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Men in Black Stripes

Jan 10, 2018

"When you make a call and the whole place goes nuts booing you, that's when you know you got it right," one longtime referee said.

Ah! The sounds of basketball season! Pep bands blaring out rock songs. Gyms exploding when the home team drains a clutch three-pointer. Whistles piercing the din, then deafening silence as the crowd draws its collective breath and awaits the referee’s call.

Followed inevitably by an enraged chorus of boos from half the crowd, while an aggrieved, “It’s about @#$&% time! He’s been doing that all game!” rings out on the gym’s opposite side.

In the span of years since James Naismith hung up a peach basket and invented the game of basketball, no one has ever left a gymnasium saying, “Those refs really did a good job tonight.” If it was a close game the losing team’s fans are convinced they were robbed, as a result of either malice or incompetence. Which doesn’t mean the winning side thinks the officials did them any favors. They think their team won in spite of the referees.

When I was a wee lad I’d sometimes go to the games of an adult men's basketball league that met on Sunday afternoons in winter. It was a pretty relaxed operation, the sort of league where guys would sprawl on the bench and smoke cigarettes during timeouts. If a player got thirsty mid-action he would sometimes go to the water fountain while his teammates played four-on-five at the other end. No one ever complained because this occasionally worked out well, strategy-wise. When the opposing team made a basket or his compatriots got a rebound he was in the perfect position to grab a floor-length pass for an easy layup.

On one memorable occasion I was tasked with running the scoreboard and clock for a game. Things didn’t go well because the controller had a quirky feature: if you forgot to flip a certain switch the buzzer would sound whenever the seconds counter hit 00. This was no ordinary buzzer, either. If the sonic energy it generated hadn’t been contained by the gym walls it would have shattered windows and terrified livestock for miles around.

At the opening tip-off, naturally, the clock read 8:00. Up went the ball, on went the clock and BRAAAAAPPP! went the buzzer, causing consternation and heart palpitations all around. When it happened at the beginning of the second quarter there were rumbles of discontent; on the third occurrence I was universally denounced and relieved of my duties. I remember the last buzzer distinctly for it was the first time I ever used the grandaddy of all curse words.  

Anyway … referees for these contests were sometimes recruited by a player standing in front of the bleachers with a whistle and a striped shirt in hand. "Wanna ref?" he'd call plaintively to some poor shlub. As game time approached the standard on what constituted an acceptable candidate went down.

If Jerome Bear was around he always got the job. He wore the striped shirt so often it had stretched to fit his heroic midsection, and so was comically large on almost anybody else. Beyond that, Jerome was simply an institution. After watching him in action, an objective observer might conclude that he was less than conscientious. He could work a game with fewer steps than almost any referee in history, I would guess. Sometimes he’d lean against the wall at midcourt, or sit on the stage at one end and call the game from there. He was mostly fair, but it was understood by both teams that, in a toss-up situation, calls would go to the home team. Even so, I never heard any player get mad at or even argue with Jerome. He was just there. One might as logically have argued with the tide for coming in or the wind for blowing.

I think about that Sunday afternoon league whenever I see an ad for sports drinks, especially those which feature a guy drenched in sweat, droplets hanging off his nose, etc. First of all, are these appealing images? Do they actually make people want to buy such products? I don’t get it.

Anyway … most of the guys in that league were working stiffs. They didn’t make a big production out of the fact that they were sweating; most of them, in fact, would have recoiled at the idea of exercise for exercise’s sake. They played for love of the game, and if they took time off to get a drink, well, it was only logical to expend as little energy as possible. I’d love to see a commercial with sensible guys like them chugging Ultra Fantastic Power Zoom Ade between drags on a Marlboro.

As for Jerome, nobody would be handing him a whistle these days. Games at every level are a serious, no-pain-no-gain proposition.

Marvin ‘Pal’ Christensen of Yankton, was an unappreciated referee for nearly 50 years. “I’ve been called everything in the book,” he once told me. He worked his first basketball game (at Scotland) in 1947, and wore stripes for the last time at a football game (at Scotland) in 1996. Between those two contests he worked roughly 6,000 games, everything from middle school to a couple games in the Big 12.

If you ever feel like booing the referee, think about this. “A guy told me a long time ago, when you referee you’re only going to be half right. No matter what you call one side isn’t going to like it,” Christensen said. “But when you make a call and the whole place goes nuts, booing you … that’s a referee’s applause. That’s when you know you got it right!”

Editor’s Note: This column is revised from the March/April 2013 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.


11:40 am - Fri, March 16 2018
Gerald Nelson said:
What a classic on old style refs! Had me thinking of guy who narrated "A Christmas Story" as to humorous storytelling.
I was hoping to see our nephew's name, Vaughn Heckel, long time teacher and referee from Spearfish who could regale you with his officiating memories.
Gerald & Marlys Nelson
Dayton, Ohio
06:41 am - Mon, March 19 2018
Jane Mehlum Uzzell said:
My dad was both a football and basketball referee, from the 1950s? to maybe into the 1990s. I remember him having milk toast--toast with warm milk and maybe a poached egg on it--before he headed out on a Friday night. When he got home after refereeing, he'd bring 2 hamburgers--1 for my mom and him, and 1 Pepsi (in a bottle) for my 2 sisters and I to share. He loved the high school kids and being involved in all of those games. Dean Mehlum if anyone knew and/or remembers him.
06:42 am - Mon, March 19 2018
Jane Uzzell said:
Oh! and when I became a teacher, I was gifted his whistle--which was a very high quality one--so I could use it as a p.e. teacher and at recess. I taught for 40 years at the elementary level.

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