As he stepped onto the polished floor of Oracle Arena, the bright stadium lights and the heat of the packed crowd overwhelmed him.
In his 12 seasons as a National Basketball Association (NBA) referee, SUNY New Paltz alumnus Zach Zarba, 40, experienced the spotlight for a second time this summer as he officiated Games 2 and 6 of the 2015 NBA Finals.
After the final buzzer sounded in Game 6 and the Golden State Warriors were crowned champions, a sigh of relief was had not only by players, but referees as well.
Despite being mentally exhausted at the conclusion of the grind of a strenuous and lengthy season, Zarba said there is no better place in sports than the Finals.
“It’s the show,” Zarba said. “There is definitely some reflection you do before the game. You look back on your first youth basketball game and your high school games that you have done over the years and you appreciate those times because you are refereeing in the NBA Finals.”
Throughout his career, Zarba has appeared in 764 regular season and 46 playoff games, including three Finals games between 2014 and 2015 as a crew chief. 2014 was Zarba’s first full season as a full-time crew chief, a position of lead referee that is earned by climbing the rankings.
Only 12 referees out of a league total of 60 receive the honor to judge the NBA’s ultimate series — chosen by the league office based upon play-calling accuracy percentages.
“In my profession, that is [The Finals] the crowning achievement so to speak,” Zarba said. “Just to be selected to do that is just a dream come true, it really is. Just being selected to be in that top 12 is humbling in and of itself. It is just a better feeling for your family and friends. As good as I felt about it, my wife, my father, my mother, all my extended family, my brother, when you see how they react to hear the news, it makes it all worth it.”
During his time at New Paltz, Zarba played for the Hawks’ Men’s basketball team during his sophomore, junior and senior years as a guard and was made a Captain during his final year.
Stuart Robinson, SUNY New Paltz Athletic Director and longtime friend of Zarba’s, said even though the Hawks’ guard was not always a starter, a group of students would come out every game to watch and cheer for him.
“He is just a great people person,” Robinson said. “He made people buy in and people feel a part of the event. Through example, he was influential about the meaning of the word ‘team’ and not the individual.”
It was one day in 1997 during his senior year where Zarba embarked on his journey to wear the zebra stripes in the NBA. Hawks’ Men’s basketball Head Coach at the time, Paul Clune, searched for volunteer referees to officiate an intramural basketball game and asked for the assistance of Zarba.
Both Coach Clune and Zarba mediated the game and it was then the student-athlete discovered his passion.
“I was horrible, but I loved it … I loved it,” Zarba said. “I was always under the assumption that you had to play in the NBA to be a referee for some reason and that was false. The minute I found out that you didn’t need to be a player, that is what I wanted to do. After refereeing that intramural game [at New Paltz] I knew that this was something I would love to do.”
After his graduation in 1997, Zarba began his long journey to the NBA that fall, refereeing high school certified Public Schools Athletic League (PSAL) and Catholic school leagues, as well as youth basketball and Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) games in and around his native Brooklyn, New York.
In-between his time gaining officiating experience, Zarba taught high school social studies in the neighborhood of Bushwick, Brooklyn from 1999-2003.
During this time, the Park Slope native worked in various New York Pro-Am leagues where he learned how to officiate. It was then he moved up to the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) during the 2000-01 season and NBA Development League (NBDL) from 2001-03.
In the NBDL, each official is evaluated all season long and every summer, from a pool of 45 potential candidates to make it to the NBA — and only two or three would be selected.
Seven years since calling his first game, Zarba got the call, officiating in his first NBA game.
As a full-time crew chief, Zarba, as well as other officials, starts his day in the early morning until hours after the final buzzer. For Zarba, this includes administrative work, watching video footage of previous games uploaded by the league office and staying in shape physically by working out. Each NBA game is judged by two referees and a crew chief.
NBA officials work 12 to 15 games a month, for a total of 70 to 76 a year leaving them to travel and be away from home for most of the season. Each team in the league plays 41 games in their home arena — for referees, they are always on the go.
