It’s 2018 and Kayla Dawson and Matt Boyle are on a plane headed to the Dominican Republic. The two Canadian officials are on their way to hopefully get certified to officiate 3x3 basketball internationally. Despite the years between them spent officiating every level and age group of basketball possible, there are nerves.
For Boyle, basketball has always been part of his life. Though he played through college, his officiating career started well before that. Boyle’s father was an official in Nova Scotia and it didn’t take long for Boyle to want to follow in his footsteps. He began officiating games when he was just 15 years old, beginning with children’s games and then moving up. Though he enjoyed it, his own playing career in university took over, and it wasn’t until his late 20’s when he began to pursue the profession in earnest.
Dawson also fell into officiating through her love for the game. Though she began high school playing basketball, she soon moved into scorekeeping. It was here that she began to get acquainted with game referees. While working one game, Dawson saw her old basketball coach working as a referee. Seeing her step onto the floor as an official made something click. After watching the officials up close, she kept coming back to the same conclusion: I could do that. She began officiating kid’s games after reaching out to her local basketball referee association. Dawson continued officiating games through university where she got her teaching degree at the University of Ottawa before returning home to Sarnia, Ontario. She began her teaching career, while also coaching high school basketball and continued to work on advancing her officiating career.
Though their journeys began in different ways, Dawson and Boyle bonded over their love for the game, for their profession and for their shared desire to knock it out of the park at their upcoming 3x3 certification camp.
“There were so many phone calls between him and I watching game film, just trying to prep,” Dawson said.
The calls paid off. After completing the week-long certification camp, the two were on their way back to Canada, officially certified to officiate 3x3 internationally.
Fast forward to 2021. After a global pandemic had shuttered professional sports and international competition for most of 2020, Boyle and Dawson are in Miami. There to officiate in the inaugural 3x3 AmeriCup, a lot had happened since the two were in the Dominican Republic for that 3x3 certification three years prior.
In addition to the AmeriCup serving as a step back towards “normal” for all involved, Dawson and Boyle each became parents during the pandemic. As excited as they were to be back on a basketball court doing what they loved, being away from home was a new challenge. Boyle was grateful to be in Miami with Dawson, who could understand the jumble of emotions that being back on the court, but away from his family had produced.
“She’s been fantastic,” Boyle said. “She’s worked a few tournaments already, so she’s kind of a veteran for Canada and having her to bounce questions off [is amazing], but more so just as a friend, she’s a great friend. We’re both going through having young children, our children are the same age of nine and 10 months, so we were both away missing our children and it’s nice to be able to share that experience together, and also know that we have each other’s back. Being at the same tournament together, that was really special.”
For Dawson, the AmeriCup had the added wrinkle of being just her second tournament since returning to the court following her pregnancy.
“It’s the first time I was learning how to be a mom, which is your first priority,” Dawson said. “But then in my head I was also trying to get ready for the basketball season. I think if I learned anything from that it’s that you have to give yourself grace. Your body can only do so much.”
Dawson also learned that she was at her best on court when her mind was at ease. Daily check-ins with her family by phone or FaceTime helped with the distance. As did chatting with Boyle.
“This was my first assignment where I was able to go with Matt,” she said. “I loved it because we got moments where we could go sit by the water and catch up and talk. He just had a baby too, and he talked about that type of stuff. It’s all those little moments at the tournament with the other officials, that’s just like a little family reunion. The experience is great.”
The inaugural 3x3 AmeriCup itself was also great, a success in its first year, as the sport continues to grow in North America.
“The game is still very, very young in North America,” Boyle said. “It's huge in Europe, it's huge in Asia and it's just starting to kind of happen here. The first couple of years, myself personally, I didn’t work any tournaments outside of Canada, and then I was fortunate enough to go to the AmeriCup for what was actually my first tournament internationally. I was super grateful to do it, and I absolutely loved it.”
Getting to experience the AmierCup together, after earning their international 3x3 certifications together in the Dominican Republic back in 2018 was a full circle moment for the Canadians.
“This was my first time with Matt there, and I felt double the joy,” Dawson said. “[I was] so proud of how he did, he had a great tournament. I still remember, after the last Gold Medal game, just hugging him and being like, ‘We did it!’
“There’s a sense of joy when you are successful at a tournament and you know you gave your all, you did your best, and you’re happy with your performance,” Dawson continued. “At the end of the tournament, it’s exhausting, but it’s so rewarding.”
Though Boyle and Dawson each got their start with five-on-five basketball, the atmosphere, camaraderie, and pace of the game in 3x3 has won them over. As Dawson has officiated more and more 3x3 games and tournaments, she’s also noticed a growing number of female officials in the sport.
“I think Canada is starting to see more equality coming across with more opportunities for females [in officiating],” she said.
When Dawson isn’t refereeing 3x3, teaching or coaching basketball, she can be found mentoring younger female referees in Ontario. She says she doesn’t think about being a role model when she’s working, but she knows the importance of representation. “I don’t really think of it, in the moment, when I'm refereeing, but being part of these other people’s journeys off the court has been part of the giving back that makes you want to do it.”
Dawson and Boyle are passionate about wanting to help spread their profession in Canada. As 3x3 becomes more popular, the need for officials will grow.
“You know, a lot of hard work goes into it, but it's very rewarding,” Boyle said. “I would encourage anybody that's ever had the itch or even the thought in passing, into giving it a try. There's no hurt in trying. We learn a lot from being outside of our comfort zones and refereeing definitely puts you into a situation where you're out of your comfort zone. I would encourage people, especially in today's day, as we're losing more and more officials, especially young ones, to give it a try and see if they like it.”
There isn’t anything like the joy of reflecting on a completed tournament for Dawson. One of her “favourite but sad” parts of the job is the reflection that comes after the tournament, sitting in the airport, replaying events of the past few days.
“It’s just bittersweet, you’re excited to go home and see your family, but then you know you’re going to miss [your referee family],” she said. The experience is just great. I think every tournament, in terms of FIBA, just always teaches you so much. It's personal growth that I don't think can be matched by another career. I think that's just one of the best things you can do for yourself.”
While Boyle and Dawson both fell in love with the game at a young age, they say that isn’t a prerequisite.
“It's an easy [profession] to fall in love with if you give it the time,” Boyle said. ”I think a lot of people off the jump will just disregard it and go the coaching route, especially if they played before, but it's easy to fall in love with once you do.”
As the basketball world continues to work around the ongoing pandemic, Boyle and Dawson are ready to continue adding to their refereeing resumes. Most of all, they are looking forward to watching 3x3 continue to grow here at home.
“I'm excited to see what the future holds for Matt and I, Dawson said. “But I'm also just excited for 3x3 in Canada in general. I'm so grateful and thankful for those tournaments that I've been to and I'm excited for the next one.