by Lachlan Ross

December 16, 2013 (ISN) – Bill Crowley’s brother loves telling the story of that jump ball. Crowley was wedged between seven-foot-one Shaquille O’Neal and seven-foot-six Yao Ming like a tourist in Redwood Forest. From five-foot-six most basketball players look big, but this may have been the closest Crowley came to Hobbit-sized.

It was his first game of the 1994 Basketball World Championships in Toronto. The Second U.S. Dream Team took on China in front of 10,000 people. As Crowley crouched to toss the ball up, his brother turned to his Dad in the stands and said, “How the hell is he ever going to get the ball up between those two guys?” Sports officials are often overlooked, but from two-feet below Yao’s line of sight, this instance was more apparent than usual.

As if trying to control Shaq and Shawn Kemp wasn’t enough, Crowley was proudly officiating a high profile game close to his hometown. This meant his father could watch him referee for the first time ever. Buzzed basketball fans booing each call, NBA egos everywhere, and trying to impress your Dad? That’s a lot more pressure than I faced as a junior basketball ref, and I only lasted a couple of months.

Jump balls are a tough task for officials to perform consistently. This is one of the reasons the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) took jumps out of game play – other than the opening tip – in 2003. Many officials spend hours practicing their toss and Crowley used to do it beneath a basketball hoop, throwing the ball up through the basket without it touching the rim. Due to this practice, Crowley got the ball up between Shaq and Yao, the U.S. beat China by 45 points, Shaq won a gold medal and MVP of the tournament, and now the Crowley family has a story to recite at Christmas.

Sitting in a Victoria, B.C., mall food court, Crowley displays the same calm demeanor that saw him through games. Three seasons after hanging up the whistle at 63, it’s been 19 years since that jump ball. Crowley is now in his 12th year as Coordinator of Officials for Canada West University basketball and is in town for work – but it’s not basketball that brings him to the Island. He sports a black vest with a stitched Husqvarna logo from his day job selling chainsaws and power tools. Covering Vancouver Island, the Sunshine Coast, and the Lower Mainland for the company, he only donned the black sleeved, pale grey referee uniform on nights and weekends. By day he is a Territory Manager.

This is the case for almost all basketball officials in the world. Other than NBA referees – who earn between $150,000 and 550,000 a year – most have day jobs and it was the flexibility of Crowley’s salesman career that allowed him to pursue the whistle.

The food court is chaotic and crowded with an after school rush, but it’s easy to keep eye contact with Crowley. His 40-plus years in sales likely aid his ability to keep the customer’s attention – it’s clear he’s a strong storyteller.

As a college basketball player in the British Columbian Collegiate Athletics Association, the bitter athlete in me wants to say all referees are just out there to call fouls and slow the play – but I know this isn’t the case. Even amidst a high-intensity, stressful game, you can see the officials smile while communicating a call to the coach, or in a half court huddle with their partners to discuss a play. They are as excited to be suited up as the players.

Crowley has that same smile when he speaks of his career and my fanatic gravitation to anything basketball pulls me in. I listen harder than my voice recorder – its red light flickers and reflects off his glasses.

“It’s a cult. It’s pretty cool,” he says and I see some memories spark behind those thin maroon Adidas frames. I learn each crew has their own watering hole they head to after games and that officials are pretty critical of themselves and each other. “I don’t believe the general public understands how much time and effort and money the good officials spend in trying to make themselves better.”

Officials take hours breaking down game tapes to look at their performance. This is similar to how coaches at the college, university, and professional level show players game footage to improve their play. But this has only been available for the past five years. Before game tapes were used, it was just a supervisor sitting in the stands to provide postgame locker room feedback.

What I find interesting is that much like my college team’s tape sessions once a week, it isn’t the success of the play on tape that counts. For a player, making the shot in that section of footage isn’t usually why the coach shows it – it’s about positioning. This is the same for officials – they don’t dwell on whether or not the correct call was made on that play. They look to see if their positioning could have been better to see it unfold. Just like running an offensive set as a player, officials have designated places on the court they should be when the ball moves around. I wonder if someone yells at them the way coaches shout at us for being in the wrong spot. Oh right, the entire crowd.

I remember standing by the sideline, a cheap plastic whistle fighting the force of my clamped teenage teeth. One of the ten-year-old boys went for a layup and missed. My little black whistle screamed. As I trotted over toward the score table, slim fingers raised to indicate the offender’s number, loud laughter came from the spectator bench. “You’ve got to be kidding, mate,” or something borderline abusive was shouted in my direction. I assumed it was the offender’s Dad. We made momentary eye contact then mine darted – with the rest of my body – to safety on the far side of the court. I tugged at my tucked black and white striped shirt and watched the boy shoot free throws. I chewed on my chipped whistle. I knew I’d made a bad call.

