The Art of Sports: Officially Speaking

basketball referee

Officially speaking: Who are those guys in the striped shirts?

By Mark Lewis

With fans screaming, coaches gyrating and players making magic with acrobatic moves, it’s my job to be the calm one. As official scorer for Illinois State University men’s basketball games, I get a unique perspective of the game and the officiating crew.

When the officials make a call and report it to the bench, I not only wear a black and white striped shirt, I wear a poker face no matter what I think of the call. The only team I can root for runs the floor and blows the whistles. The scorer, game timer and shot-clock operator round out the bench crew.

We’re are as much a part of the officiating crew as are the three guys assigned by the Missouri Valley Conference. We need to work together to keep everything on track.


On a typical game night, the bench crew shows up an hour before tipoff. I put the lineups in the scorebook and the timers test and retest their equipment as the opposing teams begin their shootarounds. Fifteen minutes later, the three of us, along with the TV coordinator and the Redbird Arena event supervisor, meet the referees in their locker room. It’s where we can talk to them on a personal level Ace bandages, athletic tape and Atomic Balm help refs keep up with players half their ages. Occasionally, we talk to refs while an ISU trainer administers a massage.

A miniature scoreboard-type clock on the wall ticks down the seconds until game time. Often our stay is short, other times we discuss rules and decisions in the news. (For example, the scorer forgot to change the possession arrow in a recent Atlantic Coast Conference game, giving Duke the ball instead of Maryland at a critical juncture of the game. Duke won by two points).

Inevitably, one of the referees says, “You’re part of our team.”

Referees range in age from mid-30s to the mid-60s. The best work 90-plus games in a five-month season. I sometimes wonder whether they know if they are in Las Cruces, Madison, Toledo or Normal. After games at Redbird Arena, some will drive to St. Louis after the game to board a flight to another game the next day. The best referees can make $2,500 per game, depending on the league. Most have other jobs, obviously with flexible hours. Many officials are in sales, others own their own companies. Other occupations include school superintendent, sheriff’s deputy, tobacco distributor and recreation supervisor.

The league offices keep close communication with the officials via emails and occasionally send a DVD highlighting calls that may have been missed. According to the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, the Big 10 Conference, for example, requires officials to watch a detailed performance review within 24 hours of a given game on a secure website. Poor reviews can result in a reduced schedule or, in some cases, removal from the league the following season.

NEXT WEEK: A view from the game, courtside

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