It's not easy to take your pants off in the driver's seat of a 1999 Nissan Altima. But for some reason, that's what I chose to do on a cold, January morning, in the parking lot of a local suburban high school. Relax, the lot was pretty much empty -- except for one beat-up station wagon that belonged to the janitor -- and I wasn't so much taking OFF my pants as I was CHANGING them. You see, I had just purchased a fresh pair of nylon black track pants, because I, my good friends, am a 6th grade girls basketball ref.
There are few jobs in the world more thankless than being a ref. Friend to no one, enemy to all, wearer of ridiculous all-black sneakers. You never really get used to the outfit, going out in public looking like a loon, but you do it anyway, because you respect the game (and are desperate to make a little extra cash to keep your wife off your back).
Saturday was the opening day of the season and I arrived at my destination 45 minutes ahead of time. I did this partially because I grew up being late to everything, leading me to become a very punctual adult, but mostly because I wanted to give myself plenty of time to take a pregame smash.
Anyone who has ever showed up to a public school on a Saturday morning, when the wind is howling and ice covers the walk, knows that you never choose the right door to enter in on your first attempt. It's impossible. Pull the handle, locked. Go to the next one, locked. Then panic starts to creep in, and you try another, C'MON, and another, WHAT, and then you start to wonder if you're even at the right place. Is there an auxiliary gym? What time does this start? But then eventually one opens and the heat hits your face and all is right in this stupid, cruel world.
I was lucky enough to get in on my third try, and then quickly found a boys bathroom emptier than a cave (one of the benefits of reffing girls instead of boys). There, I handled my business and sent a few tweets, and after tucking in my shirt and testing out my whistle, I walked toward the gym with the sound of pounding basketballs guiding the way.
As game time approached, the players trickled in. One by one, they showed up with their parents, with basketballs bigger than their heads. Most wore fancy new sneakers -- a lot of Nike Kevin Durant's -- and those super-duper-padded socks, the $16 Nike jawns with the dotted lines on the heel that every mustachioed Delco teenager asked for this Christmas. One girl practiced doing splits at midcourt.
Meanwhile, I did some light stretching (which was pretty much unnecessary) while yucking it up with the kid at the scorer's table. In charge of the scoreboard that day was 14-year-old Max, a little guy who had a giant cowlick on the back of his head, making it obvious that his mom had just woke him up. He was a nice enough kid (his hair was honestly incredible) even though he had those weird colored braces that no parent should ever let their child wear. Max told me about his friend Kyle who was supposed to do the book, but he couldn't come because he had the flu, or was in Maine or something, I couldn't really follow because Max's hair was so amazing and he had so much food in his braces. Soon after, another guy came over wearing all-black New Balances. He introduced himself as Cliff, my new best friend.
Not only my best friend, my only friend. Sure, Max was cool, and he snorted when he laughed, but Cliff was my homeboy. Over the next three games, we would go to war together -- getting yelled at by coaches, questioned by parents, backing up each other's calls -- officiating together in a united front.
Soon the warmup buzzer sounded and it was time to tip off (something that was obvious to only me, Cliff and maybe three other people). The coaches and players just kinda stood there until we told the coaches to pick their starters. Then, ten pre-adolescent girls walked out on the floor, looking confused and nervous and absolutely adorable. The Black team immediately set up in a 2-3 zone defense. Like why even bother to jump it up, right? So I had to tell them to come to half court. "All right girls, let's jump it up," I said, but this meant absolutely nothing to them. I might as well have said, "All right girls, flibble-dee-floo!" So I tried again, "Need someone to jump here," but nothin. Eventually I had to coax the girls to come toward me. "Okay, we need a player from the Pink team and a player from the Black team. We're gonna have a jump ball. I'm gonna throw the ball up, and you're gonna try to tip it to a teammate. Are you wearing a necklace? You have to take that off. No jewelry," then all of a sudden 10 girls ran off the court, climbing into the stands to find their parents to help them take off their earrings. Eventually they came back and two girls finally stepped up. Cliff gave me a nod. Max gave me a wink with both eyes. We were ready to go. The season was about to begin.
