Bernard Vassallo began his career as a basketball referee in 1993 and three years later made his international debut at the age of 25.

He was kind enough to share some of his insights on being a top referee, besides we had also a chance to know more on his life away from basketball.

What's the best decision you've ever made?
Life is made up of a large number of choices and decisions, ranging from small daily ones to larger ones which have more impact on life. Remember that one cannot make progress without making decisions.

On a professional level, the best decision made was and is that I always try to remember from where I started and even if having some sort of power or authority, I tried and try to be reachable, down to earth and understanding. It takes to give respect to have respect and my life motto is to respect everyone, but fear no one.

On a personal level, entering the delivery room to see my son being born was a great decision.

What's the biggest mistake you've ever made?
One thing one must remember in life is that we all do mistakes, nobody is infallible.

Today I have learned that what is important is to realize a mistake, learn from it, make amends (but not compensate), be happy to correct the wrong and move on. It takes a real strong person to admit a mistake and move on.

The past is past, one should only look forward to make better choices in the future. I aim to always look at a partially filled glass as being 10% full and not 90% empty

Yet having said all this and thinking back to my past experiences, being too naive and trusting certain persons without noticing their hidden agenda and motives, was maybe detrimental at the time although I still learned a lot afterwards.

How long do you spend getting ready in the morning?
I am a slow starter in the morning and hopefully 20 minutes should be enough.

Do you prefer a lie in or an afternoon nap?
If possible, surely an afternoon nap, but that is something quite rare given today’s hectic lifestyle and demands.

Do you prefer a night in or a night out?
A casual evening, watching some good basketball game or a film, would be great but quite infrequent at times given today’s hectic lifestyle.

What's worse, a traffic jam or airport queuing?
Definitely a traffic jam as one has no control over the situation most of the time. On the other hand, despite any wait, at least airport queuing could lead to a positive overseas experience.

How do you kill time at an airport?
I can say that I am quite experienced waiting in airports. Surely catching up on pending work, especially where wi-fi is weak or unavailable, and a good book.

What would your karaoke song be?
Better not…..but if forced to, then will try to sing ‘We Will Rock You’ by Queen

Favourite Song?
Happy by Pharell

How many languages can you speak?
Maltese, English, Italian and French

Which language would you most like to learn?
If only I had the time, learning Russian would be interesting.

Do you prefer sweet or savoury food?
Give me very spicy food any time.

What are your favourite films?
Braveheart, Glory, Goodfellas, 300 and JFK.

Favourite Actor?
Denzel Washington, by far.

Favourite Books and Author?
Roman Military strategy oriented books: Simon Scarrow and Harry Sidebottom as authors.

Summer or winter?
Although the main European Cup competitions are played in winter and it always a joy and I really look forward to experience top level ball on the continent, this is a no brainer for me as I really like summer, nice weather, sunshine and some casual family time off season!!

When was your first contact with basketball?
I still remember quite vividly the first time I accompanied my dad, the local basketball media personality Willie Vassallo, to a basketball game at the age of 6. It was a Second Division Men game, played in the old Ta’ Qali hangar, then still with a concrete playing floor and stone stands, between Zebbug and Gzira.

Since that day, I started accompanying dad quite regularly in the Ta’ Qali, De La Salle and Kordin gyms, initially also having fun being responsible to register the baskets and points made on the manual scoreboards, namely the black, metal rotating one at Ta’ Qali or the smaller pop-up rectangular one at the De La Salle gym.

Did you play basketball?
Started playing basketball at the old SkolaSport in Marsa in 1979 under the guidance of the late Michael Aquilina and Martin Rizzo.

Two years later, whilst at Stella Maris College, Bernard Micallef lured me to join Luxol. Following five years at Luxol, I played for Floriana for three seasons, one season at Conte di Fontegreca and a final two seasons, before my injury, with Hamrun Liberty.

After a four-year playing hiatus, I tried again to play, this time in the Second Division with Mellieha, but despite being chosen as the Player of the Year, it was at times too painful on post-game days and decided to stop playing competitive basketball even because I was already progressing well as a referee.

Did you win any main honours as a player?
I vividly remember the first team honour won, the 1985 Youth League with Luxol. After that came a Reserves League, Second Division Championship and Cup (Floriana) and a First Division plate with Hamrun Liberty.

As regards individual honours, won First Division Player of the Week (awarded at the time, now not any more) awards with Floriana and Hamrun as well as winning the 1991 and 1992 seasonal league 3-point king honour.

How long have you been refereeing?
I got into refereeing quite by chance after I had to abruptly cease my playing career, at the highest local senior level, at a young age of 22 due to an unfortunate injury and strict doctors’ orders.

Up till then, referees were quite my nemesis and I surely never thought I would take up the whistle.

After some months of inactivity, and several depressing moments being out of the game, I was finally lured into trying refereeing (after many phone calls and meetings) by the then MBA president, Joe Farrugia, and practically then never looked back

When was your refereeing debut in the local scene?
The local debut was a women game in 1993, played in the Gozo Sports Complex, between Gozo and Mosta with Antoine Cefai as my referee partner.

