Early in the first half of the basketball game I watched Tuesday, I determined a referee had missed a foul call. I am not much for yelling at officials, but this time I had to really, truly resist the urge.

The official who had blown the call was me.

I had not expected to ref last week. My trip to the gym was for the purpose of cheering on my niece in her eighth-grade interscholastic game. However, when we arrived, we noticed the previous game had only one official working it. The faster A-team game in which my niece would play as the visiting squad really required two officials, but it turned out the other man scheduled had gotten stuck at his day job and wouldn’t make it. The small gym was devoid of qualified officiating candidates. So we settled for “kinda qualified.”


Part of my sister’s job at the school my nieces attend includes scheduling officials, so she knows how important it is for kids to have a well-called game. Missi suggested me anyway. As I was giving my 8-year-old niece a hard time about having taken the seat for which I claimed to have purchased a ticket, my sister asked if I would consider reffing. I replied affirmatively, so she spoke to her contacts at the host school and they agreed.

Luckily, I had not worn a three-piece suit to the game, in large part because I don’t think I own one. I do own a referee’s striped shirt, a relic from a long-ago commercial, but don’t generally carry it with me. So I took to the court wearing jeans, walking shoes, an I Am Douglass t-shirt, and Missi’s spare whistle.

I would be working with my new best friend, Johnny. He explained that the officials have to be each other’s best friends, because the coaches and spectators would not necessarily have your welfare in mind. Throughout the game, he would act like my buddy, too, helping me get to the right position and always staying positive about what we were doing.

I appreciated Johnny’s accommodating outlook, because I definitely missed some calls. I hadn’t refereed regularly since college intramurals and it showed. Remembering the details proved tricky. I had to remind myself to count ten seconds, five seconds, and three seconds without moving my lips. In fact, the first time I blew my sister’s whistle nearly came because her daughter had stayed in the lane too long. Thank you, Mia, for getting out of the lane with a second to spare, thereby preventing me from having to explain myself to your grandparents.

At one point in the first quarter, the home coach loudly suggested I should have called traveling. He was probably right. One of the tricky parts with officiating less experienced players is to decide how closely to call the game. Do you call every little thing, even if it kills the flow of the game? Or do you let a few things go?

I remember thinking at one point during the game, “Wait a minute, that’s a double dribble. I’m supposed to call that.” My father later told me he didn’t think she did double dribble, but acknowledged I was a lot closer to the play (which doesn’t mean I didn’t screw it up, though I will note that my brother-in-law agreed with the call).

The most important stuff to whistle, I felt, was anything that could result in danger to a participant. I called a foul with 1.8 seconds to go in the game because I felt like one player shoved the other one in a spot where she could have sent her opponent careening into the stands. While that call wasn’t going to affect the outcome of the game in question, one hopes the offending player learns not to do it in the future.

I missed at least one dangerous play in part because I didn’t look in the right spot. On a drive to the basket, my eyes immediately went to the rim to watch the ball fall through and I missed a push in the back that should have been a foul. I realized that had probably happened when I saw the shooter lurch toward the wall, but by then it was too late to call it. Next time, I would have let Johnny see if the ball went in while I paid attention to the act of shooting.

I got heckled. My family assures me none of the abuse came from them. They did tell me a grandfather was pretty annoyed with my lack of a call on a rebound. I heard him, too, and just for his information, there was contact on both sides and there was no way I was calling a double foul with two minutes left in a 20-point game.

It was a fortunate circumstance that the Falcons (my niece’s team) defeated the Owls by a comfortable margin. I dreaded the idea that a close game could hinge on a call I might make for or against a family member and her friends. At one point early on, I recall thinking that Mia had done a nice job getting around a screen before reminding myself that today she was just number 11.

The final totals : 0 technical fouls called, 1 Falcon fouled out, and minimal lingering soreness across my aging physique. I’ll take it.

Screaming abuse at game officials has never been my style, and, indeed, I find it deplorable behavior for the most part. In case you didn’t know, those folks have a tough job. If you don’t believe me, try it sometime when your niece’s game is a ref short.