Tough Refs – Tough Neighborhoods

by Carl Ey

The boarded windows and barred storefronts populate Benning Road on the northeast side of Washington, D.C. Some of the locals on the street corner hover around the glow of a cigarette as they try to stay warm on a cold late afternoon in February. A few others sip on fortified liquid warmth from inside a brown paper bag. The scene is not inviting but probably typical for some marginal neighborhoods in many American big cities. Two nights a week for the past two years, I’ve  passed that scene as I travel into the District of Columbia to referee high school basketball. I haven’t, nor probably ever will be, as challenged as a high school ref as I am here.

From November through March, almost all of the scholastic basketball in the District is played on Tuesday and Friday nights, and my association, IAABO Board 12, bears the workload of 28,000 games during the season with 217 officials. The Board covers games in four conferences throughout Washington, D.C. — the District of Columbia Interscholastic Athletic Association (DCIAA), Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC), Inter-Athletic Conference (boys’ private  schools), and Independent School League (ISL).

The glue that holds all of those assignments together is the commissioner, Joe Marosy, a Paul Sorvino look-alike. Everyone associated with D.C. basketball, from the coaches to the scorers to the ADs, knows Marosy. He is one of only two  members who has been with Board 12 for 30 years — 10 as an official and 20 as its commissioner. His job sometimes seems insurmountable, especially without the use of a computer.

“My automation is pen and pencil,” said the 53- year-old retired director of physical education from the Montgomery County, Md., public school system. “I can count the number of mistakes I’ve made on one hand. Bonnie (his wife) checks the assignments.

We are a 19-hour-a-day team.”

Marosy’s desk is piled with his assignment books, game schedules and blue, red and black colored pencils that he and his wife use for their system of tracking officials and games. His workdays are long, calling officials as late as 11 p.m., but he gets eight percent of the officials’ checks at the end of the season.

As I turn the corner onto 26th Street NE, my headlights illuminate a sign in the shape of a police badge. “You are entering a DCPS (District of Columbia Public School) peaceable school zone. Help keep our students safe and drug free.” Behind it, I see my destination — Joel Elias Spingarn Senior High School.

It’s still an hour before we “toss the rock” when I enter the building. Immediately, a metal detector greets me. The security guard, a.k.a. special police officer (SPO), waves me through. She is one of the eight officers contracted from a private firm by the public school system on duty for tonight’s contest.

“Are you refereeing tonight’s game?” she asks.

“Yes, ma’am. Where do the officials change?”

I wonder if I have some sort of indelible mark on my forehead in the shape of a whistle. Although I am dressed in my polyester black official’s pants, I am wearing brown street shoes and a jacket that doesn’t bear any insignia. My striped jersey is in my bag. Nothing indicates that I am an official.

“I don’t know, but the gym is that-a-way,” she says with a wave of her arm.

Another SPO, Mr. Johnson, offers to show me the way. He is a heavyset, mid-30ish, African-American with a friendly face who is anxious to chat with me. “You work in the District a lot?” he asks. I tell him that Board 12 services all of Washington D.C., both private and public schools, and that I am in the District regularly. He nods his approval as he makes way for me in a crowded hallway. We continue down the hallway lined with teenagers waiting for the start of the game. A high school student, perhaps 16 years old, is leaning against a scuffed, dented, beige locker flirting with a girl. He is wearing the requisite baggy jeans, sand colored boots and a FUBU shirt with a New York Yankees baseball cap cocked to one side of his head.

“Hey!” Johnson says, “off with the hat.”

The teenager frowns but removes his hat and continues to pursue his current interest. The SPOs seem to run a tight ship. I ask Johnson if there are any white students in the school. He smiles, seeming to know that I am feeling like the white shadow in this big inner-city high school. To be honest, he is right. He indicates that he knows of one white student, but isn’t sure if there are more. He leads me to the officials’ changing room, which is about 20 feet from the court, and wishes me good luck. Actually, the dressing room is the athletic director’s office; very small, only two chairs and a couple of desks. That’s typical for the officials’ accommodations in D.C. There is no bathroom and no shower, so my partners and I will be leaving the school with sweat-drenched clothes after the final buzzer. Because there is no toilet in the office, the referees may face some angry fans at the intermission or after the game. One of my partners is already there and as we exchange greetings, the final member of our trio enters with a glance that implies that he is not happy with the accommodations either.

Although the officials on Board 12 deal with crime-ridden areas, less-than-average gymnasiums and “challenging” accommodations, that only strengthens our reputation as tough officials working in tough neighborhoods. Fortunately, none of the District’s shortcomings has affected its reputation as one of the top–quality high school basketball cities in the country. Because the players are so strong, the refs have to be solid and ready each week to deal with potential Division I superstars.

“The competition is very high,” said past Board 12 president Gary Stein. “The last few years, we had Joe Forte, Keith Bogans, Chris Monroe, Roger Mason, Dermarr Johnson and Damien Wilkins — all NCAA Division I starters and stars — play in this area.”

