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My senior year of high school I got offered a job refereeing middle school basketball games. I held a ton of odd jobs during my high school and college days. I was a porter at Toyota dealership. I worked at a Christmas tree farm during the holiday season and I even worked at Hollister peddling ripped jeans to my peers. I spent a summer cleaning out and inventorying apartments of the recently evicted. And while all of those jobs were interesting and sometimes fun in their own special way, refereeing middle school basketball was the one job that I really truly enjoyed.
I got paid thirty bucks a game and I was in a crew of three that traveled together. Now keep in mind that this was middle school ball. The stakes weren’t THAT high, but there’s always a fringe element of psychos and lunatics that you’re going to encounter when you’re officiating youth sports. That usually comes from a parent of a kid playing – sometimes he’s a coach, sometimes he’s just a loud mouth in the stands.
It doesn’t matter if you’re reffing a second grade game with kids who still piss their pants or a high school varsity playoff game for a crosstown barn burner – there’s going to be someone in your ear telling you that you’re calling the game wrong. Thems the brakes.
For almost three months this job was going smoothly. I was getting paid what felt like a kings ransom and I got to do it with two guys that I liked hanging out with. I had some bad calls here and there but me and the two on my crew started to learn each others styles.
See with three guys you’re able to cover the entire court. You don’t miss a lot of calls when you’ve got a ref on the baseline, one on the side, and one up top near half court. We became confident in our foul calling. The first month on the job I took shit from coaches. By month three I was doling out technicals with the quickness for leaving the coaches box and excessive bench celebrations. I didn’t take shit and in turn the players and coaches didn’t give me shit.
My three man crew reffed seventh and eighth grade games all over mid-Michigan and while we weren’t the greatest, we were competent and at that level that’s about all you can ask for.
My training to become a middle school basketball referee was minimal. I played the sport for years competitively, and I knew the rules, but it’s different when you’re not playing.
You decide pace of play and all that other shit, but the one thing I remember that still sticks with me to this day is our instructor telling us that you have to be confident with the whistle even if you think what you just made was a bad call.
You stick with your bad call and your crew will back you up. You have to have each others backs out there because if you don’t, the coaches and players will tear your ass to pieces.
So one night I’m reffing a game between these two inner city schools and the crowd is buzzing. There were a few kids on these two teams that were going to play varsity ball immediately following eighth grade. This was high level basketball being played, and we called a tight game. It was chippy from the jump and to keep the game under control we started calling ticky tack fouls. Hand checks were being called. Most times the ball got tossed down into the paint we called a foul. Sometimes it’s necessary.
But the game got down to the wire late and with five seconds left in regulation I called a charge in the paint that gave the team down by two points the ball back. They would have to traverse the length of the floor in five seconds and either chuck something up from deep or try and get a very quick layup as they weren’t in the bonus.
I knew it was the wrong call as soon as I blew the whistle. The defender didn’t have his feet set or body squared up. It should have been a block. The other two refs knew it was block too but credit to them – they had my back the whole way.
I tried my damndest to let the kids play – freedom of movement and all that shit – but there has to be a line, and as one of my old basketball coaches used to tell refs – “it’s either a block or a charge, but you gotta call it one way or the other.”
And so I called the charge. The crowd predictably erupts. I’ve got a coach in my ear who has left his spot on the sideline and is now down on the baseline as I’m huddling up with the other two guys on my crew. I think about ejecting the coach from the game as he had already picked up one T from yours truly, but the situation was too hot. I had a crowd full of angry parents and ejecting the coach would have set off a series of events that I wanted no part in.
We confer the charge, walk over to the scorers table to have the stat guy mark it a foul, and all the while this coach is behind me and there’s a vein in his forehead that looks like it’s about to bust open. I tell him he needs to get back to the bench and he doesn’t budge. I’m getting nervous now as I can hear the jeers from parents in the crowd but I walk back over to the baseline and hand the other team the ball.
The point guard promptly dribbles down the court in three seconds, drains a three pointer with two left on the clock and the buzzer sounds before the other team can grab the ball and inbound it again. Game over. Parents are leaving their coats in their seat and they’re talking to the losing teams coach and pointing at me and the other two officials. We grab our shit from one end of the court and go over to the scorers table to collect our paychecks.
The thing with the paychecks though is that in order for the checks to be valid, a school official has to sign for us to cash them. In the pandemonium that was the last five seconds of this game, that school official was nowhere to be found.
Meanwhile, me and the two other refs are getting red in the face. The losing coach and his players are staring daggers into us, and all the while there are parents standing next to the scorer’s table asking me what the hell I was thinking making that call.
Now I was 17 years old at the time. I was an arrogant little shit but I was nervous. I don’t know where it came from, but the third or fourth time someone asked me if I had shit for brains I just blurted it out –
“It’s either a block or a charge, but you gotta call it one way or the other. I saw a charge and that’s that. Now if I could please get my check?”
I never did get that check signed by the principal or any other “school administrator.” I bailed after the coach with the vein in his head started walking towards the scorers table where I was standing.
“I’ll see you guys next week, yeah?” I said to the other two refs.
“Yeah, we’re following you out.”
We jogged from the gym to the parking lot where our cars were parked, a mob of angry parents and players hot on our heels. I fired up the Chevy S10 and high tailed it out of there, and that was the last time I ever officiated an organized game of basketball..
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