COMMENTARY: Life of zebra not for everyone


So if you have some free time in the evening — or if you’re like Madonna, “The Rock” or Betty White and are looking to reinvent yourself — you always can become a high school basketball official.

You will need to be in good physical shape, have a fine understanding of the rules, have a skin thicker than a rhinoceros, always be on the lookout for three seconds because “54’s had his big butt in there all night long!” and — this is important — always have your shoes shined to a high-gloss finish. Like a Marine in dress blues.

It is around 4:45 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, and I’m sitting with InFini Robinson, 31, in the bleachers at Centennial High School, and we’re catching up on things. Because the next-to-last time I saw her, she was leading the Lady Rebels to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament championship game in Omaha, Neb. That was years ago.

The last time I saw her, she was on the lookout for three seconds in a boys varsity basketball game. Now she’s crew chief for Crew 5, one of the top zebras in the Southern Nevada Officials Association, a certified women’s hoops official in the Pac-12, Mountain West, West Coast Conference and the Big Sky. She’s become the female Darell Garretson.

We’re watching the girls varsity game — earlier we had been watching the boys junior varsity game, because as crew chief, that’s part of her responsibility, too — and when I ask what she’s looking for from her fellow officials, she says for starters, she’s looking that shoes are shined, that hair is trimmed and neat.

And when I ask if she is serious, she says she is dead serious. To achieve respect, one first must earn it. With a basketball official, it’s a head-to-toe thing.


It is Sunday, nine days before the Bishop Gorman-Centennial boys game, around 4:45 p.m. I’m at an auditorium at Durango High School, and it’s cold and dank inside the auditorium because it’s Sunday, and they don’t turn up the heat on Sunday.

Though the day’s wild-card playoffs still are being decided, I am surrounded by dozens of zebras. Perhaps even a couple of hundred. The SNOA has these meetings regularly, and they are mandatory. A percentage of them, anyway.

Official business is discussed. And officials’ business. Rules and points of emphasis, because the people who make the rules insist there be points of emphasis. Today, the point of emphasis is communicating with coaches during games. Apparently there’s been feedback the officials don’t do this enough.

I’m sitting off to the right side of the chilly auditorium next to an older official named John Turzer. He’s the one who invited me. He has a shock of gray hair and wears glasses.

I wonder how many times he has been told he needs new ones.

In front of the stage, Scott Johnson, a SNOA alumnus now calling blocking and charging fouls in the NBA D-League, and Anthony Lewis, instructional chairman for the basketball officials, are play acting. Johnson is a referee who has just called a charge. Lewis is a coach who thinks it should have been blocking.

Lewis comes at Johnson in myriad ways. Johnson handles each situation with dexterity and dignity.

He has the experience. He is imparting some of it on those who aspire to be like him.

I leave the chilly auditorium thinking there’s much more to being a high school basketball official than I originally thought.
 

In the coaches’ office before the Gorman-Centennial game, InFini Robinson and her partners, a former baseball player from upstate New York named Tim Resch and Sam Gibson, a former Air Force staff sergeant, are preparing.

It’s not exactly an ideal setting. Snack-sized packs of Cheez-It crackers and Famous Amos cookies are on the shelves. Charlie Cerrone, the Centennial baseball coach, is teasing Crew 5 about how Gorman usually gets all the calls. If there was a Glade PlugIn, it stopped working a long time ago.

Out the big glass window, I can see Grant Rice, the Gorman coach, going over X’s and O’s on a long bench by the showers. Inside the coaches’ office,  Robinson is drawing basketball plays on a grease board, too. Just to remind her partners about where they should be in certain situations.

Rice is going over his scouting report; the officials are going over theirs. These are two excellent teams, they say. Centennial has the twins (Marcus and Malcolm Allen, who have signed with Stanford). Gorman is Gorman. It’s gonna be played above the rim. Good teams. Big game. Let’s be patient. Let’s let ’em play awhile.

There’s a muffled roar from inside the gymnasium where the Centennial and Gorman girls are hooping it up. It’s a good game, Robinson says. You can tell from the crowd, that roar. It’s going to go down to the wire. Maybe even overtime. Lot of timeouts.

Resch is ready to go now. He’s just downed a 5-hour ENERGY shot, as is his custom. “I’m ready to referee some basketball!” he shouts, jumping up and down.

Robinson sits on an old chair and begins to shine her shoes.


The Southern Nevada Officials Association was formed in 1951. Marc Ratner, who was the side judge at the 2000 Independence Bowl played in Shreveport, La., Texas A&M vs. Mississippi State in an unforgettable blizzard, has been commissioner since 1991.

Ratner says the SNOA has 250 basketball officials, more than 700 altogether. It could use more. This week, there are 70 region playoff games with slots for 168 referees. That’s a lot of blocking and charging fouls that could go either way.

“You have to have a desire to be an official,” Ratner says. “Come to meetings, learn the mechanics. No experience is necessary, but it’s not for everybody.”

It doesn’t pay well, either. InFini Robinson, Tim Resch and Sam Gibson received $49 each to listen to Grant Rice and his staff complain about three seconds not being called. (Grant Rice, from what I can tell, is a lot more demonstrative on the bench than his brother Dave, who coaches the UNLV basketball team.)

There is no per diem, no complimentary pregame meal. If you live in Henderson and are assigned a game at Centennial, it’s like a 40-mile drive. Maybe you can cop a bag of Cheez-Its when Charlie Cerrone isn’t looking.

Maybe if you’re like Robinson (“absolutely one of the best,” Ratner says) or Johnson, you’ll move up to the colleges soon, or to the D-League.

Tre Maddox, another SNOA alumnus, made it all the way, to the NBA. He wears the silhouette of Jerry West on the front of his shirt, No. 73 on back.
 

The game between Centennial and Gorman was as good as advertised. Centennial led most of the way; Gorman pulled away in the end as Gorman does. The crowd was loud, totally into it. If Crew 5 missed three seconds on either end, then so did I. Crew 5 had as good a game as the Allen twins and Stephen Zimmerman, Gorman’s 7-foot center.

And yet the game wasn’t over two minutes before Kim Leong, another official, pulled out her iPhone. She had spent the game typing notes into it. Let the inquisition begin.

“What did you have at 6:30? What about at 4:47, on that intentional foul? At 2:20, you called block; I thought it might have been charge.”

And so on. If other people were as thorough about getting it right as the SNOA basketball officials, you almost never would get French fries when you asked for onion rings.

Leong even pointed out that before the game, when Resch and Gibson took their jackets off, Robinson left hers on.

“Well, you were the one who told me,” Leong said, and then the coaches’ office at Centennial High School was filled with the sound of zebras laughing.

Three days later, I was at the Foothill gym, where the Foothill boys were playing Eldorado in a junior varsity game. It was raining outside. Cold and dank, like the auditorium at Durango. Not counting parents and cheerleaders and biology teachers, there might have been eight people in the stands.

I don’t remember who won, only that when John Turzer left the court, his shoes still were shining.