Beyond the whistle: Basketball officials try to make a difference
Sitting inside of their makeshift locker room at halftime, high school basketball officials Phil Lombardi and Mark Samsel immediately discuss one of their calls from the first half.
Serving on a three-man officiating crew during Free State’s boys basketball game last month against Bishop Miege, they awarded two points on a jump shot that was near the 3-point arc. After the shot was made, Samsel stopped play and walked to midcourt to confer with Lombardi.
Following a brief discussion, the shot remained a 2-pointer. At halftime, they sat in a teacher’s office alongside fellow official Josh Roberts to go through their thought process. Samsel was “100 percent sure” it was a 3-pointer and thought he had a good angle. On the court, he was less confident with his wording to Lombardi.
“OK, if you’re 100 percent,” said Lombardi while sitting on a couch, “don’t say, ‘Did you see?’ Say, ‘Phil, I am 100 percent sure.'”
It was a learning moment for the crew that was heavy on experience. Lombardi, a former college baseball player at Benedictine, is in his 19th season with the Kansas High School Activity Association. He’s worked many games with Roberts, who is in his 17th year.
With a focus on making the right calls, the trio talked over scenarios prior to the game. They would discuss calls during timeouts and before free throws. Sitting on a couch, chair and table in the locker room, it was a chance to go more in depth.
“I joke with parents and say the game is very easy from the stands,” Lombardi said. “But there’s a little bit of truth in that.”
If it was college basketball or the NBA, the officials would’ve walked to TV monitors to review the borderline 3-pointer. Instead, Samsel said he will have to wait until he is sent video of the game on Hudl, a popular game footage website. A business litigation attorney in Overland Park, Samsel will rewatch games or specific plays when he can find the time.
During games, all of the officials do their best to make improvements in real time.
About an hour before tipoff, the officials arrive to a teacher’s office, adjacent to Free State’s visitor’s locker room. After sitting down, they run through their scouting reports of both schools from previous games they covered.
Samsel has officiated Free State earlier in the season and Roberts recently saw Miege.
“We know we’ll have athletes,” Lombardi said.
The objective is to be prepared for different types of styles. Both schools like to play at a fast pace and have players capable of blocking shots at the rim or off of the backboard, so they will watch for goaltending. Neither team plays in a full-court press.
Both teams can score the ball in the post, which means the officials will have to keep an eye on inside positioning and offensive fouls.
There’s a growing need in Kansas, along with the rest of the country, to find more officials. Nearly each week, there’s emails asking for officials to pick up more games. Roberts estimates the median age of varsity officials is 50.
It’s been difficult to retain young officials. There’s headlines of irate parents punching referees over a call — “Parents are driving young officials out of the game,” Samsel said.
Roberts, who works in insurance, started officiating when he was in high school. He was cut from his high school basketball team as a junior and found a new way to stay connected to the game. Attending the University of Kansas, he continued officiating as a simple way to make money.
“I felt like richest kid at the Hawk on Friday,” he joked.
After using resistance bands to stretch prior to the start of the game, the officiating crew runs out onto the floor with about 15 minutes remaining in warmups. Lombardi will host a meeting with coaches and captains before checking the scorebook.
The first half only featured 10 combined fouls between the two teams, but there will be plenty of calls or interpretations to discuss. Two of Miege’s three fouls were charges. Miege has a size advantage in the post so they confirm players are legally boxing out and going up for rebounds.
After one Free State shot attempt in the first quarter, a slap could be heard. Some fans yell at the refs to call a foul. When Lombardi runs back down the floor, Free State coach Sam Stroh tells him, “The whole gym heard it.” Lombardi talks to Stroh after the next whistle.
“I said, ‘Sam, I heard it but my partner is right there and he’s got a much better look at it than I do,'” Lombardi said. “He said, ‘You have to call that.’ I said, ‘If I call that, I have to call everything.'”
Officiating for nearly two decades, Lombardi has developed a strong rapport with coaches. It’s a skill he says he developed while officiating football games. In football, there’s no small coaching boxes. Coaches are almost always standing near officials so it’s important to build relationships.
Plus, Lombardi’s goal is to stay out of the action and let players decide games.
“The difference between guys who do a good job and guys who maybe are just a couple of ticks below,” Roberts said, “is knowing when not to call fouls, I think.”
Roberts likes to develop a relationship with players during games. He chats and jokes with them during free throws — “It kind of humanizes us a little bit,” he said.
When a Miege player slapped the backboard after a dunk, Roberts was close to calling a technical foul. Lombardi warned the player and Miege’s coach, Rick Zych, while Roberts talked it over with one of Miege’s team captains.
Nearing the start of the second half, Free State athletic director Mike Hill brought the officials back out to the court.
In the minutes following Miege’s 60-55 victory over Free State, Lombardi turned to his officials in the locker room and said, “I’ll tell you what, athletes decided that.”
With a few lead changes in the second half, the officiating crew was proud to avoid any calls that would’ve influenced the outcome of the game. And it was just fun to watch.
“That was just awesome,” Roberts said. “That’s exceptional high school basketball.”
All three of the officials have been a part of games where they wish they could’ve changed a call. At the high school level, there is no benefit of instant replay.
“If we miss an obvious double-dribble or something, and then they make a shot at the buzzer, nobody is going to feel worse than the three guys on the floor,” Lombardi said.
Officials are met at some games by an observer. Larry Hare, who oversees equipment and apparel at the University of Kansas, helps officials in the Lawrence area.
When Hare attends a game, watching from a high center-court position, he looks for everything: calls, positioning, making sure the officials are looking in the right places. Afterward, he will hand a copy of his notes to the officials. For Lombardi, it’s more helpful than watching film.
“Every time he comes into a locker room, I learn something,” Lombardi said of Hare. “I mean I’ve been doing this 19 years but I always take away something when he’s in here.”
In the summer, most officials attend clinics hosted by KSHSAA or other leagues. Officials essentially volunteer their time and pay for the service, but they receive immediate feedback. There’s area meetings during the season and they have to pass an open book rules test.
With a focus on helping kids, Samsel said it’s difficult to take weekends off during the season because of the shortage of officials. If schools can’t find officials, some subvarsity games might be canceled.
Of course, they will have to deal with shouts from the crowd. They have dealt with hostile fans. But they are proud to contribute back to their favorite sports.
“We’re human beings even if people don’t treat us like it,” Roberts said. “And we’re proud. We want to do a good job.”