As basketball season comes to a close on the 2020-2021 season, I had the opportunity to think about some of the controversial officiating calls that defined the season.
The intentional foul called during the scramble for a loose ball on the floor with one minute left in overtime in the game matching up the New Castle Red Hurricane against the eventual Class 5A state champ, Erie Cathedral Prep. The technical foul called against Neshannock in the waning moments of the fourth quarter in the WPIAL Clas 3A semifinal game against Ellwood City and the no call in the final minute of the UConn-Baylor women’s game that sent UConn to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament.
I had the chance to sit down with Tony Court, who has been a basketball official for 36 years, to talk about officiating.
Court has officiated over 3,600 games at the high school and collegiate level during his career. He has officiated 11 WPIAL finals and two PIAA finals during his tenure. He also has called more than 10 finals at the collegiate level. Court has been inducted into Lawrence County, Beaver County and Pittsburgh Roundball Club Halls of fame.
And so here goes — enjoy.
Q. When is it appropriate to call a technical foul in a game?
A. I can count on one hand the number of technical fouls I’ve called in 36 years. The “T” should never be used as a weapon. Good officials can control the game without calling technical fouls. If a player is acting out or using vulgarity, my approach is to go to the coach and tell him “Take care of this player or if I have to do it — it won’t be pretty.” That usually takes care of the problem.
Q. What is your approach when officiating a championship game?
A. Only blow the whistle when the call is obvious. Charles “Ace” Heberling, (former Executive Director of the WPIAL) told me when I first started officiating to let the players decide the game. An official’s call on a 50-50 play should not be the deciding factor in the game. Even if there is contact, if the contact does not result in an obvious advantage to one team — don’t blow the whistle.
Q. What makes a good official?
A. His or her ability to understand the game. Having played the game and having a feel for the game is very helpful. Good officials work hard to get in position to make the calls. The crowd does not intimate good officials. A good official will use his voice to talk to the players instead of always using his whistle to control the game. A good official will allow the coach his/her say and answer his/her questions during the game.
Q. Is there a shortage of basketball officials in the WPIAL?
A. There isn’t a shortage of officials. But, only so many can do the big games. You want to make sure the officials doing the big games are all on the same page. You need experienced officials in the big games who can handle the players, coaches and crowd. The officials who do the big games know what and when to call it.
Q. As an assigner of officials the last three seasons, what do you look for in a young official?
A. I look for young officials who have passion, who are in great physical shape and who look the part. I look for young officials who know how to handle the players and the coaches so that at the end of the game there is a mutual respect between the players, coaches and officials.
Q. Does an experienced official know when one of the key players on the court has four fouls so that the next foul takes him out of the game?
A. Simply stated, yes. The game is better when the best players are on the floor. It has to be an obvious foul before I call the fifth foul and put one of the best players on the bench.
Q. Has it been tougher to officiate games during the COVID-19 season of 2020-2021?
A. Yes. In my opinion, it has been tougher to keep your focus without the crowd noise.
Q. Do you have any advice for young officials?
A. I would tell them what was told to me by Glenn “Dutch” Shample when I first started officiating at age 27. He told me to “Read the rule book and then throw it away.” That was great advice from a man who was widely respected as an official.
(Larry Kelly is a partner in the law firm of Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, www.lgkg.com, and a former sportswriter at The News. He also appears with New Castle News sportswriter Ron Poniewasz Jr. on the Gridiron and Tipoff podcasts).