Come on, ref, you’re killin’ us

A meditation on basketball officiating, stimulated by recent events:
My late brother-in-law, the football coach, didn’t watch much basketball, though he was an avid fan of sports generally. He said, “I don’t like a game where the official is so important. The whistle is blowing all the time. It seems the refs often control the outcome, not the players.” He preferred ice hockey in the winter.
That’s a valid criticism. This dependence on officials is basketball’s greatest limitation. Nonetheless, it’s a great game.
The referees’ predominance in basketball doesn’t necessarily mean the better team doesn’t win. I’m thankful that is not the case, but it seems often the better team wins despite the officiating, not because of it.
Last year, I was at the Middlebury Union High School-Fair Haven boys’ basketball game in the Slaters’ gym. The game was very rough and the officials had trouble maintaining control. A Tiger player was slammed hard without getting the benefit of a foul call, and came over to the bench in a state of angry agitation.
Tiger coach, Chris Altemose, said to him calmly and directly, “I coach … you play … he refs.” The message was simple: You concentrate on your job, control what you can control, control your self, don’t be distracted from your job by the officiating. That was good instruction, good leadership, but it’s hard to keep in mind in the moment.
The refs in basketball often seem like arbitrary figures meting out penalties for infractions (compensating “free throws,” or loss of possession of the ball) in a wildly inconsistent fashion, which inevitably incurs the outrage of partisans on both sides.
It has taken me a lifetime to gain distance and perspective on hoop officiating. I reffed for nearly ten years, in the town rec league. I know how hard it is. The ref in basketball is asked to make dozens of snap judgments in the course of a game.
Invariably, there are mistakes, of both commission and omission. Some nights, when the aggression is about equal on both sides, one team is assessed more fouls than the other, sometimes a lot more fouls. The ref can only call what he or she sees, at the instant it happens. There’s no time for reflection or study.
Different referees view the game differently, interpret the rules differently, allow for more, or less, “incidental contact.” Some nights, frankly, in games I reffed, one team got shortchanged, though certainly with no intent of mine. It happens.
As a fan, I impose on myself a zero tolerance rule: no loud complaining about the officials, no yelling at the ref. As a young man, I was bad in this regard, and often went home from games shamefaced. I was prone to correcting the officials and commenting on their flaws and pedigree.
Even now, at my advanced age, though rarely, especially away from home and accountability, I suffer relapses.
I do take precautions. I sit far away from the action on the floor. I often roam in the game’s crucial last minutes. This last gesture also means I won’t offend those sitting with me who view the game as a social occasion and not the death struggle that I consider it.
I counsel my 16-year-old basketball-obsessed son not to respond to the inadequacies of the officiating, even in the face of specific injustices. I sound like Bill Belichick: “It is what it is.” Let it go. Part of the game, like the lines on the court and the bouncing ball.
Now, having said all this, let me point out that Middlebury College got shortchanged by the officiating last weekend at Amherst in the Panthers’ crushing, 77-75 loss in overtime. It was a magnificent game played by two terrific Division III teams. The players played their hearts out.
The stakes were high, are high: The winner gets to host the semi-finals and finals of the league tournament. Wouldn’t that have been fun at the Middlebury gym. And the loser gets Williams this Saturday and not Hamilton in the first round.
Williams, if you recall, was an 80-79 loser to the Panthers two weeks ago, and, on a given night, is as good as any Division III school in the country. I guess we’ll just have to lick ‘em again, though I may have to go stand next to the defibrillator during the game.
The College team, 22-2, has had quite a season, as we enter the climactic post-season: the only blemishes are a one-point loss to Keene State (18-5) and this two-point OT loss to Amherst (also 22-2).
The game last weekend turned on two last-minute calls by the refs that went against Middlebury, a ticky-tack foul of the sort much overlooked in the rest of the game, and a questionable “traveling” call. Amherst converted on both opportunities and won the game. Credit them.
After-the-fact complaining about the refs is tiresome and useless. It always sounds like whining. It is whining. I try not to do it.
But sometimes I can’t help myself!

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