By day, Tony Padilla assists people who run afoul of the law. By night – and weekend – he is the law. Padilla is a college basketball official who is officiating in his sixth NCAA tournament. But to pay the bills, he works as a bail bondsman.
“I mostly bail out guys who have committed a crime,” he said. “But every once in a while I bail out the innocent guy. Technically, I’m giving people the opportunity to make the most of a bad situation. “In basketball, I’m the lawman. I’m putting the gavel down every time I put air in the whistle. The two worlds collide with each other. With bail, you have a right to defend yourself until you are found guilty. I’m a very nice guy when they first come to me. But if they jump bail, I have to lean the other way. I have to go get them and bring them back to custody.”
While bringing those who jump bail back into custody can be exhilarating, Padilla gets a bigger charge out of his side job. He’s been a college basketball fan for 40 years. His first recollection of the NCAA tournament was in 1974.
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been a big college basketball fan,” he said. “The first tournament that I remember was in 1974 when North Carolina State won the whole thing. They had David Thompson and Monte Towe on that team. That was the first time I got wrapped up as a fan.
“It’s a thrill to be out there. When you make it to the NCAA tournament you know you’ve made it to the big time. You look over and see Jim Nantz broadcasting your game. My best memory was the first time I did an NCAA tournament. It’s such a thrill and an honor.”
As a fan, it would be easy to get caught up in the moment and lose track of your job. Padilla says that it takes time to get to the point where you’re not overwhelmed.
“It’s part of the training,” he said. “You can still be a fan on the court. But you have to keep the integrity for the kids, the coaches and the fans. That’s the most important thing while you’re out there. “I did one of the most exciting games in my career a few years ago when I did the VCU vs. Indiana [2012 third-round] game. It was such an exciting game that came down to a last-second shot. There are times that the game can wow you. You get over that. You realize that you have a job to do.”
Padilla tries to maintain the middle of the road. He’s not demonstrative in his calls. He doesn’t engage the players during the game. He tries not to draw attention to himself.
“I’m more of a quiet guy,” he said. “I don’t really stimulate much conversation [with the players]. I just try to go about my business under the radar. I let the game come to me. If I have to be bold and brash, then I increase the level of intensity. The more I can stay out of the way and let the players play and the coaches coach, the better off the game will be.
“I just try to administer the rules the way they’re written. I’m very much a rules official. A foul is a foul and a travel is a travel. I try to use my training to administer the rules the way they’re written.” It’s called game-awareness.
Padilla enjoys being a part of the action, whether it’s the regular season or the postseason.
“It’s such an inspiration to be an actual part of the game,” he said. “Even though we’re not playing or coaching, we are an integral part of the game. That’s really fun for me.
“Being a basketball official is kind of like the priesthood. You have a calling for it. You’re drawn to it. Basketball is by far my favorite sport. What officiating has done is allow me to stay attached to the sport I love the most.”
At the same time, Padilla knows that it’s not for everybody. He recognizes that not everybody would want a job where you’re either hated or ignored. He has umpired baseball games and actually has been complimented on his ability to do so quite a bit. But he vows never to officiate another game without a clock.
Padilla has been officiating college basketball for 12 years. He started doing intramural games when he was a student at Gonzaga, where he was a member of the baseball team.
“The coach, Dan Fitzgerald, came up to me and told me I had a good feel for officiating,” he said.
It may or may not have been the last time a coach told him he did a good job as an official. He’s not saying.
For the official who happens to be a big fan as well, there’s a rush of adrenaline that comes when the game is on the line and the final seconds are ticking down. While the two teams are either trying to score or trying not to allow the other team to score, he’s trying to make sure they both do it within the rules. In those final seconds, he knows that his calls may carry even more weight than in the early stages of the game.
It’s in those situations where it would be easy to be intimidated by a high-strung, high-profile coach. But he says that once the NCAA tournament rolls around, that really doesn’t happen much.
“What I’ve noticed in the NCAA tournament is that the coaches realize you’re there for a reason. These guys are good coaches, or they wouldn’t be there. They realize the officials are good officials or they wouldn’t be there. They pretty much leave you alone. They let you officiate, and they get to the business of just coaching – more than during the regular season.
“I think it’s out of mutual respect that there’s not much animosity. I haven’t had any coaches try to intimidate me. It may be that there’s so much more on the line that they don’t want to jeopardize their team’s chances for advancing.”
If a coach or a player does get out of hand, Padilla always has the rules on his side, and the whistle to prove it. And he’s not afraid to use it.
After all, by night – and weekend – he’s the law.
By David Smale
Photo credit of Mr. Leonard Padilla: http://www.sacmag.com/