I’m wrong, but that doesn’t make the refs right.
by Matt Caputo
Last night, I got thrown out of a basketball game in the second quarter. I’d like to apologize to our team, everyone in the organization, our great fans and especially the parents of my players, all of whom I’ve always felt profound support from. Frankly, I know that receiving a double technical, being thrown out of a game and calling a ref a “F—— J——“ (all before halftime) isn’t why they put me in charge of their son’s team. Being thrown out, swearing, and having a nasty dialogue with the ref is not the way to conduct yourself. Ultimately, it’s never what the officials do that decides any game. It’s what we do as a team and how we react to the game’s changes as a group that determines wins and losses. But, I do understand that my actions weren’t acceptable behavior for any situation.
“Part of the reason we’ve been successful is because there are certain standards of how we’re going to behave that go with everything we do,” my brother, George Mason assistant coach, Chris Caputo once told ESPN.com. “If you don’t meet those standards, there are going to be consequences. Coach always talks about attitude, commitment and first-class. And punching someone in the nuts is not a first-class way of doing things.”
Knowing that, this is journalism after all and since I’m clear of a hefty fine, I’m free to speak about the incident a little. We were playing in the first round of a tournament game at a neutral site. Mind you, I’m coaching 9th graders and that’s pretty much as close to grown men as our sanctioning body allows. In the first half–my only half–one referee stood under our basket and hardly blew the whistle at all. We were fouled a few times and he missed the calls, we were getting hammered near the basket, but that’s going to happen. It’s basketball. I can deal with it in pick-up games, and I am more than happy to deal with it as a coach–it’s my job, in fact. But the same ref then traveled to half court when my team was on defense and called three weak hand check calls against us about a mile from the basket. All of this, I could handle.
But, believe it or not, it was a call that the referee didn’t make against my own team that got me the most bent out of position. After a rough battle for a rebound, I think the opposing center—who had a great game—might have given our best player an elbow. I am positive, however, I saw our guy take a swing at the kid. The ref called some regular foul and tried to talk tough to my guy instead of giving both guys techs and clean up what was a sloppy, physical game that was filled with trash talk from the jump. After the attempted slug and the obnoxious post call taunts were ignored, the ref came back down the court and made his fourth cheap hand check call of the game and the second in about three and a half minutes. Right about there—I lost it.
I’m not exactly sure what I said, but after he hit me with the first one, I figured “What the heck, I might as well go all out” and I got my second technical in three seconds. I watched the rest of the game through the glass windows of the front of the gym as my players pointed their fingers at me as we regained the lead and ultimately won the game in the second half. After the game, the opposing coach shook my hand and said, “Don’t worry Coach, it came back to hurt me.”
I don’t hate the ref. I didn’t mean what I said and, really, I’m not mad at the dude at all. He had a job to do and, even though he was selective in doing it last night, part of his job was to throw me out of the game for sure. I would have shaken his hand, but he got out of the gym real fast after the final buzzer. I’ll reiterate, however, the whole thing, at least on my end was barely personal. Honestly, I just didn’t want to see things get out of hand. It was something bigger.
Earlier in the year, we played our first home game after scheduling conflicts and errors cost us three of about our first six games—all of which were on the road. As we have great fan support, the gym was packed with parents, friends and kids on other teams within our program. We played a rival from the other end of the same street we are from. Their supporters made up a decent amount of the crowd as well. I was wearing a suit, so, I was already dressed for a circus.
We started the game with only one ref, and I’m pretty sure it was his first weekend on the job. The warm-ups were prolonged to begin with and since there was football on, I’d guess that some of the of-age people in the audience had already been drinking before our early evening game. There was tension building during the pregame prayer and handshake.
The ref let a ton of trash talking go, and it became a really physical game. When the second ref got there, they had us behind 5-1 in fouls in the third quarter. They fouled out our best player with three minutes to go on a weak block call. After a while, kids on both teams were speaking back to everyone who had anything to do with the game. Parents and other spectators were going over the line a bit too. We managed to escape the game with a three-point victory.
