Commanding 'respect': Sights and sounds of a high school ref

Officer Jim Brooks got mic'd up to take us onto the court and into the locker room for a behind the scenes look at what it's really like to be a basketball referee. (Ulysses Munoz / BSMG)

As a Taneytown police officer, Jim Brooks is used to having some people like him and others not.

That's one aspect that translates to his part-time job of officiating high school boys and girls basketball around Carroll. There can be angry players, coaches and fans, but Brooks doesn't let that get to him.


"The biggest thing that combines the both is respect," Brooks said. "I treat people the way I want to be treated; same thing goes when you're out there refereeing on the floor. I don't get very excited, I just try to talk, be calm. I don't let the heat of the moment get to me.

"It's a lot like police work, you have to keep a calm, cool demeanor; it kind of works the same way."


Brooks has been working as a basketball official for quite a while. After growing up in Monrovia in Frederick County and moving to Taneytown 12 years ago to work for its police department, he has been officiating games in Carroll for the last 10 years.

But there's a lot to go through before Brooks ever steps on the basketball court to referee a game.

"Some people might think we just show up to the gymnasium and have a whistle and a cool-looking shirt and nice pair of shoes and run down the floor," Brooks said.

That's far from the case. To officiate a game in Maryland, the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association requires basketball referees to attend a rules interpretation meeting prior to the season that lasts more than a hour. They have to take a 100-question test every year and pass with at least a 75 percent.

And to officiate a game in the state playoffs, referees have to pass that test with a 90 percent and officiate at least 10 varsity games during the regular season.

On any given night, there's also much more going on than what coaches, players and spectators see.

The Times recently "mic'd up" Brooks for an entire night, following him and his crew as they officiated a recent Linganore-Westminster boys basketball game, to see what goes on behind the scenes from a referee's point of view.

Getting started

Brooks sits in the stands during the fourth quarter of the junior varsity game, along with fellow officials Mike Calkins and Keith Reitenbach, his co-workers for that night.

Referees are asked to arrive an hour before their game. About 30 minutes prior to tipoff, the three officials retreat to the athletic office at Westminster High School to prepare for that night's matchup.

Brooks goes into the locker room, changes into his referee outfit, and does some pre-game stretching.

"Every game I get excited for," Brooks said. "There's not one game I come to a gym that I'm not excited for. I really enjoy doing this. I tell people if you're doing this for the money, you're doing it for the wrong reason. I do it just to stay active in the community and referee some good basketball."


Once Brooks, Calkins and Reitenbach are dressed and limbered up, they have a sheet to go over to serve as reminders for officiating games. This includes information on the rules differences between boys and girls basketball.

The referee crew also goes over the specific matchup it is officiating that night, with anything particular to look for between those two teams.

"If you have a rivalry game, obviously the intensity's going to be ramped up and you're going to have players being a little more physical," Brooks said. "If you have a game that is trending a little more toward sedentary, teams playing a lot of zone defense, you're not going to have a lot of moving parts."

On this night, it's a rare non-county matchup late in the season. Linganore enters with only one loss. Westminster is coming off its biggest win of the season the night before, a victory at Winters Mill, but faces a challenge in the Lancers.

This was also a game that was rescheduled because of an earlier postponement caused by snow. As teams are working to make up all of their games before the playoffs start, the referees are also feeling the effects of the make-up dates.

"I was scheduled four nights this week," Reitenbach said.

Brooks, Calkins and Reitenbach make their way out onto the court roughly 10 minutes before tipoff.

It's time for that night's work to begin.

Smooth sailing

The officials enter the gym at Westminster and go to midcourt, where they briefly meet with the teams' captains and go over expectations for the night.

Brooks walks over to the scorer's table and takes off his jacket. He's in charge of the opening tipoff, so he soon takes the ball following the national anthem and heads to midcourt.

On many nights, Brooks might have to hear complaints from the crowd. There's almost always a fan displeased with nearly every call.

