JENNIFER FIERRO • PICAYUNE STAFF
MARBLE FALLS — The sounds of bouncing basketballs, squeaky shoes, cheers and jeers reverberate through high school gymnasiums during the season.
And above it all, whistles screech, signifying something is amiss. Those whistles either bring delight or scoffs, depending on the official’s call.
And yet, despite the “occasional” tirade aimed at the men and women in striped shirts, coaches will be the first to say a contest cannot be played without them.
“As a sports fan, you have supporters,” basketball official Travis Tynes said. “As an official, most nights, it’s a lonely job. It’s just, maybe, you and your partners. People and coaches tell me they couldn’t do what we do. ”
Many officials sign up for the task for the same reason athletes play: They love the sport.
That’s what happened to Tynes, who became an official after his junior high coach in Katy told him being one would allow him to remain close to the game.
“Growing up, basketball was my life,” the Marble Falls resident said. “I wanted to continue to do it even if I couldn’t play.”
That’s also why 11-year veteran Michael Lehman decided to pick up the whistle. He moved to Marble Falls from Austin and realized there weren’t enough recreation leagues in the area for him to keep playing.
“I love the game of basketball,” Lehman said. “I only officiate for the love of the game.”
Burnet resident Kyle Byrd, who retired Dec. 30 after 30 years of wearing black and white, became a basketball official when he was a football and baseball player at Baylor University. Since basketball season fell between his two sports, he could squeeze in officiating during the winter.
“If I can run and exercise and get paid, I’m in,” he said. “We view it as a profession. From a pay standpoint, it’s a hobby.”
All three are part of the Austin Basketball Officials Association.
Tynes, who is in his 15th season as an official, began calling games to make extra money when he was in college. Now, he can earn more than $100 a day calling high school games during tournaments. He also officiates for youth and recreation leagues.
“It may not look fun,” he said. “If you look at it, we have the opportunity to be ambassadors of the game.”
RULES OF THE ‘GAME’
Most pre-district basketball games have two officials, while district play calls for three officials. And since officials do not have substitutes, they must be in good physical shape and mentally tough. They also go through training and take a test administered by the University Interscholastic League to get certification. They shadow more experienced officials and get evaluated with the aim of being better.
Byrd, who also has officiated Division II and III college games, said high school varsity officials must watch videos every year and pass a three-part test to be UIL certified. The first test covers the mechanics of the game and has questions for contests involving two officials and those with three officials. Officials then must pass a two-part rules test on which they must score 70 or above to officiate a game, 80 or above to officiate a varsity game and 90 or above to officiate in the playoffs.
Tynes chuckled when asked which was tougher: being an official or a Life Skills paraprofessional who works with special-needs students.
“Both are enjoyable,” he said. “I love working with students and helping them be their very best. I love officiating, especially helping those athletes learn, even if they’re not sure what the rules are.”
“My greatest joy officiating is seeing a team in November that stunk and coming back in January and February not getting beat,” he said, “and middle school-aged players (who) progress and stay with it all the way through their senior year.”
GOING WITH THE FLOW
On the court, not every foul, double dribble or travel is called. And that comes back to a philosophy of not interrupting the flow of the game.
“You can call every travel, every foul and every violation, but the game would last forever,” Tynes said. “The game would stop being fun and enjoyable.”
Officials also note the athletes’ level of play. Middle school games aren’t called the same way a subvarsity contest is judged, and a subvarsity contest is not officiated the same way a varsity game is, Tynes said.
“Coaches want a flow and not having the official take over the game,” he said. “Let’s say one kid from a team traveled but then turned the ball over. The other team still got the ball (like they would if the foul was called) and is still going down the court for a layup.”
Byrd refers to it as enforcing the spirit of the rules rather than the letter.
“Basketball is a contact sport,” he said. “Illegal contact is a foul. If we called every illegal contact, the game would be a game of whistles. Thirty years ago, (the sport) was coached differently. The game has evolved into a very physical, contact-oriented sport. Our job as officials is to evolve with the sport.”
Officials do keep in mind one important part of their role: being consistent — though some admit that’s not always possible because of the talent levels of opposing teams.
“You do the best you can to call both ends from the moment the ball is tipped off to the last whistle,” Tynes said. “Every team plays different, every player is different. Our job is not to even it out.”
“Did that have an effect on this play?” Byrd said. “Did it put one player at an advantage and the other at a disadvantage? If the answer is ‘no,’ no one would want us to call a foul.”
Officials said they’d like for fans to have a better understanding of the rules, what each official standing in a certain spot is seeing, and cheer and encourage the team they’re supporting.
“I would like fans to know officials are human, too,” Tynes said. “We don’t favor one team over another. Our goal is to officiate a game so the two teams can have a contest. We do the best job we can. I’d like fans to know we do the best we can by the rules. I would like fans to know more about the rules.”
Byrd said the better teams have coaches and players who concentrate on their game instead of what the officials are doing.
GRAB A WHISTLE
The Austin Basketball Officials Association is in need of more people willing to call games. Go to basketballofficials.com to learn more.
“Come out and join us,” Lehman said. “Check it out. Get involved. It’s cheap to get in.”