Jeff Lindsey blew his whistle.
Palmer’s Reggie Jackson – yes, he now of the Detroit Pistons – had been fouled. Lindsey immediately let everyone on the court know it was not a shooting foul, saying Jackson was passing.
Jackson sidled up to Lindsey.
“Reggie Jackson told me, ‘Man, you don’t know me very well,'” Lindsey recounted recently. “I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘I never pass, I was shooting.'”
When Lindsey isn’t refereeing high school basketball games (he referees at lower levels too) he’s prosecuting cases – including the Planned Parenthood shooting case – as the chief deputy district attorney for the 4th Judicial District.
Lindsey is one of the Colorado Springs Basketball Officials Association’s high school referees, and he’s been at it awhile, in his 18th season.
But Lindsey has watched as numbers have dwindled.
The organization that stretches north to Elizabeth, south to Cañon City, east to Simla and west to Buena Vista has about 180 members, according to association president Andrew Heo. That number is about 70 officials fewer than what the CSBOA would prefer.
During the 2014-15 season, the Pikes Peak Athletic Conference moved league games from Tuesdays to Wednesdays because there weren’t enough officials to go around.
The association aims to add about 50 officials every offseason. Heading into this season, fewer than half that signed up.
And not all stick with it.
“There’s certainly a huge shortage of officials in all sports,” said Heo, also in his 18th season. “But in basketball it’s a big shortage for us. … Recruiting is a huge, huge issue across the state.”
Joining the other side
Jennifer Donato was one of “those crazy parents.”
She finally got tired of yelling at refs from the stands and decided to do something about it.
“It was really humbling,” said Donato, who just completed her first season officiating C-level and junior varsity games. “I played basketball, so I thought I knew it all. I’m a parent of a child who plays basketball, so again, I’m like, I know it all. When I got on the court the first time I was like, ‘This is a lot harder than I thought it would be.'”
Her choice has influenced fellow parents on Donato’s son’s club team, though not to the point of them jumping on the hardwood with her.
But now, rather than yelling at refs, they’ll confide in Donato to see what she thinks.
Donato also worked some club games before the high school season, gaining experience. But the way the CSBOA operated helped put her in a position to succeed on the court.
“They don’t want to put you in situations that are going to overwhelm you and cause you to want to quit,” said Donato, who often opts to work stretches of a week at a time.
The refs get paid, earning $50 for a varsity game. Most do it for reasons other than the money.
For Lindsey, it was a way to continue to be a part of sports without getting injured as he did often in rec leagues, once rupturing a bursa sac.
“My wife said, ‘We can’t afford you to do sports, so find something that’s not as dangerous,'” Lindsey joked.
He started as an official in Salida, while working as a district attorney there.
Heo, Lindsey and Donato all agreed that the exercise is a bonus.
They also have incentive to do well. The better they are reviewed throughout a season (by coaches, athletic directors, other referees), the deeper into the postseason they are likely to work. For an official, the opportunity to work a state championship game is one they relish.
Heo worked the 5A state girls’ basketball championship. He wasn’t the only area ref to reach that level.
“Last year we had seven (of 30) championship games officials,” Heo said
Those officials don’t get there by luck.
“There’s a lot of pre-work involved too,” Heo said. “And I think that a lot of what the public doesn’t see is we don’t have guys just showing up and just working a game. They’re doing the research.”
The interaction between coaches and referees is part of the game. Some coaches are more vocal, others not as much.
For Lewis-Palmer coach Bill Benton, he’s been on the other side and as a result doesn’t lay into the refs often.
“I’ve told a couple of officials when I coach the perfect game, I’ll expect them to ref the perfect game,” said Benton, who officiated a couple of years before moving into coaching. “That doesn’t mean I’m not going to talk to them, but no official’s ever decided the outcome of a game.”
‘It’s like a vacation’
Lindsey’s career days are like a whirlwind. That wind dies down when he pulls on the stripes and steps on the basketball court.
“It’s like a vacation for me,” Lindsey said. “I know that sounds weird, but you know I get hollered at, screamed at and everything. But in my job I have 12 different things going on at any different time. When you’re on the floor, you have one thing that you’re thinking of and that’s it.”
Officiating isn’t for everyone. Lindsey has recruited people over the years to try it; unsuccessfully with his son, as it happens.
“He eventually told me, ‘Dad, I don’t like to get yelled at like that, I don’t want to do it any more,'” Lindsey said.
The referees who stick around take pride in walking off the court.
“It’s my game just as much as it’s their game,” Donato said. “I take ownership, this is my responsibility to make sure that this is fair, to make sure that this is done well. To take care of the players and the coaches and my partner.”
All of them have vowed to continue doing it. They hope this offseason they’ll have a number of new faces joining them.
“I tell people it’s challenging, it’s fun, it’s competitive,” Lindsey said. “It’s not easy, but I think it’s worthwhile in the end.”