Michelle Johnson, National Basketball Association
Before Michelle Johnson distinguished herself as an Air Force lieutenant general, the Iowa native starred on the basketball court at the U.S. Air Force Academy and became the first woman inducted into the academy’s Athletics Hall of Fame.
“I was a two guard,” Johnson said. “I loved the game.”
Today, as head of referee operations for the NBA, Johnson relies on both her stellar military accomplishments, which include being the first woman superintendent of the Air Force Academy, and her love of basketball. She joined the NBA in 2017 after retiring from the military, but not before calling another Air Force Academy graduate to learn about the job and the league.
“I called [San Antonio Spurs coach] Gregg Popovich, who knows a little bit about the NBA,” Johnson said. “To the credit of [NBA Commissioner] Adam Silver, they wanted me to bring process and organization to really polish up the referee operations.”
Johnson has helped create recruitment strategies while increasing training, oversight and evaluation methods for the 165 referees across the NBA, WNBA and G League.
Her sense of organizational leadership came from serving as a command pilot with over 3,600 flight hours in eight types of aircraft, a job where teamwork was critical to successful missions. It’s the same approach Johnson is taking within the referee ranks.
“We feel like we are really building a team to take on challenges,” she said.
— John Lombardo