Back in December of 1976, I was sitting at the press table during a Syracuse-Maryland basketball game at Maryland. During a timeout, Hank Nichols -- one of the few officials in America whose name was known to veteran basketball fans, because he always seemed to be on television -- walked over to my coworker with the student newspaper and me during a timeout.
"See that guy a few rows back, who has been yelling at me tonight?" he asked.
We nodded, wondering where he was going with this.
"When Maryland plays an ACC game in here, there are 15,000 fans just like him."
We laughed, and then I asked, "Do you mind?"
Nichols replied, "Nah. That's what makes it fun."
Sometimes there are a handful, sometimes there are thousands. But when fans are watching a basketball game in which there are officials and a score, chances are very good that there will be fans yelling at the referees in nearly nonsensical fashion.
I guess I first really noticed this sort of behavior in high school. One of the parents of a junior varsity player was one of those loud fans who was sure that the referees hadn't made a good call in their lives. What's more, his son was at the age at which, as my friend Glenn described it, "Everything your parents do in public tends to embarrass you." That means that the son looked as if he wanted to dig a hole at the foul line whenever his dad called the ref "a knucklehead." By the way, the varsity games, which didn't include the son, also included some knucklehead officials.
Somewhere along the line after that, I'd like to think I learned some lessons about officials. They weren't going to see everything, and were bound to make the odd mistake. I just wanted them to know the rules, whether I was watching or playing. I remember one time in softball when my team was on the field, and there was a play at second base. "He's safe! He didn't make the tag!" yelled the umpire. I calmly said, "It was a force play." "Yer out!" the umpire replied.
The standards are higher when dealing with a game like college basketball that bar-league softball, in part because the stakes are higher. It would be nice if the refs were close to perfect every night. But the officials still have dozens of calls to make every game, and they seem to do the best they can.
This all came to mind Sunday when I went to see Canisius play Rider. I was sitting near the top of the seating, which isn't very high in the Koessler Center. Just down the row were three or four middle-aged men, who were straight out of the textbook. Every call that went against the home team was a bad one.
At one point a Rider player was trapped along the sideline by a couple of players. Suddenly, a Canisius player went flying. The problem was that none of the officials actually saw the contact, but they realized something had happened. At the next whistle, they walked over to a television monitor while my friends were yelling things like "You idiot!" The officials saw an elbow had been thrown by the Rider player, assessed a technical foul, and moved on with the game.
Whenever I'm around these people, who in theory are relatively mature adults, I wonder about them. Do they come from dead-end jobs in which they never have a chance to talk back to authority? Are they ex-basketball players who didn't play enough and are frustrated by that fact? Does sitting in some sort of crowd give them the chance to revert to the behavior of 12-year-olds? Is there any other authority figure or public office-holder who they would call an "idiot" during a chance meeting? (Now, I can think of a few who might deserve that title, but you'd show them a little respect during an actual meeting.)
I can appreciate their passion, and I know they are part of the landscape of the sport. Still, their puzzling behavior remains a constant of my basketball-watching life.