As the final buzzer sounded, a thunderous roar filled G. Holmes Braddock High School’s gym. It was a humid Thursday evening in West Kendall and the Bulldogs had just narrowly defeated their neighborhood rivals, the John A. Ferguson Falcons. Students on the home side of the gym ran up and down the sideline yelling, gloating and taunting the traveling fans.
The away end was very different. Parts of the crowd bantered with rival fans, while others consoled the visibly upset players who had started to make their way back to the locker room. Amidst all the commotion, the father of one of the losing team’s star players rushed the makeshift fence that separated the bleachers and the court.
While a mix of security and bystanders on the court eventually got a hold of the enraged middle-aged man, there was no stopping the slurs, vulgarities and obscene gestures aimed toward the scorers’ table. A mob quickly gathered and their eyes locked on one of the officials of the Dec. 3 matchup, Felix Fuerte.
“That game had a lot of tough calls,” recounted Fuerte. “People don’t understand how fast the game moves, a lot of these [calls] are split-second decisions.”
The Falcons’ four-point loss had their fans devastated, and as a result, acting out of character. However, having tough skin is part of the job description for the admirable bunch who withstand criticism every time they figuratively clock in.
“Games in [Miami] Dade are no joke,” up-and-coming referee Roberto Echavarria explained. “A lot of these kids have been playing against each other since elementary school. The games typically have more meaning and get emotional.”
It’s clear to see, officiating in Miami-Dade County is certainly not for the faint-hearted. You will be constantly ridiculed, heckled and harassed from the moment you step into any gym, park or recreation center. However, despite a number of unideal working conditions, referees like Fuerte, Echavarria and many others embrace the challenge of working in the unforgiving environment we call home.
Miami has recently grown into a sizzling-hot basketball hub housing many of the top talents across the country.
Within just the last year, Miami – and South Florida as a whole – dominated the state in high school basketball. Six of the seven state champions in 2023 are schools right in our backyards.
- Sagemont Preparatory School (Broward) won the 2A State Championship.
- Riviera Preparatory School (Miami) won the 3A State Championship.
- Mater Lakes Academy (Miami) won the 4A State Championship.
- Belen Jesuit Preparatory School (Miami) won the 5A State Championship.
- William T. Dwyer High School (Palm Beach) won the 6A State Championship.
- Christopher Columbus High School (Miami) won the 7A State Championship.
Additionally, the Explorers’ own Cameron Boozer won Gatorade’s Player of the Year award as a 15-year-old five-star recruit and was the number one ranked high school basketball player in his class.
The exponential growth in talent across the city has called for equal brilliance on the side of the officials. South Florida continues to gain national appeal as the level of basketball being played locally improves. While much of the spotlight is aimed toward the young phenoms in our area, a number of Miami-based referees have been, and continue to be, recognized for the prowess they’ve developed right in our backyard.
In fact, it won’t be long before many of the referees working locally today move onto greater ventures. In what seems to be a recurring theme, South Florida native officials are quickly climbing the ranks and reaching some of the greatest heights in the profession. Guys like Dedric Taylor, John Goble and Jacyn Goble can all be seen officiating NBA games on a nightly basis. However, before reaching that point, each withstood the challenge of reffing in the Magic City.
Becoming an official is not a career path many people foresee from a young age. While everyone’s introduction to the profession is unique, one thing shared by the vast majority of those in the industry is a love for the sport. Finding someone with no basketball background that’s pursuing an officiating career solely as a way to make a living is nearly impossible. Instead, many stumble upon officiating purely by remaining involved in their local basketball scene, much like both Fuerte and Echavarria.
“Bobby” Echavarria was one of the best shooters in Miami-Dade County during his time at Felix Varela Senior High School. The now 23-year-old became intrigued by the concept of becoming a referee after speaking with his former junior varsity coach, and now D1 women’s official, Marlon Wong.
“I was one of those guys that hated referees as a player,” Echavarria admitted. “Once you mature you realize these guys [officials] know a lot more than you do as a 16/17-year-old.”
Despite Echavarria’s talent on the court, playing basketball was not in his plans long term. Instead, the Miami native decided he wanted to pursue refereeing as a part-time gig while studying at Florida International University. Now, just a few years later, Echavarria is a full-time realtor and still working on his craft to become one of the best referees in the state. He has worked in games that featured NBA superstars Bam Adebayo, Donovan Mitchell, and Darius Garland, among many others. He regularly works officiating high school games and has recently been promoted to junior college and NAIA matchups.