The key to success in 6th grade girls basketball is having a girl who can dribble. Just one, that's all you need. One girl who can successfully take a basketball and bounce it against the ground, over and over and over again. On this particular day, the Pink team had a STUD, a short girl with a side pony who cut through the defense like a hungry squirrel. She brought the ball up, popped it around, stole it from her teammates, and occasionally drove to the hoop and made a few bankers. She ended up scoring 14 of her team's 18 total points. I'm 95% sure she was a Lobo.
The Black team, they weren't so lucky. They had one redheaded girl who could kind of handle the ball, although every time down the floor she picked up her dribble. She also had no idea how to pivot, and sometimes bent over with the ball, hugging it tightly like she had the world's worst stomach ache.
"You need to pass the ball, okay? You can't just hold it. Or I'm gonna have to call Five Seconds on you."
She nodded and said "okay," and seemed to understand, but frankly I'm not sure she spoke English.
Honestly though, I'm being a little harsh. The girls were not that bad. A few could dribble and catch and rebound, and some could actually run up and down the floor without crashing into the scorer's table. I'm kidding, I'm kidding, some even had decent instincts and could read the flow of the game. Still, it was painful to watch, and even harder to ref, because their movements were so all over the place.
In my short time reffing (I've been doing it for two years) I've realized the key to making the right call is just to act like you're right, all the time. No matter what happens, or what you may or may not have seen, just make a call in the most convincing way possible. "OFF BLACK'S KNEE! PINK BALL!" with very dramatic arm motions. Then grab the rock and get ready to inbound. Was it really off Black? Who knows. There's no reason to live in the past.
I have no doubt that it'd be easier to ref a Final Four game in a hostile arena than run up and down the floor with 6th graders. With boys (or men, or women at a higher skill level) the game is fluid, and you can read the action and anticipate players' movements. With 6th grade girls, it's a non-stop tornado. Heaps of girls crashing into one another, tumbling over, and slamming onto the ground. You have never heard a thuddier thud than the thud created by a 12-year-old girl on a one-woman fast break. There's no grace. No ability to control their bodies. Just a bunch of young women falling to earth like a sack of potatoes. I've never even seen (or heard) a sack of potatoes hit the ground before, but I can guarantee you that it's the perfect analogy for this particular situation.
The last few minutes are always a shit show. In this particular matchup, Black had come back, cutting the lead to three points in the final two minutes. This caused every person in the gym to lose their minds. At one point, I looked to the Pink team's bench and a girl was just jumping in place, spinning around like goddamn ballerina. A father in the stands kept screaming, "THAT'S HOW WE DO. THAT'S HOW WE DO." He was wearing khakis. On three straight possessions, the players just took the ball and jacked it. Not even looking, they just inbounded the ball and hurled it toward the basket. One girl took a closely contested 35-foot fadeaway jumper. Not one shot came close. One airball actually bounced under the hoop and landed in a bucket. Not THE bucket, not the bucket they were supposed to be shooting at, but a bucket that was sitting on the floor against a nearby wall. I don't even know why the bucket was there. Maybe there was a leak in the roof? Or maybe the janitor left it? Either way, at one point toward the end of the game, there was a basketball stuck in a bucket.
As the clock ticked down to 1:15 left in the 4th, a crazy woman started screaming, "STOP THE CLOCK. STOPPPP THEEEE CLOCCCKKKKK, OMG STOPPPP THE CLOCKKKKKKKKK." She actually said, "OMG." Like, those words actually came out of her mouth. And of course Max, who is a CHILD, stopped the clock because an adult told him to. The thing was, that in this particular league, the clock only stops during the last minute of the game. So I had to blow my whistle, calm everyone down and explain to the parents that the clock would run until the last minute. The screaming woman didn't get it. "It IS the last minute!" she said, which made me question if I knew what a minute was. Finally, I realized that she was in fact that crazy one, which made me strangely more attracted to her.
In the game's final moments, Pink's point guard hit a game clinching three (YEAH, AN ACTUAL THREE) that put the game out of reach and saved me and Cliff (and Max) from three more minutes of hell overtime.
After the buzzer, the girls all shook hands, while Cliff and I collapsed against the bleachers.
"What a whirlwind, huh?" Cliff said.
Absolutely bonkers, I replied.
Then we both just sat there in silence. Reflecting on the game, hoping we kept it fair, wondering why Max took his shoes off.
"You know where the bathroom's at, Ev? I gotta take a Hulkster."
Yes I do, best friend.
I certainly do.
Follow The Evster @TVMWW.