NBA Referee's Father: 'I Watch Every Game'

Originally published on June 10, 2011 11:04 am

Having a career in the NBA would be a dream for many athletes and sports fans. For Marat Kogut, 31, his long-held dream came true when he became an NBA referee, in 2009. It was an outcome that may have seemed unlikely when Kogut's family emigrated from Ukraine in 1979.

Marat was just a newborn when his family came to the United States. They settled in Brooklyn, where his father, Leon, eventually opened his own barbershop. Speaking in New York recently, the two recalled how Marat decided on his future career at a very early age.

"Most kids grow up dreaming that they could hit the game-winning shot of a championship game," Marat says. "But I was the one that said, 'I want to be the referee that blows the whistle and says the basket was successful.' It was weird."

His father didn't think it was all that weird.

"When you told me someday you're gonna be an NBA referee, I said, 'Yeah, of course,' " Leon recalls.

"You were always supportive, no matter what I said," Marat says. "If I told him I wanted to be a ballet dancer he would say, 'Oh, good!' But Mom was totally against it."

"She wants to see you as a doctor, as a lawyer, you know," Leon says.

"Her main concern was to marry me off," Marat says. He remembers his mother, Lora, worrying, " 'Who's gonna take a guy like that, who's gonna be a referee? What kind of a job is that?' "

"I always remember when you ask me, 'How many lawyers do we have in this country?' " Leon says. "I said, 'I dunno, maybe 3, 4 million?' 'How many doctors?' I say, 'About 6, 7 million doctors.' 'How many NBA referee? I'm gonna be one of them.' "

After that conversation, Leon tells Marat, "I said to your mom, 'Don't bother him anymore. He going to be NBA referee.' "

Marat worked in his first NBA game in 2009, on Halloween night.

"My first official game for the NBA, my partner gave me the ball, and I'm the one that got to throw it up to start the game," he says. "I was so nervous, up until I finally released the ball in the air. I'm like, 'This is just another game between two teams. Let's go to work.' "

And when he officiated in a game between New Jersey and Milwaukee, Marat had quite a turnout of supporters.

"The whole family went," Leon says. "A lot of customers went to the game also."

"There was a hell of a turnout. They just filled up a whole section, and they were embarrassing me," Marat says. "My partners were looking at them like, 'All those people are here for you? You have more fans than the players do.' "

"I never miss even one game yet," Leon says with a laugh. "I watch every game, it doesn't matter if you work in the West, and the game start 10 o'clock, finish 1 o'clock in the morning, I still watch to the last minute."

"My son is in the arena, and he blow the whistle there," he says. "It's incredible feeling, incredible. The dreams comes true."

Marat is living his dream — but he doesn't forget where he came from, either.

"I still go to your barber shop to get haircuts, because you give me the family discount," Marat says. "And every time there's a customer, you say, 'Hey, this is my son,' and the first things that come out of their mouth is, 'Oh your father always talks about you.' "

"Of course," Leon says. "I'm proud of you, that's why. I feel very, very proud of you. Very proud, all the family proud."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Michael Garofalo.

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(Soundbite of music)

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

So those franchisees will be looking for players making the big leap from the school to the pros. And today, in our series StoryCorps, we're going to hear about one boys journey from Brooklyn to the NBA, although not as a player. Marat Kogut is an NBA referee. At StoryCorps he spoke with his father Leon, an immigrant from Ukraine who owns a barber shop in Brooklyn. They remembered how Marat had his career in mind from a very early age.

Mr. MARAT KOGUT: Most kids grow up dreaming that they could hit the game-winning shot of a championship game. But I was the one that said, I want to be the referee that blows the whistle and says the basket was successful. It was weird.

Mr. LEON KOGUT: When you told me someday you're going be an NBA referee, I said, yeah, of course.

Mr. MARAT KOGUT: And you were always supportive, no matter what I said. If I told him I wanted to be a ballet dancer he would say, oh, good! But Mom was totally against it.

Mr. LEON KOGUT: She wants to see you as a doctor, as a lawyer, you know.

Mr. MARAT KOGUT: Her main concern was to marry me off. Who's going to take a guy like that, and who's going to be a referee? What kind of a job is that?

Mr. LEON KOGUT: I always remember when you ask me, how many lawyers do we have in this country? I said, I dunno, maybe three, four million? How many doctors? I say, about six, seven million doctors. How many NBA referee? I'm going to be one of them. So after that I said to your mom, don't bother him anymore. He going to be NBA referee.

Mr. MARAT KOGUT: My first official game for the NBA, my partner gave me the ball, and I'm the one that got to throw it up to start the game. I was so nervous, up until I finally released the ball in the air. I'm like, this is just another game between two teams. Let's go to work. Do you remember when New Jersey played Milwaukee?

Mr. LEON KOGUT: The whole family went. A lot of customers of mine went to the game also.

Mr. MARAT KOGUT: That was a hell of a turnout. They just filled up a whole section, and they were embarrassing me. My partners were looking at them like, all those people are here for you? You have more fans than the players do.

Mr. LEON KOGUT: I never miss even one game yet. I watch every game, it doesn't matter if you work in the west, and the game start 10:00, to finish at 1:00 in the morning, I still watch to the last minute. You know, my son is in the arena, and he blow the whistle there. It's incredible feeling, incredible. The dreams comes true.

Mr. MARAT KOGUT: I still go to your barber shop to get haircuts, because you give me the family discount. And every time there's a customer, you say, hey, this is my son, and the first things that come out of their mouth is, oh your father always talks about you.

Mr. LEON KOGUT: Of course, I'm proud of you, that's why. I feel very, very proud of you, very proud, all the family proud.

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INSKEEP: I guess they don't complain about the referees' calls in that barber shop. Leon Kogut, and his son, NBA referee Marat Kogut at StoryCorps in New York. Their conversation will be archived with all StoryCorps interviews at the Library of Congress, and you can get the Podcast at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.