During the offseason, Zarba spends time with his family, including his wife, Christiane and two sons, Jaxon, 3, and Jordan, 1.
Additionally, Zarba speaks to local youth groups in his hometown in a junction with local Pro-Am referees of New York. There, he gives back to the community by teaching the younger generation what was taught to him — to reach for the stars. Most recently, Zarba spoke to the Brooklyn Youth Sports Club Summer Academy this summer.
“I just try to illuminate to them that to try and be the next NBA superstar is a great dream and they should continue to pursue that dream,” he said. “But there are also a ton of other careers in professional sports like refereeing that are available to them, as long as they know about it. They have to understand the other careers such as referees, trainers and beat writers. That stuff is valuable to them to know that there are other careers out there.”
Zarba said he takes after his father, Joe. The elder Zarba is a retired junior high school photography teacher and baseball umpire on the high school and college levels.
On New Year’s Eve 2001, Joe Zarba phoned his son, who was calling a game in Alabama, feeling sorry that he was not able to be with his family welcoming in the new year. However, it was on that night, where a father knew his son was going to make it.
“He said, ‘Dad, I am doing what I love and I am fine,” Joe Zarba said. “At that moment I knew he was going to make it. Zach was committed and dedicated from the first moment. He had this passion and pursued it without ever thinking it was out of the realm of possibility. It is I who looks up to Zach as he has reached a pinnacle of success that I never ever imagined for myself and so very few others have achieved. He has done it with humility and the sense that you are only as good as your last call and that an official must start out being perfect and get better every day.”
Compared to his first go-around last year in Game Three between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs and this year’s championship series between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Warriors featured the majority of players that have had no previous Finals experience, Zarba said.
“There is no higher level than the NBA Finals, there is no more scrutiny in basketball than that,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s a basketball game. The basket is 10-feet high, the court is 94-by-50-feet and you go out and you really try to do the best job you can because the players and coaches deserve it. The players and coaches deserve the best.”
With the stakes at their highest level, not only the intense physical and emotional aspects of the game, but the mental aspect of each situation with every play being so significant can wear down even the most pristine judges, Zarba said.
According to Zarba, those watching NBA games during the season do not understand how critical referees are of themselves.
“If people think that the fans and the media are critical of us, that is not even half as critical as we are on ourselves,” he said. “Each NBA referee is harder on themselves than anyone else. I think that sometimes it gets lost when a team wins or a team loses that every night, we are our own toughest critics.”
Referees strive for a perfect game, but in this year’s Finals, the NBA admitted the officiating crew, including Zarba, had missed a few calls during the end of Game Two, according to ESPN.
“It’s an unfortunate part of our craft, the part that keeps us all up at night,” he said. “We know going out every night that we are not perfect, yet at the same time we have to strive for it. You have to strive for the perfect game. You’re not always going to be right, but you want to have a clear understanding of what’s right and what’s wrong. And you have to have character, because it gets very difficult out there. And as unfortunate as that is, you have to be able to learn from it, get better, understand why you missed a play or two and try not to let it happen again.”
Since their first meeting collaborating on an independent project which Zarba needed to graduate, Robinson said it has been exciting to watch his friend’s career take off from starting off at an intramural level at SUNY New Paltz.
“The Finals is one of the biggest and most exciting events, and to think that a New Paltz graduate is involved with it on that level is not only great for Zach but tremendous for the institution as a whole,” Robinson said. “It is the highest level in his chosen profession. I think it is the fact he strives to be better that has allowed his career to take off the way that it has. Through it all, he is still the same person. He is still the same down-to-Earth, genuine person that I first met as a student here and I have always stayed in touch with.”
Opening Night for the 2015-16 NBA season begins on Tuesday, Oct. 27. As he prepares for his thirteenth season, Zarba said he is looking forward to what the upcoming months have in store.
“We have the best seat in the house every night, refereeing the best game in the world with the best athletes in the world,” he said.