When was your debut as an international referee?
I became an international FIBA referee in May 1996, as a 25-year old, after a final clinic in Bratislava.

My debut came on 20th November 1996, a female Ronchetti Cup game played in Messina, between Messina and Osnabruck (Germany) together with a Bosnian colleague Samir Besirevic.

One month later, I refereed a woman Champions Cup game in Italy between Como and Ramat Hasharon from Israel.

Any memorable international games?
Since my first game in 1996, I have now refereed over 350 international games ranging from full internationals to European cups and other categories. Every next game is important, even after all these years, as one is only as good as his next call yet there are some games that remain in memory as the main highlights of my career.

Taking just this present season, two games in November come to mind, both overtime games, the first in Kosice where we had an intense double overtime game and then, just a week later the world cup qualifier Great Britain versus Israel which was also decided after overtime.

Probably the main turning point in my career, vis-a-vis my international ranking, came in 2006 during the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne where I believe I had a good performance during the whole fortnight of competition and was then entrusted to referee the final between Australian and New Zealand.

Games became more plentiful after this event and then I am very proud to have been shortlisted, despite coming from a small country with little basketball international recognition, as one of the referees for the EuroBasket 2011 in Poland, a wonderful experience at these European Championships.

Two years later I was then selected for the Women Euro League Final 8 in Ekaterinburg, Russia, another great event.

I also want to mention other games which give me great pride, amongst which the bronze medal games in both the 2011 Under 20 Division A in Novi Sad between Serbia and Poland as well as in the 2013 Under 18 Division A in Riga between Latvia and Spain. Last Summer had the pleasure to referee a semi-final during the European under 18 Division A Championships in Hungary.

There are other games such as Cup playoffs and national teams’ tournament semi-finals as well as the wonderful experience when I was invited to referee a total of 10 games in the English BBL League during the 2014 season.

Despite all these years, I still firmly believe that learning never stops and thus I do continue to work hard to study further the game and keep totally abreast of all the new developments both in officiating and playing techniques.

Any other memorable sport experiences?
Without a doubt, was extremely proud to be chosen as the 2006 National Sports Official of the Year by the Malta Sport Journalists after having a very successful year internationally.

In the same regard, despite having then better performing years especially between 2011 and 2013 and being shortlisted as one of the last finalists, I had to eliminate myself from the same ‘Sportivi tas-Sena’ event as I deemed that my then position as chair of KMS as a possible conflict of interest.

In a way I wished to stay in the run as I worked hard to achieve my games but integrity and ethics demanded otherwise and I wanted to lead by example.

I feel very sad when I see instances where people do not hold ethics in high regard and do not withdraw in instances of possible conflicts of interest, in sport or other facets of life.

Which was the most difficult match?
A referee should always work to be focused well for every match as there is never an easy one. Not enough focus and concentration could easily lead to a poor job on the day.

Looking back there were some difficult games, including some with hostile crowds, but that comes with the package one must overcome as an official.

Amongst these games I can mention a particular Euro League game in 2015 between Prague and Galatasaray, where as a crew chief I had to stop the game for over 20 minutes after fighting erupted between the fans on the stands, just four minutes into the game, and the scuffles ended up also with fans jumping in and fighting on the court.

Besides refereeing do you practice any other sports?
Apart basketball, I played some competitive water-polo, football and handball at a younger age. Nowadays my main focus is total immersion in basketball officiating although I would love to return to some casual non-extremely competitive road running, albeit I had some good personal results in the past, namely a one hour 19 minutes in the Malta Half-Marathon in 1994 and a sub one hour in the 1994 Dingli10.

What makes a good referee?
There are many important factors that could help a referee move further but this demands a lot of time to explain. Yet, essentially, a referee should see that a game is played fair and by the rules.

I hear many people say that the best referee is the one who is not seen. I tend not to agree with that as I believe the best referee is that person who is always ready to make the best decision when it is needed, even if it is unpopular and takes courage.

As a referee, you surely need to be self-confident and must be well prepared for any game, be it physically as well as technically (good basketball knowledge) apart from the most important mental preparation leading to optimal focus. Through experience, one can also achieve added mental strength.

There must also be mutual respect to players and coaches. Basketball, like most other main team contact sports, is an emotional game. A referee cannot expect players not to have emotions, yet the referee needs to also know how to keep his own emotions under control.

One can write many things on the qualities of a good referee like the above as well as confidence, composure, consistency, courage and common sense yet one important factor that should never be forgotten is integrity. We must be total guardians of honesty and never even let a small speck of sand to taint our image.


Date of Birth: 4th December 1970
Star Sign: Sagittarius
Status: Married to Michelle nee Pulis and have one son, Matthias, born 2004.
Favourite Cities Visited: Azores and Paris
Favourite Food: Salmon
Favourite Drink: Not much of a drinker, but a nice wine would be ok.
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Saturday, January 19, 2019
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