It’s a word that carries so much meaning these days. Maybe it’s part of a social movement that grips the nation’s attention, or perhaps that one moment when someone takes a deep, introspective look at the biases they hold and promises to do better. And when it happens, it can be inspirational and encouraging to many.

It’s what came to mind on March 27, 2021 when I and three other members of an officiating crew walked out onto the court of a Division II National Championship Basketball game. Together we stood as the first all-African American four-member crew to officiate a National Championship basketball game at any level. Take that in—the very first of all time…in 2021.

For over 20 years, I’ve been officiating for Division I and Division II Men’s Basketball in the Missouri Valley and Conference USA conferences, in addition to my role as an Executive Diabetes Care Specialist (DCS) at Novo Nordisk Inc. in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

As you can imagine, being selected as a referee for a Division II National Championship game is an accomplishment and honor.  The officiant evaluation process is long and rigorous. In theory, those selected as an “Elite 8” referee are chosen based on their overall performance throughout the season; that is, the “best” officials advance to the National Championship game.  But as I have witnessed and experienced, not only in basketball; but, throughout my life—this isn’t how things always play out.

A few nights before the National Championship game, the selected officiant crew met with the NCAA Coordinator who was actually responsible for making the final crew nominations. As I looked around the room, it gave me not only an incredible sense of pride and humility, but also complete pause.  I asked the Coordinator, “Do you have any idea what you’ve just done? You just advanced the first all-African American officiating crew.  Ever.” His response? “Ervin, I just advanced the best people for the job.”  Perhaps it was hearing how simple and straightforward the decision was for him or that it was actually made based upon our performance with no bias or hidden agenda.  

At that moment, it hit me.  

As excited and proud as I was of my personal achievement, I knew this was bigger than me. Not only was this a milestone for college basketball— the four of us were making history. Progress.

I know some may ask, “Why?” “Why did this milestone take so long to happen?” “Why is this something to celebrate rather than something that should simply be expected?” And I respect those opinions.  But the reality is that in today’s society, these milestones for the Black community are and will continue to happen for a long time—and I choose to celebrate every one of them as progress.

And so, when the photo of our crew went viral and I received hundreds of texts from friends, family and strangers; when my son who plays basketball told me he was proud of me and understood the magnitude of this milestone; when my colleagues share that my story has changed their perspective and brought new awareness; when African American officials from around the country who are living this every day say to me, “Make us proud,”  - I know that many others join me in my celebration, and that we will continue to drive change in all the ways that matter.