It was December 1972 and my close friend, Joe Davis, wanted me to join him as a referee for Little League basketball games.
“We’ll call two games back-to-back, twice a week, and we can make $6 a game,” he offered, temptingly.
While $24 a week wasn’t Warren Buffet money, it would be twenty-some bucks that I didn’t have before, and I could spend it any way I liked. Fishing equipment, golf balls, man-toys.
“But I’ve never refereed a basketball game in my life,” I countered. “What if I make a bad call and they boo me?”
“It’s just 10- and 12 -year-olds,” Joe said. “Nobody expects you to be perfect.’
Nobody except all the parents, coaches and players and each time I blew the whistle, 50% of the crowd thought I was a blind idiot. And they booed and heckled, indeed. But somehow, I survived those first two games and Joe said I did a good job.
Then, the next morning Joe called, excitedly, and said we had a gig at University Hall at the halftime show of the UVA/William & Mary basketball game on Dec. 16. Two Little League teams would be playing an exhibition.
I had refereed exactly two games in my life and now “my friend” wanted me to make a fool of myself in front of thousands?
“Don’t worry,” Joe said. “I’ll take the lead and make the close calls, you just run up and down the court. They’re just kids. It’ll be okay.”
So, I very reluctantly agreed.
Then, just a few hours before the game, Joe said an emergency had come up and he wouldn’t be able to make the game after all, but that he had arranged another referee to take his place.
“What have I done?” I fretted.
But…. Nancy and I got free tickets to the game with good seats and watched Barry Parkhill, Gus Gerard, Wally Walker, Andrew Boninti, and Dan Bonner build a small halftime lead over a scrappy William & Mary team.
During the first twenty minutes, I had especially enjoyed watching the two veteran refs at work – Hank Nichols and Jon Moreau, two of the best of all time. They were always in the right position at the right time, controlled the game and moved with the grace of a Russian Ballet.
Then, the halftime buzzer sounded, and I was terrified. I was seeing double and thought I may go to center court and either throw up or faint, but I didn’t. I tossed the ball for the center jump and quickly got into the flow of the game. With only about a minute to go in the exhibition, a very tall 12-year-old white kid drove for the basket and a little black fellow who didn’t even reach the belt of the big kid, whacked him on the arm.
“Tweeeeet!” I signaled. “Foul on Number 3.”
Have you ever been booed by fans in a jam-packed basketball arena? Not just some of them. All of them? And not just little boos, but at-the-top-of-your-lungs boos?
Well, I did. The rafters of University Hall trembled with the uproar.
It was a humbling experience. But thank the Dear Lord, I made it through the game without puking and as I was walking off the court, counting my blessings, I came upon Moreau and Nichols who had been watching at courtside.
Jon Moreau came over to me, holding his stomach and said, “I don’t feel so good. Could you call the second half for me?”
My life passed in front of my eyes. I was mortified.
Then Jon and Hank laughed their asses off and admitted they were just kidding.
“Good game,” they said. “And a nice call on the little kid. He fouled the shooter.”
I refereed several more years after that, but finally tired of hearing the parents of 12-year-olds question both my vision and ancestry.
In hindsight, not many people can say they have been booed by 8,457 people. I can.