"They paid their money," Brooks said. "I can't say it enough, it's for the kids. Our job's out there. I'm not here to worry about what the parents think. I'm here to referee what I see."

In this game, there aren't many upset fans. Linganore scores the first 20 points of the game against Westminster and takes a 47-21 lead into the break at halftime.

But it's not all easy for the officiating crew. The Lancers play an up-tempo style. In Westminster High's athletic office at halftime, Brooks grabs some water bottles for his partners and they discuss the first 16 minutes of play.

"They say a two-man game is normally three miles," Calkins said. "So a three-person game is probably about the same, I would think, because we're constantly moving."

Brooks likes it that way. He enjoys officiating a game that requires him to get a bit of a workout.

"You almost feel like it's paid exercise because you're constantly moving," Brooks said.

The rest of the game is smooth for this crew. Linganore finishes off a 76-37 win in a game that barely lasts more than an hour, a quick night of work for the officials.

Postgame debriefing

After the game is over, Brooks typically sits down with his co-workers and discusses any issues that may have arisen.

"Everyone here takes great pride in what we do and that's what excites me is when I know I come to a site," Brooks said, "I know I'm going to work with guys that really, really, really care about the game and want to put forth 100-percent effort because no one came here to see us, they came here to see the kids."

There were a few double whistles during the game — when two referees make a call at the same time — which isn't uncommon when there's a three-man crew. All that means is that communication is important so that the officials are calling the same thing on the play.

Brooks said on this night, the crew had a few clarifications they had to make to players, Westminster coach Brett Kanther and Linganore coach Tom Kraft. But he says everything was respectful and nothing ever came close to getting out of hand.

"I thought both teams played really well, left us out it for the most part," Brooks said. "Refereeing is call what you see and explain what you don't call, and I think each of us had a couple of those to the coaches, which is part of communicating."

And even though it wasn't one of the most competitive games this season, Brooks added that it's important to not lose focus.


"You referee until the end," Brooks said. "Just because the score is one way or the other, you don't stop calling fouls, you don't stop protecting the players, you don't stop doing your job. Because if that ever happens, you lose control of the game very fast and if that happens, you're not doing a justice to the kids."

All in a day's work

On this night, Brooks is heading home, his work for the day over. But most times, his day is just beginning.

After officiating a game, Brooks goes to Taneytown where he works the night shift for the police department beginning at 9. He works until 7 a.m., goes home to put his three kids on the school bus, and won't go to sleep until 8:30 or 9 in the morning.

"I've been doing it for 12 years now," Brooks said. "I'm not ever going to say it's routine, but it's easy."

That's his schedule for the following night, when another boys game awaits for Brooks to officiate between Randallstown and Winters Mill.

Brooks said he isn't sure how long he'll keep being a referee. His oldest son is about to start at Francis Scott Key High School in the fall. And if he plays JV basketball, it'll make it hard for Brooks to officiate as many varsity games around the county as he travels to watch his son play.

But for now, he enjoys it, providing high school athletes with the officiating and respect he feels they deserve. And when Brooks is around town, he enjoys the interactions with those who recognize him.

"A lot of the folks there in the FSK community, they see me and they talk with me," Brooks said. "I see them at the local restaurants, I see them in downtown, they say, 'Hi,' 'Good game,' 'You had a rough game,' it's all in good fun."

Brooks enjoys basketball more than any other sport — it's what he grew up playing and is the only one that he officiates. And he enjoys serving the community, and all of the other aspects that come with being a referee.

But what brings the Taneytown resident back year after year isn't those things, but rather the people he gets to interact with on a nightly basis.

"When I first came here, I was wet behind the ears. I was the new guy and I'd always ask questions. I'd go, 'Hey, what do you got for me?' I was never afraid to take criticism, because no one's perfect," Brooks said.

"I really enjoy who I referee with. I haven't had a partner yet who I would not work with again. It's a good group of guys."



Recommended on Baltimore Sun