“I fell in love with it,” Echavarria stated in regard to officiating. “I’m going to be doing this for a long-long time.”
Echavarria went on to talk about the many life-long connections he has developed in his time working as a referee. Fuerte, one of Echaverria’s mentors early on, is someone he quickly built a relationship with, and someone he now considers a “brother.”
Fuerte is a Cuban immigrant who arrived in Miami at the ripe age of six. The now 26-year-old quickly took an interest in basketball and could be found playing at parks and leagues all across Miami-Dade County from his early teenage years. Fuerte, like many basketball fans around the world, merely saw the sport as a hobby and outlet to collaborate and compete with peers from around the area. This all changed when he was approached about an opportunity to officiate at a park he frequented as a teenager.
“I started playing at Tamiami Park when I was around 11,” Fuerte proclaimed. “[Eventually] the man who is in charge of the referees asked if I would be interested in trying it out.”
The then-teenager would go on to attend a clinic at Tamiami Park which would ultimately jumpstart a career path he could have never imagined himself still advancing in today. Founded in 1971, “Tamiami Park” — and more specifically Tamiami Youth Basketball Association — has become a hub for thousands of children and young adults who want to play basketball recreationally in Miami-Dade.
While Fuerte has quickly risen in the officiating ranks, he still sees refereeing as a part-time job that he hopes could eventually turn into a sustainable career. During peak basketball season, Fuerte works approximately six nights a week officiating games at the high school and collegiate levels. However, things slow down drastically during the off-season, and Fuerte, like many other referees, only officiates two, sometimes three, times a week.
Fuerte has managed to reach heights that he once deemed unfathomable. However, the veteran referee has his eyes set on making it to the very top of the profession.
“My ultimate goal as a referee is to officiate in the NBA or major Division 1 like the SEC or ACC,” Fuerte stated. “Luckily the officiating scene in Miami is very good… we are all helpful and willing to be coachable as well as teach others.”
The final sentiment Fuerte shared came up repeatedly when speaking to officials who got their starts in Miami-Dade County. While Fuerte still has some ways to go to reach his goals, there is no doubt his supporting cast will be there to expedite the process. One of the several mentors that have taken Fuerte, Echavarria, and many other young referees under his wing, is Christopher Merlo.
Merlo grew up in Kendall and quickly fell in love with basketball after being introduced to the sport at Tamiami Park. His passion would continue building during his teenage years as he would go on to play all four years for Archbishop Carroll’s basketball team. Like Fuerte, Merlo frequented Tamiami Park even after he graduated, and began managing the scoreboards at the facility.
“I was sitting doing the scoreboard making $10 per game and found out that the officials were making $25,” Merlo recounted. “I decided if I was going to be there, I could triple my money, then I fell in love with the art of officiating.”
Merlo’s love of the art nearly helped him advance to the pinnacle that all officials hope to reach, all the while building an impressive resume in the process. While he never was able to achieve his “ultimate goal” of working in the NBA, Merlo did manage to officiate four years in the G-League, or the NBA’s official developmental league. Despite Merlo being on the doorstep of fulfilling his dream, the Kendall native decided to revert to the collegiate level after starting a family.
“The travel is much easier at the collegiate level,” Merlo declared. “My ultimate goal [now] is to work the NCAA tournament, ‘March Madness’.”
Merlo is one of many officiating success stories that have brewed locally in Miami-Dade. Nowadays, you can find the savant officiating games in one of the largest NCAA Basketball Conferences in the world, the Big 12. With travel becoming less of an issue for Merlo, coming back to the area, and mentoring some of the younger officials has been a point of emphasis for him.
“We have great officials in Dade County, a really strong group of young officials who are advancing quickly up the ranks and help each other out the best that we can – enjoying each other’s success stories,” Merlo concluded. “Overall it is an exciting career as it has become for myself, or a great side hustle for anyone looking to make extra cash.”
Thanks to the work of officials like Fuerte and Merlo, Miami-Dade will surely continue to produce some of the best referees in the country. The tight-knit group has formed family-like relationships with one another, and the younger generation now looks up to the veterans for guidance and support as they begin their journeys.