Sunday, September 26, 2010

Going back to Foot Locker

“You gotta start calling this game or somebody’s gonna get killed out there!” the coach shouted at me as the players headed off the court for a timeout. The gym grew quiet, and I could feel all eyes on me.

As a referee, the last thing you want is attention. At the end of the game, if you’re part of the story, things have not gone well. Nobody walks out of a basketball game and says, “Oh, man, that was some top notch officiating in there. Did you see that awesome travelling call? I TOTALLY agreed with it.”

If you are mentioned at all in post-game discussion, it is to curse you, and probably to lament the obvious deficiencies in your eyesight and your intelligence, and to hypothesize about what you may, or may not be, a son of.

Before that game, I’d always thought of myself as a pretty good ref. Two of my buddies, Johnny and Rob, had gotten me into the reffing business, assuring me that it was an easy ten bucks an hour, a princely salary for a high school student. This was back in the mid-nineties, when most kids were still working in canneries for gruel and hardtack, and if you could find any job at all, minimum and maximum wage were almost always the same.

Reffing sounded like a much better gig than my other job, busing tables at the local café, where I’d come home from weekend brunch shifts covered in so much syrup that I’d get accused of cheating on my girlfriend with Mrs. Butterworth.

Each Saturday, I’d ref two games, bringing home $20 and promptly wasting it at the record store, which was a place that used to exist where people could purchase music, before it became free on the Internet. These days, teenagers can spend their discretionary incomes on more important items, like text messages and haircuts that make it look like they haven’t gotten haircuts.

Most of the time, the games went smoothly. Hardly anyone told me to go back to Foot Locker, or offered to drive me to Pearl Vision after the game.

But one Saturday, Rob and I got paired to call a fateful game in the boys’ league. I’m not exactly sure what their ages were, but I’d guess they were the same ages as the kids from Lord of the Flies.

In the second quarter, things started getting out of hand. In the span of two minutes, we called three shooting fouls against the same kid. And then The Foul happened. Or didn’t happen, since I didn’t call it.

Just as one kid was putting the ball up to shoot, the kid with the three fouls swung his arm out and karate chopped the shooter’s arms.

“Wow!” I thought. “That kid just got clobbered!”

The ball slowly dribbled out of bounds as the players stared at it, waiting for a whistle to blow. I’d gotten so caught up in watching that I hadn’t called anything, and then it was too late.

I met Rob at half court to confer.

“Dude, did you see that?” I asked.

“No, that was your call down there,” he said.

Rob’s attitude toward reffing was rather casual. He always wore a whistle, but I’m not sure it actually worked. Whenever I asked him why he didn’t call any fouls, his answer was, “You gotta let the kids play, man.”

But he was right, this call was mine. I should have admitted my mistake, called the foul late and moved on. Instead, I just pretended it didn’t happen, a decision that led to the red-faced coach hollering at me a few minutes later. The kids, noting a certain lack of officiating, had begun descending into savagery.

I met the coach on the sidelines and apologized. In the end, nobody got maimed or squashed by a boulder, but I did learn an important lesson: there are worse things to be than covered in syrup.

You can help Mike Todd cheat on his eye test at


  1. So, basically you "Jim Joyced" the call, eh?

    Perhaps the "process of the play" wasn't complete, ala the Detroit Lions negated TD in game one?

    Don't lose any sleep over the missed call(s), the pro's do it all the time, and they're still alive to ref another game! You're human, after all.

  2. Thanks! I suppose that's better than James Joycing the call. That's when you make a really, really long call that nobody understands.