That Ref on Amgen Court? He Also Refs College Hoops and Once Did a Game Featuring an NBA Star

With many staff splitting time between home and on-site work, Amgen sports leagues provide one more reason to make the commute. And at Amgen Thousand Oaks that opportunity to combine fitness with fun comes with an added benefit – a referee who you might see on television during college basketball season.

It’s a sunny, spring afternoon at Amgen’s site in Thousand Oaks, California and Ian Caldwell – dressed in the black and white striped shirt – holds the basketball under his arm and goes over instructions.

“Two, 20-minute halves, running clock and each team gets two time-outs,” he said. “Let’s play a clean game.”

He takes the basketball as Amgen employees take their positions on the court. Caldwell tosses the ball to the point guard and the game is on. With a whistle dangling from his neck, he does what he always does when he takes any floor or any basketball court: look for fouls.

This game is largely low key and casual – one of the first basketball league games at Amgen this year. Caldwell also runs the other sports leagues, which include basketball, soccer, ultimate frisbee and pickleball at the Thousand Oaks site. He also oversees operations at the onsite workout facility known as the AmGym.

There’s a lot of smiles and good-natured jokes. Few watch these sports leagues games, with the exception of a few passers-by and several crows pecking around the drought-resistant shrubbery next to the court.

It’s a slightly different scene than what he’s been doing for most of the winter: refereeing all levels of college basketball – about 60 games primarily on the West Coast.

“Yeah, it can get intense,” he said. “You just have to learn to tune it out and focus on the job.”

But he’s been doing it for almost 20 years now and this month, he refereed games at the Big West College Basketball Tournament near Las Vegas – including an overtime win by California State University Northridge over the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Neither of those teams made it to the finals and got a bid for one of the biggest sports spectacles in the United States: The NCAA March Madness Tournament. It kicked off March 21 and will culminate with the National Championship Game on April 8.

Caldwell’s goal is to eventually referee in the so-called Big Dance, but only a handful of officials get to do those games. He didn’t get selected this year, but he remains focused – and optimistic – about it happening one day.

“It’s definitely something I’ve been working toward,” he said. “I hope it will happen.”

But amid his busy schedule, he is also focused on another undertaking at Amgen: Reviving the sports leagues at the main site and improving the employee experience at the AmGym four years removed from Covid.

Left: Referee Ian Caldwell with a tip off to kick off a Division I college basketball game at the University of Oregon. Right: Ian Caldwell refereeing along the baseline at a Division I college basketball game. Photos courtesy of Ian Caldwell.

Reaching for Robust Rebound

When the global pandemic struck in 2020, Amgen joined many companies by shifting a large portion of its staff to working from home temporarily.

Fewer people were on certain Amgen sites and this temporarily suspended the sports leagues Caldwell had overseen for about 10 years leading up to the pandemic.

Ben Chu, Amgen Thousand Oaks Site Lead, said he is excited to see an incremental rise in site utilization. And as a result, Chu said the site is also seeing an increase in AmGym and sports league participation.

The sports leagues have been an integral piece of the ATO culture, he said.

“We like to work hard and play hard as well,” Chu said. “There’s nothing quite like being able to enjoy outdoor activities with your coworkers. And it’s a great way to meet new colleagues as well.”

He also said this year was the first year since the pandemic that Amgen will be participating in the Corporate Games in Ventura County, California.

“It’s just one more way we are connecting people at Amgen and Ian is a huge part of that effort with what he does with the sports leagues,” Chu said. “After so many were away for three years – and with new people being added to the company in that time – it’s a chance to get to know more of your fellow colleagues.”

Sports leagues and physical activities extend beyond the Thousand Oaks site as well and have also been making a comeback since the pandemic hit.

At the site in Massachusetts, there are opportunities to compete in golf, volleyball, softball, soccer and cycling while Rhode Island has their running group the “Rhode Runners” and a basketball league. The Ohio site features soccer and is just beginning outreach for a running club.

Internationally, in Singapore, there are groups for badminton, table tennis and basketball. The Netherlands site includes cycling and running – with a one kicking off in October. And Ireland has informal tag rugby and football groups and just recently reinstated its Sports and Social Committee.