My stint of junior basketball officiating only lasted a couple of months – for $8 a game it wasn’t worth it. I found it easier being the player criticizing calls, than the striped target taking abuse from over-involved parents. But Crowley, who has probably had an earful from several thousand people at once, is in the British Columbia Basketball Hall of Fame and assures me it’s been worth it wearing the whistle.

I ask if he remembers his all-time worst call.

“Oh my God, there were so many of them,” he says with a long laugh. “I’ve made lots of bad foul calls, where I’ll make a call and then say to myself, ‘What a shitty call that was’ and I may even go to the player and say, ‘That was a bad call.'”

I think back to footage from a Uruguayan pro league. A huge player – about 6-foot-8 of muscle – punched the referee after a foul he disagreed with. The other team circled the unconscious referee – who would remain that way for three hours – fanning him with their jerseys like a napping emperor to revive him. The player was banned from the league for life and the official underwent emergency surgery to save the vision in his left eye. I wonder if a quick chat with that player earlier in the game could have prevented it.

Crowley recalls his most controversial moment on court coming in a Canadian men’s college national semi-final played at BCIT in the late 80’s. Dawson College from Quebec was down one point to a local B.C. college, when one of the B.C. players drove to the basket and was fouled. Crowley called it a shooting foul and the Dawson coach was irate, claiming the foul was before the shot. After a long argument with Crowley, the coach pulled his team off the floor. The instant all Dawson players stepped over the sideline, Crowley turned to the score table and said, ‘Start the 30-second clock,’ meaning they had 30-seconds to return to the court before forfeiting the game. “There was an immediate reaction to that,” he says. “They came back on the floor.”

In the NBA – and now also the NCAA (American college league) – officials have the ability to pause the game and re-watch plays from a monitor at the scorer’s table. These replays are often used to decide an out of bounds call where two players have touched the ball in quick succession. Most sports worldwide are adopting technology to aid officials. Crowley compares the basketball monitors to “bang, bang” catch and tag plays at first base in baseball or a football receiver getting two feet in bounds before stepping out on a catch.

He says the more tools officials have available to help them see plays on the floor, the better. “The whole concept of officiating is to put yourself in the best possible position to make a decision, and that’s for basketball, football, anything.” Replays on the monitor often show officials were correct on their initial decision, but knowing that mistakes do happen, being able to override the call is a valuable tool.

While some people are cynical of slowing game play to re-watch calls, Crowley retorts, “You talk to coaches or players or officials and you give them two choices: do you think it’s most important to get the call right or wrong? If watching the tape means they’re going to get it right, then that’s what we want.” Officials are there to serve the athletes in an unbiased nature, he adds. “I think replays can only serve to make the game better.”

The NBA sets their officials to a minimum standard of 92-percent efficiency on their calls. “You’re never going to be right all the time, it’s impossible,” says Crowley. “But if you could shoot 92-percent, you’d be a pretty good player, wouldn’t you?”

We both laugh. He admits at times in a game it was hard to keep concentration and he would talk to himself when he found his mind wandering, saying, Come on, Crowley, get back in the game. But he is adamant that he was never distracted by the caliber of play or awestruck by the players he officiated – even when he refereed Michael Jordan. “Once the ball went up, I was there to do a job.”

Generally people that have played the game have the highest chance to succeed as a referee, but his career defies that. Crowley never played basketball. He watched his Dad – a major junior hockey referee in Ontario – as a kid, but never dreamed of becoming an official of any kind. Crowley became a referee at 18. A friend was headed to a basketball meeting and Crowley had nothing better to do so tagged along. He left the meeting with a new career plan.

After a move to Edmonton in 1974 allowed him to referee more basketball, Crowley headed further west to British Columbia in the late 1970’s. The opportunity came to referee the AA High School Girls Championships in Penticton, where he was awarded the final game. Canadian basketball officiating legend – unknown to Crowley at the time – John Arthur “Wink” Willox saw the game and offered him a job refereeing UBC, SFU, and UVIC – better known as the “Canada West” conference.

As higher games were given to him, Crowley called university playoffs and finals, until in 1984, Canada Basketball nominated him for an international FIBA license – the ultimate officiating job in the country. As a FIBA qualified official, Crowley could referee Olympics, World Championships, and any other international competitions. This involved trips to tournaments abroad once a year – all expenses paid – and a flat rate FIBA fee of US$1,500 per competition no matter how many games he officiated. More importantly, it meant running with the best players around.

To date, there has still never been a Canadian NBA official. The most common way to become one is to attend camps that are usually in conjunction with the NBA Summer League. Referees who are interested are either invited or can just show up at the chance of getting a spot. While Crowley conquered the international basketball scene, he never chose to pursue a career at basketball’s big show. “The NBA is a pretty tight knit group,” he says. International officials rarely – if ever – make the league. He was content to experience the passion and play of international stars and spectators.

