It's playoff time. The winner goes to Baltimore Arena to compete for the city championship, and the loser stays home. Three seconds remain in the game, and the home team, down by a point, huddles on its bench as the coach diagrams the final shot.
Awaiting the horn, I stand on the baseline holding the ball. I've been down this road before. If I'm lucky, someone will take a perimeter jumper. But the chances are greater that the ball will come into the paint, and I'll have to make the call, or the no-call as the case may be, on which the season hinges.
It's bedlam as the capacity crowd rocks the gym, and I can barely hear the the photographer kneeling beside me. I lean closer. "Better you out there than me," he says.
Whenever I officiate, my wife, a Tar Heel who loves basketball, will attend only one or two games a season. Not long ago, she witnessed a heated struggle between two of Baltimore's finest high school teams. It was magnificent ball: a double-overtime game featuring acrobatic dunks, numerous blocked shots, silky ballhandling and five consecutive three-pointers.
During the drive home, she marveled at the level of skill and then asked if I had heard the crowd. One especially vocal group has accused me (I'm sanitizing the language for this family newspaper) of having unnatural desires pertaining to my mother and had demanded that I perform upon myself an anatomically impossible act. Of course I'd heard -- I would have had to be stone deaf no to -- but I was neither surprised nor bothered.
I have never had anything thrown at me. (I'll never forget the account of the Division I official who went to the table to report a foul and saw a knife stick into the floor next to his foot.) But I have experienced my share of criticism from the benches. This, I learned early, goes along with the job. There's nowhere to hide out there.
Some coaches stand and glare balefully. Others holler about our supposed blindness and lack of consistency, shopworn complaints that have been made so often as to have little impact. Some of the more inventive remarks, however, have stayed with me for years: "Ref, I could get sued if my players go home maimed," and "Fitzpatrick, you couldn't referee a hopscotch game."
One junior college coach was losing and had just seen three charge-block calls go against his team. I knew that I'd get an earful when I went to the table. "You ain't nothing but a ------- generic official," he snorted disgustedly. I had never been called "generic" before (or since), and I couldn't help a fleeting smile after I turned back to the floor. The coach had definitely gotten my attention.
During a time out, I have seen an impeccably dressed fan rage at my fellow official. The fan's belly shook, and his eyes bulged, and spit sprayed from his mouth as he barked at the official across the court. He reminded me of a rabid dog. I doubt that Dr. James Naismith foresaw such bestiality when he invented the game.
I have been blasted in the newspapers, and, after close games of consequence, the phone in my home has rung in the middle of the night (unidentified callers, of course). This is clearly no job for the timid, and it is little wonder that officials constantly remind one another: "Don't take all that ---- personally." I have lost all tolerance for those misguided souls who bubble during parties: "It must be wonderful to get paid to watch basketball!"
Why, I have frequently been asked, and in darker moments have sometimes asked myself, don't I find a more tranquil way to spend my free time? I certainly don't officiate for the money. After fifteen years of refereeing that encompasses Bureau of Recreation, high school, and junior college, I have never made more than $70 a game. (College Division I officials, on the other rTC hand, now make more than $500 a game plus expenses in some conferences.)
One of officiating's attractions is that it allows former athletes to remain close to sports in a different role. In addition, it is enjoyable to associate with athletes in their teens and twenties. This keeps one young at heart and thereby helps to preclude a failing that has afflicted multitudes: taking oneself too seriously. Finally, there is considerable camaraderie among officials. Although a few have tried, you can't do it alone out there. A good official always covers his partner's back, and I have formed some lasting friendships.
But for me, and I suspect for numerous other referees, officiating's greatest satisfaction comes from meeting the harsh challenges of the job. Many people diligently avoid situations that can become confrontational. They shun tasks that can generate swift and public evaluation. Officials relish such challenges, or they don't last long.
It takes an unusual sort of personality, I have concluded over the years, to choose a closely scrutinized avocation where anonymity is the ultimate accomplishment. Almost always, the best official is the one who's never noticed.