It's been a full month and a half since the high school basketball season started, yet I have yet to officiate a varsity game.
Although I have been officiating for eight years, my move from Virginia to North Carolina last May meant that I was in my first year of membership in a new association. I fully expected some degree of scrutiny, testing and evaluation after the move. I paid dues, attended clinics, arrived early, stayed late, volunteered for more than the minimum number of scrimmages, and sought feedback from senior officials. Despite all my efforts, energy and experience, and relatively stellar evaluations and commentary from association insiders during the pre-season, my schedule, at least so far, is chock-full of non-varsity games.
It would be too easy to become discouraged. But I don't discourage easily. In times like these, I turned for advice, as I often do, from the resident sages of our household, my son and daughter; two young adults who are not only my children but my two best friends. After listening to me complain and compare my current and former officiating organizations, they told me that I was comparing apples and oranges because there were far too many variables to make a fair comparison. My son said I had to accept the fact that this was the new normal. Everything here is different, from the price of gas and traffic patterns to the school systems and weather. The new normal, otherwise know as life, has nothing to do with our previous life up north, so comparing the two was pointless. Good advice.
And so I have learned to accept that on my road to varsity, I am pulling off to the side of the road and Googling new directions. But this time, I'm not looking for the shortest route, or one without tolls. Instead, I am looking for the best route, at least the best route for me. It means read and follow the signs, be patient, be professional, enjoy the ride, and be confident that I will eventually arrive at my desired destination.
One of the "signs" worth noting is the basketball community itself. On one occasion, my partner and I were approached before the opening tip by the Athletic Directors of both schools. They advised us that both girls teams were new to the game of basketball and requested that we find "teachable" moments and to be judicious in our calling of the game. My partner and I agreed to hold our whistles except for hard fouls or other blatant violations. We explained "spot thrown-ins" versus "running the baseline after a made-basket". We explained our approach to both coaches.
The game seemed to take forever, but at its end, the teams and coaches were appreciative, despite the 27-1 final score. Before this game, I had never been asked to "teach" basketball to the players. As an official, that s not really our role. But, in the spirit of whats good for the game, I was honored to be asked.
Another noteworthy event occured during the boys game that followed. The home team had a player - I'll call him "Jim" - in a wheelchair. On an out-of-bounds play near the end of the game, the coach approached me and asked if Jim could throw in the basketball. The other coach and team, he told me, had agreed. Of course, we said! So we created a throw-in scenario to allow Jim to participate in the game. I was touched by the way in which both teams, coaches and administrators worked together to facilitate a small but meaningful experience for one player. I didnt think I would experience anything as moving, at least until a few weeks later.
Prior to a middle school game, a 6th grade boy was seated at the scoring table. He was wearing dark glasses and was accompanied by an adult with a microphone. In front of the young boy was a braille-enabled device. The young man - I'll call him "Tommy" - was the announcer for the game. Chatty and exuberant, he explained to me that he had approached the Athletic Director and asked to perform the pre-game team announcements. His professional ambition, he told me, was to be sports radio announcer. He had prepared his entire presentation on the braille machine and read it while announcing the team starters into the microphone.
I was awestruck. In a span of less than a month, two young people under that age of 12 had given me two significant "signs", leading me, directing me down a path to somewhere important. These were clearly teachable moments, indeed, they were, but who was the intended student? After the game, which went into overtime, I was thoughtful and thankful for the chance to see the game of basketball in a completely different light. Basketball provided an opportunity for two differently abled young people. And the lessons that I learned from Jim and Tommy was that the route I was going to be taking to varsity was going to take a lot more twists and turns than I had originally thought. What other signs will appear along the way, I thought? How will they shape my role as an official or youth sports advocate?
As I leaving the gym, the reality of what it meant to officiate a game in this particular city intruded: policeman escorted me to my car, apparently a practice that had become customary in this particular part of the city, but a sad reminder that youth basketball has, for some, because so intense that players and officials need police protection.
With a new year beginning, high school basketball season is in full swing and winter leagues for youth basketball are starting, all of which gives me the opportunity to work 6 games during the week and another 6 on the weekend. I have already received 8 game assignments, none varsity, and yet I am oddly energized rather than wistful or depressed. Perhaps it is because I anticipate more teachable moments, more opportunites to be blown away by kids who make a difference just by being themselves, kids, who through their own unique circumstances, enable their teammates and coaches to rise to the occasion and transform the game of basketball into something far more important, where the success of one is success for all.
The road to varsity continues and is taking a little longer than I expected. But, with new map in hand, and keeping a sharp lookout for signs along the way, the trip is going to be tremendous, no matter how long it takes.