My partners and I have just completed our pregame conference and are anxious to leave our cramped accommodations. A knock comes on the door alerting us that we are about 15 minutes from game time. We walk to the court in a small pack. As we enter the gym, there are three large banners hanging over the left of the entrance. Two of the banners honor Spingarn Greenwave alumni Dave Bing and Elgin Baylor, both hall of famers. The third is for current NBA player Sherman Douglas.

SPOs are stationed strategically around the gym — very noticeable in their uniforms. My partner whispers that he believes that the “guy behind the Spingarn bench might be a scout from Syracuse University.” He thinks he has seen him at other gyms in the District before. Parts of the floor are damp and the padding under the backboards is being held in place with gray utility tape. Spingarn Coach William T. Robinson explains that work is being done to remove asbestos from the ceiling pipes, but the condensation is causing the roof to leak. He has a student standing by to wipe the floor.

The introductions are complete and my two partners and I shake hands, give the requisite one-liner promising to “see you at halftime” and move to our respective positions. The ball is up, and the game begins.

Board 12 focuses on training officials to handle a rugged, fast-paced game. “We have approximately 46 referees who do college level, Division I, II and III basketball,” said Marosy. “Two NBA officials — Lou Grillo and Scott Foster — have come through Board 12.” The Board has produced some outstanding officials because of the combination of their training plan and the District’s competition. Having great basketball to referee may make an official better. But training officials before they venture into District arenas is critical to preparing them for some of the best high school athletes in the nation. The second half of the Spingarn game is about to begin. My partners and I discussed our game during the intermission, which players or coaches we feel may give us trouble in the second half, and how the leaking roof is affecting play on the floor.

The young student whom Coach Robinson appointed to keep the wooden playing surface dry is doing a fine job. The play was intense just before the half ended. We don’t foresee any problems, but the District has its share of violence at high school basketball games.

During the 1999-00 season, two student-fans at a Woodrow Wilson High School basketball game were shot to death in the aftermath of a fight that broke out in the stands. Although that type of incident isn’t a daily occurrence, it is a part of officiating in the District.

Fortunately, the authorities, coaches and athletic directors have prepared themselves. They are well-suited to handle fights, arguments and the tense situations that seem to occasionally mar games in D.C.

“The kids were wailing on each other, and it was spilling across the stands,” said Jim Wilson, an official with 10 years experience on Board 12, who was refereeing the night of the shooting. “Game security threw themselves right in the middle of it. I wasn’t afraid, and I never felt threatened. The police handled it real well.”

Later that night, several blocks away from the school, two students involved in that rumble were gunned down.

“The fear that some of the officials have initially is that they worry about going into the game and being intimidated by the crowds, perhaps loss of property,” said Dr. Allen E. Chin, director of athletics for D.C. public schools. “They feel if they make the wrong call against the home team, that they might have a damaged car. But we don’t have that problem.”

Officials on Board 12 generally agree that safety is not an issue when refereeing in Washington, D.C., but feel awareness in those surroundings should be heightened.

The horn ending the fourth quarter screams throughout the Spingarn gymnasium. The Greenwaves have won again.

Quickly my partners and I jog back to our changing room. With the three of us in the tiny room, it seems crowded as we negotiate for space to get out of our stripes and change into street shoes. I can’t help wishing the changing room, and the gymnasium for that matter, could be renovated.

“D.C. is no different than any other of the old cities or venues,” said Henry Hailstock, Board 12 secretary and 26-year official. “Those venues were built moons ago. They didn’t care about officials or where they changed or showered. Schools were made for the students and a lot of them are outdated.”

Chin points out that funds are lacking. When he took over the city’s athletic department in 1991, he had a budget of $2.9 million. Today, his budget is $1.3 million, from which he pays five full-time employees and 11 athletic trainers. “It comes from the higher-ups in terms of where they put the priorities for the budget,” said Chin.

“This year, there was no money for any improvement in athletic facilities.”

It’s another Friday night, and I am off to Eastern Senior High School. While many of my friends are heading to a pub in Old Town, Alexandria, Va., for happy hour or a quiet dinner in Georgetown, I am anxiously preparing myself behind the wheel of my pickup truck en route to another tough assignment.

I do it all over again; pass the boarded windows and barred storefronts, the locals trying to keep warm. I greet another group of SPOs and change in a broom closet of an office.

Eastern wins the game, and I have just completed another rewarding night refereeing in the District. As I leave the gymnasium, the sweat dripping down the back of my shirt reminds me that I won’t be catching the end of happy hour with my buddies on this Friday night. I say goodnight to one of the SPOs who is left to lock up the school. As I fiddle with my keys, I nod to a fan who is congratulating me for a job well done. Driving away, the city in my rearview mirror is gray, dirty and not pleasant to look at, but Tuesday is only four days away. I can hardly wait to come back.

(Carl Ey is a freelance writer who officiates basketball in the Washington,D.C., area.)