From her very first dribble, Sally loved the game of basketball. And now, some forty plus years later, she has seen millions of dribbles, most of the time making sure that none of them were of the double kind. Today, it is Sally's job to find, train and assign the right people to be in the right position to make the right call all of the time.
Sally Smalley Bell, daughter of Dr. Derrell and Nell Smalley, was born and grew up in Dublin, Georgia. "I loved basketball from day one," Sally said as she thought of the days when she began playing when she was in the fifth grade. "Back then, we played half court, three guards and three forwards, but during my senior year we went to a rover system - two players played full court," Sally remembered.
As he was to millions of other kids back in the 1960s, Pete Maravich was Sally's idol on the court. "I was just totally in awe of his skills. He was so far ahead of his time. It was just amazing to me," said Sally would often hop in her car and drive to Atlanta to catch a glimpse of her hero.
Before she graduated from Dublin High School in 1971, Sally played in the band and performed on the sidelines during half time shows as a majorette. She was captain in her senior year. Her father was a well known and respected veterinarian, a founder of Smalley's Animal Hospital. Her mother's paintings were truly works of art and can still found in places around Dublin.
After Sally graduated from the University of Georgia, she took a job with the Habersham County Recreation Department, doing whatever job she was called upon to do. "One night we had no refs, so I had to call the game," Sally remembered. The coach started screaming at her. His objections, Sally admitted, were probably right. After all, it was her first time as a real referee. And, as anyone whoever slipped on one of those zebra shirts and blew a whistle can tell you, officiating a basketball game is no easy task.
"I went over to the coach and said, 'We may not be right, but you are not going to yell at us. Either sit down and shut up, or leave," Sally ordered. There wasn't another peep from the coach that night. The next day, Sally discovered that the coach, Cecil Huff, who was chewing her out was actually the head of the local high school officials association. Sally had made a good first impression. For, on that day, her career as a basketball referee began. "He called me and asked me to join and I became the first female referee in the Georgia Mountain Officials Association," Bell fondly remembered. The two became mentor and student and very close friends.
Sally even married a referee. Her husband Jack Bell, a Gainesville attorney has been officiating at the high school and college level for several decades. In fact, they met for the first time when they called a basketball game together. "Jack didn't have two words to say to me at that game," Sally told a reporter for Referee magazine. "Jack is basically a shy guy and I was nervous as heck," Sally laughed. But Jack saw something in Sally and asked their mutual friend Cecil Huff for a return assignment. They were married a year or so later.
Determined to succeed, Sally attended every officiating camp she could. "That put me in the loop," Sally said. Assignors in attendance began to notice Sally. How couldn't they notice, she was often the only female on the court. To catch the attention of college coaches, Sally worked AAU summer tournaments. That's when the exposure led to recommendations and then to assignments.
In the early days, Sally worked as many as six to eight games a week. "I just couldn't think of anything I'd rather do," she said. "I became consumed by it. By the end of her seventh year as an official, Sally had climbed the ladder from rec. ball to Division I.
Sally's first big break came in 1984 when she was assigned to call the National Junior College tournaments. She was called back for the next two years.
All the years of hard work and dedication paid off in 1989 when Sally was chosen to officiate the NCAA Division 1 Final Four tournaments. It would be the first of fifteen assignments to the high point of women's collegiate basketball. Only twice (1991-1992) in seventeen years (1989-2005) did Bell not get the assignment for the highly heralded tournament.
Although she didn't make the final four in 1991, Sally Bell received the penultimate honor of being named the Naismith Female Official of the Year. During her first decade and a half, Sally had called games in major conferences such as the SEC, ACC, Big Ten and Big East.
Reporter Rick Woelfel wrote of Sally, "She is unobtrusive on the court, but somehow she always manages to be in the right place at the right time. What she lacks in pure athleticism, she makes up for with court sense and hustle. In a very real sense, she reads and feels the game, bending with it like a rooted tree in the wind."
Former officiating partner and NBA official Dee Kantner agrees, "When I talk to prospective female officials, I tell them you don't have to be that perfect athlete. Look at Sally Bell, she looks like a housewife out there." Kantner adds, "Her game management skills are subtle. She has a subtle calming presence." Fellow WNBA official Bonita Spence admired Bell's willingness to thank her partners for making calls they saw in her zone while many officials often chastize the partners for calling a play outside of their area.
Perhaps one of the most exciting tournaments came in 1996, when Sally traveled a short distance from home to officiate the games of the 1996 Summer Olympics. She had been to the 1989 Junior World Championships in Spain and the 1990 World Championships in Malaysia and the 1994 Goodwill Games in Russia, but nothing can compare to being an official in the greatest of all amateur basketball games.
Always wanting people to remember that Sally Bell was a good referee, Sally left the game while she on top of her game. Today, Sally serves as supervisor of officials for the Sunbelt, Southland, and SWAC conferences. Her goal is to see the successes of the officials whom she supervises.
In looking back over her career on the court, the biggest difference from when she started until today is the athletic abilities of the players. Sally sees the ability to communicate between partners, coaches, players and supervisors as the biggest challenge.
When she is not working, Sally can be found near a golf course or planning her next trip to golf's Ryder Cup tournament. She hasn't missed a single one since 1997.
So, during the madness of March, let's all salute Sally Smalley Bell for a career well done.