It was my intent to write an appreciation piece directed at the many people who made my last couple of weeks as a high school varsity basketball official so special. But then I had one more chance to hit the floor, stripes on, whistle in mouth, at a very special tournament in Wenatchee. The Washington Special Olympics returned to the Apple Capital for the first time in four years, a temporary casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Athletes from all over Washington invaded the Wenatchee Valley for two days of Winter Games on the slopes, and other events in the gyms around Wenatchee proper and East Wenatchee. I don’t know the numbers, but I do know there were at least six area schools that hosted pods of teams. I was assigned to the main gym at Eastmont Junior High School.
It looked innocuous enough on the schedule. Five games spread across the entire day, a lunch break and a game break between games three and four. Twenty-minute halves, running time with the clock only stopping for called time outs.
Having a cup of coffee Saturday morning at my hotel with a couple of veterans of the event, I was assured that it would be fun, it would be low-key, and that there wouldn’t be much running. That sounded really good for my 66-year-old legs, still in fairly good condition given the 33 years of pounding up and down the floor, season No. 33 only a couple of weeks behind me.
I was more concerned with how I would interact with the athletes and how I would adjust my normal behaviors on the floor. I wanted to understand the context of the competition and try to come off as sensitive, non-authoritarian, and not too driven by the rules of the high school game.
I learned two things almost immediately after tossing the ball for the first game. First, my breakfast partners were possibly shining me on, as if I were a naïve and gullible rookie (which I was, actually), about the running thing. Second, several of the games I worked actually rose to the intensity and competitive nature of which I was already fairly acquainted. So, it didn’t take me very long to feel comfortable, and when one of the kids thanked me for calling a foul on him, I realized it might turn into a really fun and rewarding day.
While I have had many conversations over the past several weeks that have resulted in hugs, tears, smiles and lots of thank-yous, this was different. There was tangible joy in the competition, the competitors, coaches and event volunteers/workers that I haven’t often experienced. I’m not sure how the awards and trophies work into the equation because I wasn’t able to hang around on Sunday for the finals and awards.
Joy and enthusiasm
What I did see/feel/experience, beginning when I walked through the doors of the Town Toyota Center for the opening ceremonies on Friday night, was anticipation and enthusiasm as I wandered among the athletes and families in the main concourse area immediately inside the facility. There was a buzz that maybe rose to cacophony as they began to organize for the entry parade of athletes.
Then, as the athletes entered the floor of the arena, walking through a tunnel of honor formed by the current members of the Wenatchee Wild hockey team, I couldn’t help but be touched by the families waving and yelling from the seats of the horseshoe-shaped stadium. Groups of families, I assume, would take turns jumping up out of their seats, waving and yelling to capture the attention of their favorite walking by below us on the floor, and then the broad smile of recognition and the energetic response, a wave of the arms, or breaking out into a dance or other celebratory gesture like an airport terminal reunion. Agape love is the only term that comes to mind.
There had to be 500 participants, but I don’t know the full numbers. I don’t need to. There was only, really, one team with which I interacted that gave a tinker’s darn about winning. That team won both games I worked, and fairly easily, but the coaching staff also drew the wrath of the seasoned old veteran late in his fifth game of the day, receiving a bench warning for unsporting behavior that just didn’t seem to fit the flow, tone or purpose of the day.
The emphasis was clearly on playing for the love of the game. To be on the floor was the ice cream. To score a hoop was like the cherry and nuts on top of the sundae, unnecessary, yet tasty. To win? I’m not sure that for the vast majority, it even made a difference.
When that sixth game came up, the legs were tired, cramping (maybe a little), begging for mercy, and yet two more teams were taking to the floor for lay-ins and their second or third game of the day. Their partner players, mainstream high school and college-aged helpers and volunteers, were out on the floor with them helping them succeed. “Man, I’m tired,” I found myself thinking.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one of the 19 certified Washington Officials Association members feeling that way. I’m told by Crew Chief Craig Olson (from Tacoma) that we covered a total of 95 games over the two-day tournament.
I was inspired, and therefore driven. Many of these kids, mostly in their teens and early 20s, had worked so hard to get to this point it would have been lame, wimpy and selfish to step out. There was Scott, a young man with apparent Down Syndrome, who would park himself in the left corner of the court, just outside the three point arc. When he got the ball, which was frequently, he would launch it. He missed more than he made, but was always close. I had the pleasure of marking probably about 10 of his shots, and raising my arms at least three times to signal goal. I’m thinking there are a lot of high school, college and pro players who would settle for 30% from outside the arc.
After reffing Scott and his teammates, all I needed was another gulp of water, a bite of sandwich and the last half of a Grandma’s chocolate chip cookie and I was ready to go for another game. They fed me full on inspiration and determination.
For whatever reason, I had turned down 28 other opportunities to volunteer my skill and passion as a referee over the years. Some years it was to attend a state tournament in which Liberty Bell High School had qualified, or in which my son, Tim was an official, or we just wanted to go and watch. Several years we found ourselves at the Pac 12 women’s tournament in Seattle, one year we went to Las Vegas for the WCC tournament to see the Zags play. There was always a reason for not working the Special Olympics.
This year, it just didn’t make sense not to try out something new. I had run out of excuses, even with my beloved Cougs playing so well in the Pac 12 women’s tournament. I had always said Special Olympics was something I wanted to do. This year I did. It was transforming. It was inspirational. It was fun. I’m glad I did, and somewhat selfishly, I feel the need to do it again.