NEW YORK (AP) -Ron Johnson spent 32 years in the military leading people through difficult situations. He quickly found another challenge when he retired from the Army.
Johnson is the NBA's new senior vice president of referee operations, where the two-star general will oversee a department that has spent the last year dealing with the fallout from the scandal involving Tim Donaghy, who pleaded guilty to games he officiated and later accused some former colleagues of misconduct.
``This is an incredible leadership challenge,'' Johnson said Wednesday during a phone interview. ``Leading soldiers or people, I'm used to my people being dispersed across the country, but there's some intermediate leader there in charge of them. But we've got 60 highly talented people that live all across the United States and there's a different leadership challenge there, so I'm excited about how I'm going to do that.''
Johnson has heard from some of the referees, and doesn't believe morale is low among them. But the Donaghy situation has put them in a difficult spot. Already used to dealing with criticisms of their competency, they've also been subjected to speculation about their credibility following the new round of allegations Donaghy charged them with last month.
Johnson knows about that, too. He was deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, responsible for overseeing $18 billion of reconstruction in Iraq in 2003-04, and remembers reading some unkind words of the work they did.
``What I do know is having been in that position when some guy writes an article that said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers doesn't know how to do construction, that impacts me in a personal way because I'm part of that team,'' Johnson said. ``And so you kind of deal with that, you read what the guy has to say, evaluate it and then you move on.
``So with people questioning the values and ethics of referees because of one guy, I really don't believe that people are doing that. I think people are smarter than that.''
When the NBA decided last fall to split the basketball operations department and hire someone to oversee the referee programs, commissioner David Stern thought of Johnson. They had met two years ago, when the general came to speak at the league's rookie transition program.
Johnson said Stern told him that he was ``not interested in my referee acumen.'' But Johnson has officiated before, and there are some similarities to situations he faced in the military.
``Typically in the business of the military, things don't go to plan,'' Johnson said. ``You have a plan, you get on the ground and chaos breaks out, we want the soldier to be able to use his or her initiative to achieve the intent of the overall objective.
``Oh by the way, once referees are on the floor, they have to execute the intent, and the intent is to follow the rules like they do and make a judgment decision. I've refereed before, it's not easy.''
Johnson said he's read up on the Donaghy situation, but hasn't yet seen the internal investigation that Stern ordered last summer, which won't be completed until after Donaghy is sentenced on July 14.
And even though he's the ``new guy'' in the office, Johnson shares Stern's belief that he's the right one to lead the referees through their difficult time.
``I'm a general. Everyone's got these preconceived notions about what a general is, and I'm just a guy that has some credible experience and been fortunate enough to lead people in war and peace, and peacetime areas and combat zones,'' Johnson said. ``I've learned a lot doing that and I don't think leading people during hard times is foreign to Ron Johnson.''
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