The First NBA Indian Origin Referees Journey from Pre-Med to Pre-Ref

Meet Suyash Mehta, the NBA’s first full-time Indian-origin referee named to the league’s officiating staff for the 2020–21 season. Mehta’s parents moved from India to the United States in the 1980s, but it was a college potluck roommate that lit the path for Mehta’s professional career and inspired a change in his course from pre-med to pre-ref.

Mehta is humbled and honored to be the first Indian American NBA referee, and he hopes that this “allows others out there to know that there is no set path that you have to follow and that you can achieve whatever you believe in as long as you are willing to put in the work and discipline that is required.” For Mehta, the fact that his immigrant parents came to America to pursue the American dream and were able to give their children an avenue to do the same is profoundly special to him. While his choice to defer medical school and pursue his dream of becoming an NBA referee is a decision that Mehta has never regretted, it took years to be fully accepted by his parents.

Mehta’s decision dates back to his time at the University of Maryland when he was studying neurobiology in hopes of becoming an emergency department physician. Mehta was encouraged to take a part-time job refereeing intramurals to make money by his potluck roommate, Gediminas Petraitis, who Mehta refers to as “G-Man” or just “G.” Petraitis, currently in his 5th season as an NBA referee, was just hired to on to be an NBA G League referee at the time. Petraitis began his refereeing career at the high school level in Maryland, later followed in his father’s footsteps officiating at the collegiate level and eventually went on to work three years in the NBA G League before joining the NBRA.

Seeing Petraitis’s success first-hand in college inspired and pushed Mehta to be more involved in refereeing opportunities. But it wasn’t until the year that he was taking his MCATs that Mehta received his first opportunity to go to an educational training camp with the NBA in Dallas. Mehta believes this was an “all faith” trip and one in which he “really caught the bug.” Funnily enough, Mehta mentioned that, refereeing aside, a true motivator for that trip was to try Texas BBQ.

After more time spent officiating and attending educational camps, Mehta applied to become an NBA G League referee. During his interviews, Mehta was asked about his ability to balance med school and being a referee, and he believed he could likely balance the first year, but when clinical rotations started, there was no doing both. His aspiration at the time was to not look back in life, give it his all for 3–4 years and go back to medical school if things didn’t work out. During that time and just after Mehta finished his MCATs and was preparing to head to med school, he received news that he was one of 11 out of about 64 people being extended an offer. Mehta immediately accepted but knew confronting his parents about his decision would be a hurdle to overcome.

Mehta’s parents initially didn’t fully grasp or understand his decision to become a referee and defer medical school. It wasn’t until Mehta saved enough money to fly his parents out to Las Vegas to have them watch his first summer league game that they began to understand the weight of his accomplishments. For the first few years in the G League, Mehta’s father would constantly remind him about his original plan to attend med school. It was the fear of failure that motivated Mehta every day to do whatever was necessary to become an NBA referee. Today, Mehta’s parents are “extraordinarily proud” that he followed his dream.

Despite the life change, Mehta’s medical background has served him well in his current role. He believes the mentality involved in being an emergency department physician and officiating are not all that different. While officiating a basketball game cannot be compared to being a heroic frontline healthcare worker, Mehta understands that both occupations require constant split-second decisions that carry a lot of weight.

Mehta’s quick path to the NBA was not handed to him but was instead a “culmination of failures and successes.” Mehta credits his development to complete honesty and feedback from his local mentors, stating it made him better from the start. Petraitis served as Mehta’s primary role model and was always there to tell him what and what not to do. He also credits NBA referees Zach Zarba and Scott Foster as two more of the many mentors who shaped his career. Mehta admired Foster’s fundamentals and believed his way of thinking ultimately enhanced his decision making. Mehta also studied Zarba’s games and the way he worked for a while before their first true introduction. When they finally met, Zarba actually rescinded Mehta’s first-ever technical foul before it was even official. The play has now become a running joke between the two.

When asked about his thoughts on the NBA’s steps to keep everyone safe and healthy this season, Mehta noted, “I truly believe that we are working with some of the best minds in the world to ensure that the safety, health, and well-being of every person is a priority. The fact that the NBA has been a pioneer and world leader in tackling this global pandemic is truly fascinating. The rigorous testing and the health and safety protocols that they have put in place is necessary to have a successful season while still creating an exciting play environment for everyone else.”

What you probably don’t know about Mehta is that he grew up playing badminton competitively and was nationally ranked. He stopped playing just before college, when something much bigger was ahead of him. When he’s not on the job, he’s either spending time with his family and friends, playing golf or planning his next hike. One of his most-loved family traditions is an annual trip to Hawaii for family hiking.

From Switzerland to an all-time favorite, Cinque Terre, Italy, and everywhere in between, Mehta loves to be outdoors and explore new places, and feels that traveling around the world has made him appreciate what he has a lot more. Every time he returns from a trip, he’s able to reflect and appreciate other cultures as well as the amenities like air conditioning and tap water that we are so fortunate to have in the States. Up next on Mehta’s bucket list is a hiking trip to Japan.

Suyash Mehta is young in his career, and knows he still has a way to go. He believes there is a “never-ending cycle of education and there is always room to be better.” He’s learned that you have to be prepared to meet the moment, whatever that moment is and whatever your calling may be.