The Malta Independent 8 April 2020, Wednesday

50 Shades of Greats: Respect everyone but fear no one - Bernard Vassallo

Simon Farrugia Sunday, 22 March 2020, 10:22 Last update: about 16 days ago

Simon Farrugia speaks to basketball referee Bernard Vassallo about his early days in the game, how he transitioned to officiating games after suffering an injury and his stint as Chairman of the National Sports Council.

Bernard Vassallo was born on 4 December 1970. Bernard is married to Michelle Pulis and they have a 15-year-old son, Matthias. After his playing career was brought to an abrupt end because of an injury, he started his career as a basketball referee in 1993 and three years later made his international debut at the age of 25.

But how did it all start? What was his first contact with the famous basketball game? “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 six. It was a Second Division men’s game, played at the old Ta’ Qali hangar, then still with a concrete playing floor and stone stands. From that day, I started accompanying my father quite regularly to the Ta’ Qali, De La Salle and Kordin gyms, initially also having fun registering 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.”

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Vassallo, the second great to be interviewed for this column was asked about how he started playing basketball. “I started way back in 1979, the days of Skolasport, under the guidance of Michael Aquilina and Martin Rizzo. These were early days since I was only eight years old. Two years later, while at Stella Maris College, Bernard Micallef lured me to join Luxol. That was the beginning of my career and after six years I joined Floriana playing for three seasons with them, one season with Conte di Fontegreca and before my injury I played for the final two seasons with Hamrun Liberty. After a three-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.” This was the end of my playing career but the beginning of another career which made Bernard what he is today.

The first team honour that Bernard won was the 1985 Youth League with Luxol. After that came a Reserves’ League, Second Division Championship and Cup with Floriana and a First Division plate with Hamrun Liberty. Then a Second Division KO with Mellieha. Talking about individual honours Vassallo won First Division Player of the Month award for March 1992, a couple of Player of the Week awards with Floriana and Hamrun as well as winning the First Division three-point king honour for seasons 1990/91 and 1991/92. Later, in 1995, he won the Second Division Player of the Year award.

In fact it goes without saying that I had to ask Vassallo how his career as a referee started. “I got into refereeing quite by chance after I had to abruptly stop playing at the highest local senior level, at 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.” Bernard was passing through some difficult moments and even depressing times without the game he loves so much. He describes the moment that kick-started his refereeing career.” After some months of inactivity and several depressing moments being out of the game, I was finally lured into trying refereeing by the then MBA president, Joe Farrugia, and practically from then never looked back.”

The local debut was a women’s game in late 1992 which was played at the Gozo Sports Complex, between Gozo and Mosta, with Antoine Cefai as my referee partner. In 1996, Vassallo at 25 years became an international FIBA referee. “In May 1996, after a final clinic examination in Bratislava I became an international referee. My debut came on 20 November of the same year, 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.”

Since his first game in 1996, Vassallo has refereed nearly 500 official competitive international games ranging from full internationals to European cups and other categories. “Every 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 my memory as the main highlights of my career. 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 Australia and New Zealand.”

This was not the only time that Vassallo was given important appointments. “I am very proud to have been shortlisted and trusted, despite it is not easy to do so when 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 selected for the Women Euro League Final 8 in Ekaterinburg, Russia, another great event and top experience.”

“My career also enabled me to meet with the greats of this game. Refereeing games with top players like Ginobili, Porzingis, Doncic and the like are a memory as well as other games among which the bronze medal games in the 2011 Under 20 Division A in Novi Sad between Serbia and Poland; the 2013 Under 18 Division A in Riga between Latvia and Spain and a number of Under 20 and Under 18 semi-finals along the years. Another wonderful experience was when I was invited to referee a total of 10 games, over different weeks, in the professional British BBL League during the 2014 season.”

“Basketball has given me so much. My success is also due to all those who made sacrifices with me, especially my wife, son and parents, but I also need to thank God for gracing me with the chances and talent to move ahead.”