“The first year back was a little light,” Caldwell said. “I saw a lot of familiar faces and this past year we went to having enough people to do five-on-five full court compared to the previous year where we only had enough to do three-on-three. And we introduced pickleball and that turnout was great.”

Amgen employees at the Thousand Oaks site play in a soccer match as a part of the sports league programs. Amgen file photo.

Long Ties to Hoops

Caldwell was born in Southern California, but moved to Texas when he was in 6th grade. His father worked for Exxon and transferred there and Caldwell found sports to be a way to make friends and stay active. Basketball was his favorite sport to play and, he admitted, being tall helped.

His father, who worked in the IT department, was looking for a change and saw Amgen was hiring in 2001 and he applied. He said his dad got the job and they all moved back to California, where Caldwell ultimately played basketball at Camarillo High School.

But he also had gotten interested in refereeing and, after graduating, he began to officiate tournament games and high school games. He slowly stopped playing basketball for fun and dedicated his time to studying the rules of the game and mastering a different set of skills on the court.

At first, it was intimidating.

“With high school, there was a lot of training and it wasn’t until my third season that I began to get more comfortable,” he said. “But even still, the crowd, the players and coaches don’t necessarily take it easy on you just because you’re still basically a kid.”

As he rose in the ranks of refereeing, he began working as a contractor at Amgen in 2009 – helping in the maintenance department, doing cleaning and washing towels at the gym before moving to the front desk role.

He said he didn’t see his dad too much during the years they overlapped at the Thousand Oaks site.

“Our paths didn’t cross that much,” Caldwell said. “He didn’t come into the gym. He’s a cyclist and likes to be out there.”

But he said they were always close and talked most every day. Even after his dad retired from Amgen in 2018 and Caldwell’s refereeing was elevated to televised college basketball games, they remain close.

“He lives in Phoenix now, but when he was out here he came to all of the games I refereed,” Caldwell said. “Now he watches me on ESPN+ and we talk about the games after.”

His refereeing experience continued to grow and he said he remembered refereeing in some big venues, including the Honda Center in Anaheim, California and also running up and down the court in a game that featured NBA star James Harden.

“It’s pretty cool,” he said. “Not everyone gets to experience this and so when you look back on it, it’s nice to take it all in.”

Ian Caldwell has been refereeing college basketball for about 20 years and has hopes to qualify to officiate an NCAA March Madness game in the future. Photo courtesy of Ian Caldwell.

Big Dance Dreams

The weekend before Selection Sunday – the NCAA’s high-profile reveal of the bracket – teams were scrapping in conference tournaments to secure berths in the tournament.

Cal State Northridge and UC Santa Barbara were both vying to advance in the Big West Tournament and as the final seconds ticked down in the second half, Caldwell watched a shot go up and miss – sending the game into overtime.

He said the game had gone smoothly, but there is pressure when so much is on the line for everyone.

Caldwell said fans, coaches and players can be hard on refs, but he said there are nuances to rules that casual fans don’t always know and, unless they’ve dived into the rule book, don’t realize the challenges of putting it all together on the court.

“We aren’t perfect. You have to be able to mentally refocus on the next play – no matter what happened on the previous play,” he said. “The last thing you want to do is snowball into multiple bad calls just like as a player you don’t want to snowball into making turnovers or mistakes. You have to clear your mind and focus on what’s next.”

According to a CBS News report, there are about 900 Division I men’s basketball referees and about 10% of those are given a chance to officiate an NCAA Tournament game. And of that 10%, just 11 will officiate in the Final Four.

Caldwell says he plans to keep improving to get to the next level. And now that the college basketball season is over for him, he still uses the time refereeing the Amgen basketball league to keep sharp – even as the games are more casual than Division I college hoops.

“I do a lot of prep and work out here at the AmGym every morning to stay in shape,” he said. “I started out so young and at that age you can just run up and down the court forever and not get tired. We refs have a joke: Every year we get a year older, but we’re always going to be running around with 18 year olds.”

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Ian Caldwell consults with two other officials during a Division I college basketball game. Photo Courtesy of Ian Caldwell.

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