 24 seasons under his belt, says collective bargaining agreements over the years have led to far better working conditions for professional officials.  

Back in the ’80s, an NBA ref might bring in between $18k-$80k ($52k-$230k adjusted for inflation). Today, he says NBA refs start around $200k — and senior officials top out at ~$525k. The job also comes with a generous pension, full benefits, and bonuses for postseason assignments.

“We’re the most talented officials in the world,” Davis says of the pay. “But we’re also the most scrutinized in all of sports.”

The NBA has a robust analytics platform, and a team of quant wizards in place that track and grade every single call its referees make. No mistake goes unnoticed.

And mistakes are made.

“There’s a saying among refs that you can retire when you officiate a perfect game,” says Mehta. “It’s just never going to happen. We’re human, and we miss things like anyone else.”

A screenshot from the NBA’s Referee Engagement and Performance System, or REPS for short, which tracks and grades every ref’s calls (via the NBA)

It has been suggested that refs favor the home team and are influenced by crowd noise. But Mehta dismisses these arguments and says his colleagues have to make split-second decisions and don’t have time to make subjective judgments.

“You literally have less than half a second when a 240-pound, 6’8” person is coming 15 miles an hour down the middle of the court,” he says.

NBA refs boast ~98% accuracy on their whistle calls — a higher percentage than many surgeons — yet when they’re wrong, they incur the wrath of legions of fans.

“No matter what call you make, 50% of the people watching will hate you,” he says.

Comments from angry fans on NBRA’s Twitter account (Twitter)

Mehta has heard all the usual insults:

  • “Are you blind, ref?!”
  • “You f***ing suck!”
  • “Don’t quit your day job!”
  • “How much are they paying you?!”
  • “Get off your knees, you’re blowing the game!”

He’s learned to develop a thick skin and block out the noise. Now, he claims the taunts actually empower him.

“When you hear the whole arena screaming, ‘You suck!,’ it actually has the opposite of the intended effect,” he says. “You think, ‘Wow, I’m really good. 20k people think I’m wrong, but I know I got it right.’”

The players are also a constant force of disagreement.

When someone like James Harden or LeBron James gets in Mehta’s face over a call, his first motive is to de-escalate the situation. “You try to distance yourself and let the player cool down,” he says. “But there’s a line.”

Mehta has had no shortage of friendly interactions with NBA players on the court (Getty Images) 

For a typical night game, Mehta’s schedule starts early in the day:

  • 10am: Meeting with the crew chief to go over the matchup, reviewing player beefs and team history
  • 11am: Meeting with other officials to talk over plays and review previous games
  • 12pm: Lunch and relax for an hour
  • 1pm: Hit the gym for 30 minutes of cardio + 30 minutes of weights
  • 4pm: Arrive at the arena early to prepare
  • After the game: Return to the hotel room, sync up with the NBA Replay Center, and review footage for several hours

Mehta is on the road up to 26 days per month through a regular season that lasts from October to April. He rarely sees his family, doesn’t have much time to date, and often wonders what it would be like to have a “normal” job like his siblings, who work in dentistry and real estate.

Mehta with his parents on the Washington Wizards court (courtesy of Suyash Mehta)

But he says the payoffs are worth it.

Mehta’s college roommate, Gediminas Petraitis — whom he still credits for lighting the spark — quit his accounting job and became an NBA ref himself. The two maintain a tight-knit friendship centered around officiating.

As the first NBA ref of Indian origin, Mehta has also sparked an interest in basketball among family members in India, where the NBA has a growing market.

And today, his parents — once sports skeptics — don’t miss a single one of his broadcasted games.

“They know all the rules now,” he says. Just like him.

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