On the evening of July 15, 1991, Sandhi Ortiz-Del Valle sat nervously in the officials' locker room at Philadelphia's Holy College gym. The Philadelphia Spirit was hosting the New Haven Skyhawks in a United States Basketball League regular-season game. As the players warmed up, tremors shot through Ortiz-Del Valle's body, causing her heart to palpitate and her hands to shake. In a few moments the biggest game of her career would begin, and Ortiz-Del Valle felt as if she were suffering an internal earthquake.
The tiny gym overflowed with 1,964 fans and at least 20 members of the media. Most of the fans and virtually all of the media had come to see Ortiz-Del Valle make history. I can do this, she thought to herself as she stood at the edge of the court before the game. Finally, the teams gathered around the circle at the center of the floor. Ortiz-Del Valle's partner, Terry Fiorito, tossed the basketball into the air, and the centers jumped and tipped it into play. Just like that, the deed was done and history was made. Ortiz-Del Valle had become the first woman to officiate in a men's professional basketball game.
"As soon as the ball went up, I felt at case, and everything was normal the rest of the game," she says. "But after the game I couldn't eat for three days. I didn't realize how much of an impact it had on me."
The game also had an impact on her uniform. Afterward Ortiz-Del Valle's whistle and jersey were whisked away to basketball nirvana: the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. And she is hoping that her display case at the museum will someday require an alteration. Ortiz-Del Valle, a 44-year-old physical education teacher and basketball coach at Humanities High in New York City, is seeking to become the first woman referee in the NBA.
"I know I'm qualified," says Ortiz-Del Valle. "It's just a matter of the NBA getting over the fact that I'm a female. They [ NBA officials] are hiring people with less experience and, in my opinion, less skill, and that's just not fair."
Not surprisingly the decision-makers in the NBA's front office have a different opinion of Ortiz-Del Valle's ability to referee in the league. As the NBA's vice president of operations, Rod Thorn finds referees who are qualified for the NBA. He says Ortiz-Del Valle must improve her ability, and she must officiate at a more serious level of play before the NBA can consider her. "We are open to referees of either gender," says Thorn. "But officials must prove that they can make tough and consistent calls. We've made it our business to watch Ortiz-Del Valle, but her schedule is not very strong. You don't just go from lower-level competition to super competition. There is training involved."
Officials hoping lo work in the NBA commonly start by passing a competency exam and joining a referees' association, such as the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials. Referees then often get their first assignments in youth leagues before moving on to high school, summer leagues featuring pro players or Pro-Am leagues made up mostly of players hoping to get noticed by teams in the CBA or NBA. Here officials gain experience and, they hope, attract the attention of the USBL. The best USBL officials are then shepherded into the NBA's breeding grounds: the CBA and NCAA men's games.
Ortiz-Del Valle has refereed Pro-Am league and USBL games and at NBA preseason camps, and she believes she is ready for more. She told Thorn three years ago that she felt she was being unjustly passed over for promotion to the NBA. She took Thorn's suggestion that she apply for positions in the NCAA by calling officials at several East Coast conferences, including the Atlantic 10. But Ortiz-Del Valle says she was told that she would not be considered as a referee for men's games because the NCAA needed more women officials for women's games.
Mickey Crowley, supervisor of men's basketball officials for the Atlantic 10, would not comment on Ortiz-Del Valle's situation. But Marcy Weston, the NCAA's coordinator of women's officials, denies that the NCAA excludes women from officiating men's games. "A men's basketball supervisor only needs the courage to evaluate a woman and judge whether she's good enough to referee men's basketball," says Weston. "If Sandhi is deemed not fit, competent or qualified, then that's a different story."
In the New York Pro-Am League, Ortiz-Del Valle is considered a jewel by officials and players. "She's a very skillful referee," says Jesse Williams, the league coordinator. "She knows her floor-work mechanics. She sees the inside calls well. She's consistent and knowledgeable about the game. She's one of the best in the league, and the college level should be looking at her."