But was it all rosy for Bernard? Were there difficult moments during his illustrious career? “A referee should always work to be focused well for every match as there’s never an easy one. Not enough focus and concentration could easily lead to a poor job on the day. Looking back in time there were some difficult games, including some with hostile crowds, but that comes with the package one must overcome as an official. Among these games I recall 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 broke out 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. Locally, post-game incidents when family members were attacked or my car vandalised are also not nice recollections.”

Though now nearing the end of his career, since international basketball refereeing stops at 50, Vassallo believes that there’s always much to learn. “I firmly believe that learning never stops and thus I still continue to work hard and spend countless weekly hours watching and studying further the game to keep abreast of all the new developments, both in officiating and playing techniques.”

In every sport there are a number of match officials but what makes a good referee? “The best referee is that person who is always ready to make the best decision when it is needed, even if it is unpopular. As a referee, you need to be self-confident and must be well prepared for any game, be it physically as well as technically, apart from the most important mental preparation leading to optimal focus. Experience then gives you an added mental strength. One can write many things on the qualities of a good referee like 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 let anything, however small, taint our image.”

In 2008 Bernard was appointed chairman of the Malta Sports Council, an experience which made him grow further in his career. Vassallo had this to say. “It was a great learning experience. Together with my team we built on the good that we found and tried to make KMS more relevant in the sport’s environment. I can still recall decisions for the good of sport like the launch of the National Sport School, Sport Scholarships, the 20/20 Sport Training Scheme and others. Of course some decisions were not the best but one has to fall, stand up again and learn from mistakes. All in all, I think it was an effective time as KMS became more relevant and significant as an Authority. Looking at nowadays one can say that SportMalta continued building on the good things and moved forward. However, prior to my experience I had thought that sport can stay distant and neutral from politics but in effect it is impossible.”

Vassallo is also a name synonymous with the Ghazliet Sportivi Nazzjonali contest. He won this contest once but was finalist on several occasions along the years. “Without a doubt I am extremely proud of having been 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 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 declared a possible conflict of interest. This should always be the case and my belief is always to walk the talk and lead by example. Above all, I am proud and happy that I was nominated over 11 times for the finals and that journalists, along all these years, have respected and appreciated my efforts and sacrifices.”

But life reserves also difficult moments and Bernard had this to say about the rough rides that he had so far. “A thing one must remember in life is that we all make mistakes, nobody is infallible. It takes a really strong person to admit a mistake and move on. The past is the past and one should 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, although I still learned a lot afterwards.”

In your opinion, has sport in Malta made progress and what do you envisage for the years to come? Vassallo was blunt and didn’t hesitate to sound his opinion. “I believe strongly that sport has moved forward in Malta in the last 30 or so years. But have we made the same progress as other countries? I do not think so and a lot is due to an insular culture. I still believe that many locals, in the past and even nowadays, have a good idea of what could be done to accelerate our development but, in reality sport, just like life, rotates around money. In this regard, I was very happy to hear lately that government will be significantly boosting the money invested in sport as this is a very positive thing. Now the main issue is where to invest to reap the highest dividend without letting politics with the capital P (government) and small p (federations) to influence the ideal decisions for the real good of sport.”

Basketball has made Vassallo travel a lot and even took him to his favourite destination − the Azores in Portugal, an archipelago in the mid-Atlantic. The islands are characterised by dramatic landscapes, fishing villages and green pastures. And as a city Vassallo chooses the global centre of art, fashion, gastronomy and culture − Paris.

Apart from basketball, Bernard also played some competitive water polo, football and handball at a younger age. But nowadays his main focus is basketball officiating.

But would he think of doing something different when he retires? “I would love to return to some casual non-extreme competitive road running, albeit I had some good personal results in the past, when I clocked one hour 19 minutes in the Malta Half-Marathon of 1994 and a sub one hour in the 1994 Dingli10.”

“In life you always have to remember from where you started and even if you have some sort of power or authority, you need to be available, down to earth and understanding. My life motto is to respect everyone, but fear no one.”

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