Whistle while you work not so easy for new ref

Officials: From a thick rule book to a tough exam to the first boo-birds, new local basketball referees earn their stripes.


December 24, 2003|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,SUN STAFF

In one of his first games as a basketball official, Mike Ford ran up and down the court listening to a woman in the front row criticize his work.

"What were you looking at?" she said after one call.

"You were on the wrong side of the ball to make that call," she said after another.

By the end of the third quarter of the game, a sloppy whistle-fest between Baltimore County middle school girls teams, Ford had heard enough.

He turned to the woman during a timeout and good-naturedly asked, "Do you want a [striped] shirt?"

Recalling the incident, Ford smiled and said, "She said she didn't want a shirt. But she didn't stop complaining, either."

His view of the criticism? "Comes with the territory," he said with a shrug. "If you can't take it, you shouldn't become an official."

A 39-year-old from Middle River, Ford is one month into his career as a referee.

He is a cancer survivor who works nights at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, cleaning the interiors of planes for US Airways. "I'm a sports fanatic," he said. "I took it as a challenge to see if I could do it."

He is one of nearly two dozen rookies working this season for a local chapter of the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials, an organization that dates to the Depression.

Ford's chapter, one of 10 in Maryland, is composed of close to 200 officials ranging in age from 20 to 65. They work games for the Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County public schools, the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association and numerous rec councils.

But you can't just sign up and start working.

Prospective officials have to take an exacting rules class during the fall and then pass IAABO's national exam, administered every year just before Thanksgiving.

"People don't appreciate what is involved in becoming a referee," said Rick Russell, a veteran official who taught Ford and 22 other applicants in his chapter's rules class this year.

The class consisted of twice-weekly evening sessions at the Gilman School gym from early September through late November. Among those enrolled were a lawyer, pediatrician, policeman, fireman, two retirees, an ex-schoolteacher, a professional baseball umpire and a longtime city high school coach, Southwestern's Terry Leverett.

It was a diverse group with disparate motives for wanting to officiate. Some dreamed of making it a career. Some wanted to earn extra money. Some just wanted to hear the roar of the crowd.

"As a rule," Russell said, "it tends to draw people who have been on the court and want to stay in the game."

Most of the instruction was devoted to studying IAABO's 2-inch-thick rule book, an impossibly detailed volume that attempts to cover every situation an official might encounter.

The finer points

Discussions, to say the least, were arcane. One night, the group spent 20 minutes debating what to do when both teams simultaneously commit a free- throw violation.

The answer? Resort to the alternating possession rule, of course.

"I had no clue you had to go through a class like that," Ford said. "I thought you just kind of went over the rules and got out there. But they give you that book and you have to know it. It can be a little intimidating."

Tensions ran high on the November night when the exam was given. IAABO approves those who correctly answer at least 43 of the exam's 50 questions. Those who correctly answer 40, 41 or 42 get temporary approval; they can work this season and retake the test next spring.

"There's no doubt the bar is set pretty high," Russell said.

Protecting the legitimacy of the exam, which changes every year, is a priority. In mid-November, IAABO mailed out copies to the presidents of its chapters, known as boards, in 32 states, the District of Columbia, Canada, Germany, Guam, Japan and Korea. The president of Board 23 - the one Ford was seeking to join - didn't open his package until minutes before the exam started at Gilman.

The first to finish that night was an attorney who had been the unquestioned star of the class, sitting in the front row and asking rapid-fire questions.

"You could tell early on that he `got it,' " Russell said.

He also "got" all 50 questions right.

Leverett, who has coached at Southwestern for more than a decade, correctly answered all but two questions.

"That was harder than coaching," he said with a sigh after finishing the exam.

Leverett, 52, was known for many years as a notorious referee-baiting coach; in 1998, one year after guiding Southwestern to a 27-0 record and a state title, he was suspended for cursing and threatening referees.

"I was arrogant. I admit it," he said. "The reality was there were times when I didn't know what I was talking about. I'm a lot calmer and nicer now."

Given that he has moonlighted as a rec-level referee for years, why did he spend the fall seeking IAABO approval?

"A friend of mine who wanted to get his license talked me into coming along with him," he said. "He lied to me and told me the class would only last a few weeks.

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