Greek flags flew everywhere as Crowley walked up the College Station subway staircase onto Carlton Street. He had taken the train from his Royal York Hotel to Maple Leaf Gardens that day to have some time alone – a chance to prepare for tipoff. But those white and blue flags streaming past from car windows, flaunted on painted fan’s faces, and stitched into jerseys around the street made it tough. Toronto was wired with the 1994 basketball World Championships in town. Greece was playing Puerto Rico in the final game of the first round. But with the winner advancing to easier opponents and the loser headed for a “death group” with Russia and the US Dream Team both countries needed the victory.

Back by his hometown of Peterborough, Ontario – just an hour and a half outside Toronto – two days earlier the Peterborough paper had interviewed Crowley for a story about the return of their star basketball referee. As one of the top Canadian Interuniversity Sports (CIS) basketball referees, he whistled games in the Canada West division and south of the border in the NCAA, as well as around the world.

The game ended up going to overtime and in a timeout Crowley again stood still – eyes wide. He says it was an out of body experience – Greek flags fluttering, everybody cheering. He was overwhelmed. There are no guidelines for officials on how to overcome the pressures of big games. Just like players, becoming calm amongst the chaos is learned with experience. Crowley’s senior official, Wieslaw “Ziggy” Zych of Poland – who had been in the position before – placed a hand on his shoulder and said, “Everything’s going to be fine.”

While there have been many on-court achievements for Crowley, one of his proudest accomplishments is the work he has done as Coordinator of Officials for Canada West. This is a job that involves more than 700 hours between mid September and March, assigning officials to games and ensuring the league runs smoothly. When he first formed a panel in the Canada West conference 12 years ago, he says there were two things assured: officials were male and almost all over 40. The only way anybody else would get a chance to referee was if you died, he jokes. It was a big clique. When Crowley took the position, he told the officials at a pre-season meeting that the season would continue as any other, but at the end of that first year he would reassess. Now in the Canada West conference, there are 27 female officials out of 100 – a statistic he is proud of – and a lot of young referees.

“Why do they do it?” I ask him.

Sure, officiating around the world and running the floor with NBA and Olympic heroes has been great for Crowley, but for the rest of the refs in Canada what is the major draw?

“There is a segment of officials that do it for the money,” he says, “which is the wrong reason of course. Because if you’re looking to get rich as a basketball official you’re not making very intelligent decisions.” One hundred dollars per game for a CIS referee is a nice bonus, but still isn’t anywhere near enough to make a living. He also says there is a small segment of officials who enjoy power, “but they get rooted out pretty quickly.”

Some officials say coaches will come up to them after a game and tell them it was the best officiating their team has had all year. “I’m not big on that,” says Crowley. “Good on the coach, but I don’t think we’re standing around looking for ‘atta boys’ after the game.” Crowley tells me the ultimate goal for most referees is to be recognized by their peers. “You’re never going to referee a perfect game, that’s not going to happen. But if you can leave the floor with your crew and feel, truthfully within yourself, ‘we were okay tonight,’ I think that’s probably all we’re asking for.”

At the European men’s Olympic qualifying in 1992, Crowley attended as a neutral referee, meaning that Canada wasn’t participating. “The level of play there was unbelievable,” he says, remembering a semi-final featuring Croatia. This was the first year Croatia had played as an independent country and their team featured the European Michael Jordan, Dražen Petrović. Remembered as one of the greats, Petrović was a fierce competitor. Crowley tells me this didn’t finish with his opponents.

“I’ve refereed so much internationally,” he says, “that I know when I’m being sworn at in a foreign language, and Dražen Petrović two or three times in a row turned to me after a call and called me something unkind in Yugoslavian.”

When players lined up to shoot free throws, Crowley stepped into the key right up to Chicago Bulls star Toni Kukoč telling him, ‘The next time that number four calls me a son of a bitch, I’m going to throw him out of the game,’ in English. Petrović didn’t say another word.

While sports fans often overlook an official’s workload, I think one of the aspects we take for granted the most is dealing with people. Much of a successful referee’s job isn’t just making the big calls or being in the right position on every play, it’s controlling the court – the players and the coaches. Whether that involves admitting the call was wrong, getting tough with an out of line coach, or talking to a player’s teammate to keep order, these are the characteristics that define success in the stripes and sneakers.

“Every time we blow our whistle only fifty percent of people think we’re right,” says Crowley from the food court table. It’s time for him to get back on the road and me to get to basketball practice. “Our job is to sell ourselves and sell that we’ve made the correct call. Ultimately officials are sales people.”