Joe Borgia is not in the NBA bubble. He won’t be traveling to Orlando to call games as a referee; he hasn’t done so for many years. And he won’t be scanning monitors from a small, dark room in New Jersey to reinforce or reverse on-court calls made by his fellow referees. That, too, is in the past for him.
Borgia’s impact will be felt on the secluded courts of the league’s restart when difficult calls are sent to higher-ups. He used to be the guy they were sent to –– he was instrumental in instituting the NBA Replay Center and helped introduce the Coach’s Challenge.
Now, he’s a two-hour drive, at least a week of quarantine and several negative COVID-19 tests away from the courts at Disney’s Wide World of Sports campus, where innovations he helped foster will continue to affect basketball at its highest level.
He’ll watch games from outside the bubble and — for the first time in 32 years — the NBA.
Borgia, 64, retired from his job as senior vice president of referee operations four weeks ago, expecting the season to have been completed in early June as it has for much of the league’s 74-year history. But the season didn’t end; the playoffs haven’t even started.
The league is trying an unprecedented plan to play out the remainder of the season in a pandemic. But some of Borgia’s innovations were unprecedented in their time, as well. The NBA has adjusted for years, which is why it continues to rise in popularity.
People like Borgia helped keep the league and the game current.
Though his career fell a year short of 33 in the association — his old referee number — he’s content.
Sitting on the 14th floor of his beachside condo on St. Pete Beach facing the Gulf of Mexico, Borgia replays a life well-lived by a man whose legacy is defined by the decisions he made over many years that were based on fractions of a second, frozen in time, played over and over.
‘I’m the rules person’
“He’s just a flat-out class act,” said Danny Crawford, a longtime NBA referee and former colleague of Borgia’s. “He’s touched every area of officiating, and that is a pretty unique thing. There’s probably no other person involved in the profession that’s done what Joe has done.”
Borgia never used to see it that way. It’s understandably hard to quantify your impact on the game from within it. But now that he’s outside the game, he’s starting to see the true scope of his impact.
“You don’t realize it, ‘cause it’s just your job and you’re so used to doing it,” Borgia said. “In hindsight, it is a pretty big deal.”
His father, Sid, was a long-time NBA ref during the early days of the league. Sid Borgia refereed in the era of George Mikan and Wilt Chamberlain. Joe Borgia refereed in the NBA full time from 1988-1999, so his career coincided with Michael Jordan’s Bulls. He refereed the longest and highest-scoring games in NBA history.
He retired from a back injury that stopped him from running up and down the court. But the NBA couldn’t afford to lose him. He joined the basketball and referee operations department in 1999. He became the director of referee development and held a slew of other titles for the next 21 years, all of which drew upon his innate understanding of basketball’s rules.
Borgia trained young referees to do what he could no longer physically do but could mentally execute better than anyone.
“He’s good at explaining and teaching what all the different nuances are, and he’s got all that in his head and can recall it and nobody else did,” said his wife, Linda. “There was nobody that had that kind of extensive rules knowledge.”
Borgia talks about it like it’s easy.
“I’m sort of the rules person for the NBA, the rules interpreter,” he said. “I helped write the rule book, the rules and competition committee makes the rules, and then I sort of write it so it makes sense.”
Inside the Replay Center
Being a part of anything for 32 years ensures you’re around long enough to see it change. And the NBA’s changes in the past three decades are palpable.
Instant replay is one of those marked changes. The NBA launched the Replay Center in the 2014-2015 season with Borgia running point from inside. He also developed the software that made it possible.
“They had the right man starting instant replay,” Crawford said. “And it’s evolved into just a part of the game now that we actually rely on now.”
Borgia sat on in the middle of the NBA Replay Center in Secaucus, N.J., and “swiveled all night,” keying in on different games. He became adept at honing his focus as a referee with thousands of screaming fans in his ear. That skill helped him transition well to instant replay.
He was locked into several games at once, tasked with making final calls that can change the course of games and, potentially, the course of NBA history. He calls it “mentally exhausting.”
“I couldn’t do it,” Crawford said. “It was pretty stressful. I had a hard enough time concentrating on one game, Joe’s in there concentrating on numerous games.”
Borgia also helped usher in the Coach’s Challenge, which was instituted this season. It’s similar to the challenge rule in the NFL except only one is allowed per game.
Borgia commuted to New York, New Jersey and NBA cities from his homes in St. Petersburg, where he and Linda moved from Tampa in 1988, and St. Pete Beach, where they moved in 2016.
It would be a stretch to say he lived in those cities. It’s more like they were his home base.
Linda and Joe met at a Tampa Bay Thrillers game in the now-defunct Continental Basketball Association in January 1985. She was keeping statistics, and he was refereeing when he ripped his pants and strolled over to the scorer’s table to confirm it.
They talked over a few more games, and at the season’s end, he moved to Tampa from his native New York.
He and Linda married on Aug. 30, 1986, just before he became an NBA referee. When he was away, which was often, Linda was responsible for raising their two kids, Marisa, now 31, and Matt, 28. Borgia recorded cassette tapes of himself reading bedtime stories so that even when he was on the road, he was there.
“My wife had to be mother and father for a lot of years when I was gone,” Borgia said. “We’ve been married 33 years. I’ve only been home probably half.”
Borgia calls the NBA a lifestyle, so it’s not only his life that revolved around the league. The lives of Linda and the kids have been shaped by basketball as well. Vacations were planned around his NBA schedule. That meant the summer league in Las Vegas and All-Star Games across the country were family trips.
That lifestyle is over. Borgia had plans to travel with Linda to non-NBA destinations before the pandemic struck. Now, those are on hold. He’ll still watch basketball, he said, but it won’t be as laborious.
“I’m gonna watch some games; I’m not gonna be watching every game,” Borgia said. “And when I want to go to bed, I’m gonna go to bed.”
He doesn’t pretend to know what’s next — for him or the NBA. He’d consider doing TV work for other leagues that could use a replay guru like himself.
But right now, Borgia is content to be a retiree in Florida. He’s spending time with his grandson, Sam, who’s 19 months old. He’s making up for lost time with his wife.
The balcony at his beachside condo is decorated with a sign that reads, “St. Pete Beach is my happy place.”
Says Borgia, “I’m in heaven, baby.”
Contact Kyle Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @Kkylewood.