See, I have this pet peeve about basketball officials. It's the block/charge call. A "bang-bang play" involving players on the move and requiring a snap decision by the ref as to whether the defender established legal guarding position before contact.
See, I have this pet peeve about basketball officials.
It's the block/charge call. A "bang-bang play" involving players on the move and requiring a snap decision by the ref as to whether the defender established legal guarding position before contact. Of course, making that decision requires the ref to see the whole play, as opposed to reinventing what happened based on what the pile of bodies on the floor looks like.
Not that hard, I say.
So, one day last spring, I'm playing golf with John Duncan, assignor/supervisor of officials for boys basketball games in the Mid-State 6 and Mid-Illini conferences.
"How would you like to ref a game?" Dunc says.
I want to know one thing: When and where?
Dunc sets it up with the good people at Limestone High in Bartonville. I'll rotate in and out of a crew working the Rockets' annual Blue-White scrimmages. I'm thankful. Dunc says something like, "My pleasure." Then he smiles wickedly and gets to the bottom line.
"I want to see you call the block/charge," he says.
No problem, I say. But now that I might actually have to do it in front of a crowd, I am not so sure.
I have watched basketball all my life. I have played and coached. As a journalist, I have covered high school, college and NBA games for more than 30 years. I know hoops. But last Wednesday, less than 24 hours before my debut in stripes, I am up past midnight, reading the rulebook.
Here's what I'm about to find out. Knowing the rules is not the same as administering the rules.
In the officials' locker room before tipoff, Dave Seiler pulls out a board like the one coaches use to draw up plays during timeouts. Seiler, in his 19th year as a ref, moves little round magnets about the board and starts talking.
"When the ball is here," he says, "the lead official is here and the trailer is here. The lead is responsible for watching this area, and the trailer ..." My eyes start to glaze over. "... And when we run a three-man crew, you have to flex. ..."
But my words aren't audible, and now the advice is coming from other corners of the room.
"Don't follow the ball," second-year official Marc Poulsen advises. "It's really easy to do."
"And watch the blarge," 15-year man Doug Williams says, smiling.
"Block/charge," Williams says, as Duncan cackles.
I see. So, that's what this is all about. I take the court determined no blarge will escape my eyes, and each will be called correctly.
Ultimately, I lose track of how many quarters of basketball are played. There are freshman girls, freshman boys, maybe some sophomore girls, definitely varsity girls and then a full game featuring varsity and sophomore boys. In all, about 2 1/2 hours of basketball. The longer into the night we go, the more dismayed Duncan gets.
"I can't believe it!" he says. "There hasn't been a single block/charge!" He scurries away - I am sure, to try to persuade one of the Limestone coaches to order a player to flop.
No takers. But I am plenty busy anyway.
I toss up the ball for four tipoffs; three spot-on perfect and the fourth barely drifts right. I call several fouls, a couple of travels. At one point, a defender gets his mitts into the dribbler's torso, though not enough to affect the play, and I bark: "Watch the hands!" The defender immediately pulls his hands back, and I'm thinking, "Whoa! Cool!"
Full disclosure: I was not perfect. Hard to believe, I know. Duncan says later I missed a couple of fouls. I don't remember those.
I do know that when I whistle my first out-of-bounds call, I point tepidly over my shoulder. In the wrong direction. When White team players' chins hit the floor, I realize my error and stammer, "Uh, off of Blue, White ball!" And point the other direction.
Another time, a girl drags her foot about a mile through the post and I swallow my whistle. At first I'm not sure what I'd seen. She couldn't have traveled that far without either of the other refs seeing it. Or could she? As she shoots the ball, I do a quick instant replay in my mind and determine, yes, she traveled. But now the ball is clanging off the rim, and the defense is rebounding and headed the other way, and I'm thinking, "No big deal." Then this: "I blew it!" And again: "(Expletive)! I blew it!"
Next thing I know, I'm hearing a voice yell, "Kirk, keep going! Kirk, move!" And I realize I have stopped and I'm standing in Poulsen's area, and I'm supposed to be 25 feet away, policing the baseline.
"Your mechanics and floor positioning need some work," Duncan says.
Other than that?
"In all honesty," Dunc says, "you really did well. You weren't afraid to blow the whistle. A lot of new guys get out there and just freeze. And the calls you made, there wasn't one I disagreed with."
Ah yes, the disagreements. Nobody in the crowd heckled me. None of the coaches chewed my ear off. After all, these were only scrimmages, and they were more concerned with their players than some faux ref trolling for a story.
But this was fun. Someday, after I retire from these pages, I'll need something to do.
Calling blarges might be just the ticket.
Kirk Wessler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (309) 686-3216.