In the middle of the handshake about 60 people just all started pushing, shoving, cursing, confronting and spitting at each other. Several members on the other team seemed to have a particular bone to pick with one of our redheaded back-up point guard. I gathered nearly every kid in our program in our locker room and waited a half hour before I let them go home. A woman threatened that she was going to call the cops. My assistant coach, SLAM street team king, Ben Tifa, and I just got our team safe, but the parents were still going at it. The start of the next game was delayed because the court just was not clearing. An inch in any direction, in the neighborhood we were in, someone could have gotten really hurt. It got scary. Scary because, a simple technical foul and the smallest attempt at restoring order probably would have saved us the whole experience. I wasn’t thrown out that night, but if it could have spared us the Royal Rumble, it would have been worth it.
My point is that, referees have the power to squash beef on the court more than any other participant. The coaches can’t get both teams to do what they think is right; therefore, the referee must be the middle man. I understand it is a second job for many guys—an easy way to pick up a few bucks—but it’s still commissioned work and if you do because you love basketball and want to be a part of it. For me, the greatest part in working with the kids is trying to help them understand how to do the right thing. Last night was not the best example of how I illustrate that, but at this point, I was pretty desperate to make a statement about how the refs are calling these games.
“When Reggie Miller and Michael Jordan fought in the 90s, it was a whole back-and-forth thing that just escalated and exploded,” said former NBA player, Sean Green, when I called him on the subject. The former Iona College star was fined $2,500 just for standing up during Reggie and Mike’s scuffle. “The refs could have stepped in and stopped it before all of that, but things got out of hand.”
At younger ages, there is a lot more room for the officials to skate. But high school kids don’t like each other and often—much more often than people think, I guess—if they feel threatened, they’re going to fight. And if that’s not bad enough, it will cause havoc off the court.
“Often it is the case that things got out of control on the court,” says SLAM contributor, Clay Kallam, who has refereed both boys’ and girls’ varsity high school ball. “That’s why coaches like to see experienced officials. They may make bad calls, they may be a little older, might not be able to run up and down the court, but they’re going to recognize the potential in a situation. Younger officials tend to let more stuff go and that creates the rough play that leads to fighting.”
Earlier this month, the brother of Providence College guard Jeff Xavier, walked onto the court to confront a ref after no foul was called on a play that broke his brother’s nose. Jonathan Xavier, who was already on probation, served 16 days in jail for coming on the court and faced disorderly conduct charges. While, I felt for Xavier, who was fouled and didn’t the call, Xavier’s brother’s presence on the court solved nothing and ultimately did way more harm than good.
Ten days ago, a high school basketball game in Alabama turned into an all-out fight club and it’s been captured all over the Internet. The fight broke out during the fourth quarter of the Class 5A regional semifinal at Alabama State University. The Associated press reported that the Alabama High School Athletic Association hit George Washington Carver High School with a $2,600 fine and banned the school from playing in any tournaments in 2009. Valley High was fined $3,900 for its role in the melee and the association said the school could face additional penalties.
We play sports, especially club sports, to help develop certain values and a sense of right and wrong. Besides being for competition, kids play sports to better understand how to interact with each other. Like few other sports, basketball brings together people from all walks of life. It puts groups of people in the same room that would often have no reason to be together and there is something great about that. But the game is the ultimate equalizer. It’s a language they can all decipher and if it’s not respected, it can easily get lost.
The reason there is a ref, is to have someone preserving the principals of the game, not ignoring them. Besides showing a lack of respect for the rules, it turns the game into an all out shitshow and worse, an excuse for senseless violence. Not that I can’t appreciate violence—I like boxing, hockey and MMA too much for that—but I don’t confuse one with the other. I want to coach basketball games, not karate exhibitions.
None of what I’ve said above is a good (or any other kind of) excuse for why I was thrown out of the game last night. But, hopefully, it will explain why I was mad. If you don’t like it, you can go F— yourself.