Alumni Profiles

Bernard Tolbert

NBA security chief safeguards thousands around the world

Bernard Tolbert

Tolbert close-up
Degrees: MSW ’73 & BS ’71 in Social Work; Favorite sports team: Buffalo Bills; Memorable UB mentor: Emery Fisher, track-and-field coach; Notable awards: Humanitarian of the Year by Wheelchair Charities in 2005 and the Presidential Rank Award for Meritorious Achievement from the White House in 2001 (photo by Douglas Levere, BA ’89)

Bernard A. Tolbert, a self-described sports fanatic, has a dream job as the senior vice president for security at the National Basketball Association, but don’t ask him to name a favorite team. “I root for the NBA,” he says, smiling.

During the height of the season, there could be 13 games at once and Tolbert is responsible for the safety of each arena, player, fan and staff member of the entire league, which adds up to hundreds of thousands of people. Occasionally, he’s accountable for celebrity fans who attend or perform at the games and sometimes expect special treatment. “I try to accommodate them as best I can, but they have to follow our rules.”

While he may have a job with perks, it’s certainly not easy. Tolbert remains vigilant 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with the help of 16 full-time staff members, plus 30 security representatives who monitor each team’s compliance at every game.

Born and raised in downtown Buffalo as one of five children, Tolbert retired from the FBI as special agent in charge of the Buffalo bureau in 2001. When asked about the highlight of his 21-year career, he points to a framed “FBI Most Wanted” poster of James Charles Kopp with “CAPTURED” stamped over it diagonally in red. In 2003, Kopp was found guilty of the 1998 killing of physician Barnett Slepian, and Tolbert played a large role in the investigation.

“Typically when you retire, you do something with a slower pace, but this is just the opposite,” says Tolbert about his NBA position, which he has held since 2002. Last year took him to Lithuania, China, Germany, South Africa, Japan, Mexico and Italy managing security for the league’s various global initiatives, such as its Basketball Without Borders program.

Tolbert says his training as a social worker allowed him an exceptional ability to develop informants, a critical skill for an FBI agent. “People tell you things when they trust you. There is a way of listening where you empathize and people respond to that.”

A true humanitarian, Tolbert says he never arrested someone without feeling bad about it. His office contains piles of boxes filled with slightly flawed NBA merchandise that he will give to disadvantaged children in Buffalo. “Look at this stuff,” he says, pulling out a colorful basketball jersey from one of the boxes. “This would make some kid’s day.”

Story by Mara McGinnis, BA ’97