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Volume 22 No. 19
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Michelle Johnson, National Basketball Association

Photo: Susan Young

Michelle Johnson

Senior Vice President and Head of Referee Operations, NBA
Born: Leon, Iowa
Education: B.S., operations research, U.S. Air Force Academy; M.A., politics and economics, Oxford University, England (Rhodes Scholar); M.S., National War College National Security Strategy, Fort McNair, Washington, D.C.

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

Getting to know...

Attribute I look for when hiring: A growth mindset.
Networking works best when: I treat it as relationship building rather than a transaction.
Proudest professional achievement: It has been gratifying to build a team and earn the trust of both office staff and our referees.
Woman in sports business I’d like to meet: Cathy Lanier [NFL senior vice president of security]. During my assignments at the White House and the Pentagon, I lived and worked in Washington, D.C. I admired her leadership as the chief of police and would love to compare notes on how our experiences translate into the world of sports.
Role of sports in social issues: Sports are a microcosm of society; and in the terms I used teaching political science, there are enduring tensions in our democracy between freedom and order, the individual and the group. How we balance those tensions is the key. I think that the NBA currently works with the teams and players to strike a good balance in that respect.