Friday, 4 December 2009

Joe Scanlon weighs in on refereering

Thanks to Joe for this bit of basketball history in the context of the recent referee discussion...

As readers of Dale Stevens’ list serve may have noticed Dale and I had different views about some of the calls by referees in the McMaster-Carleton game in Hamilton on Saturday. Dale thought one call went against the wrong player and the resulting technical was inappropriate. He also disputed two travel calls on the same player. I had a different view. I am not going to re-hash the disagreement but the discussion made me start thinking about Charlie Diffin, perhaps the most loved person who ever refereed Canadian basketball.

There were a number of reasons why Charlie endeared himself to players and coaches. For one thing, he ignored minor violations, especially in the back court. If a player’s toe touched the line on a throw in after the basket, Charlie would ignore that (unless, of course, the other team had put on a press and the mistake was caused by that pressure). If the player receiving the pass after a score stepped before dribbling, Charlie would ignore that as well. He couldn’t see these things were all that important.

But there were other more important reasons why he was so highly regarded. If a player was doing something improper, such as grabbing an opponent’s shirt, Charlie would quietly tell him to stop. If the player stopped that was that. If he didn’t that player would quickly find himself in foul trouble. Further, when Charlie called a foul he would look the offending player straight in the eye and state precisely what was being called. No one on whom Charlie called a foul would ever doubt the reason for a call.

Finally, Charlie had a quiet way of letting players and officials know he would not tolerate what we might call unsportsmanlike behaviour. Dave Whitfield, a former Carleton manager, likes to tell this story. It happened when Ernie Zoppa was Carleton coach.

“Charlie Diffin was great at defusing...situations -- he was always willing to go to the bench and explain what he saw, but you weren't going to show him up. I remember in one game when [Zoppa] (uncharacteristically) flipped a towel into the air that fell onto the floor in response to a bad call. I'll always remember Charlie running back up the floor, picking the towel up - but, before flipping it back into the bench, taking the time to wipe the sweat off his beaded brow -- and then flipping it to the bench with a great big grin on his face! He made his point and there was no need for the Technical Foul.”

There was another occasion when a visiting referee called a foul on a Carleton player who asked – quite politely – “What was that for?” The referee assessed a technical. The player said, “What?” Another technical! Memory is that the referee called seven technicals in a row. Charlie Diffin was the other referee that night. Before his colleague got nicely into the string of technicals he was at the far end of the gym, leaning against the wall, the ball tucked behind his back, trying to distance himself as far as possible from such idiocy.

Another referee from that period was Al Rae. Unlike Charlie he would tend to call every infraction. I always liked Al as a ref because – though he some would say overcalled – he, like Charlie, was consistent. When Al showed up to referee a game you knew exactly what would be called. And to me what every coach and player wants in a referee is consistency. Charlie and Al had different styles but both were consistent. (Al had another talent, one I was unaware of until two former Carleton coaches - Paul Armstrong, Pat O’Brien – made up a threesome at an officials’ golf tournament, a tournament honouring Charlie Diffin. Al Rae was the Master of Ceremonies and he was the funniest MC I have ever heard, a non-stop string of hilarious one-liners.)

When the man who built Carleton’s basketball program, Norm Fenn, first coached, he would phone to find out who was going to officiate his games. Then he would brief his players on what to expect. That led the referees to stop informing coaches who would be calling a game. That didn’t stop Fenn: as soon as he saw the refs entering the gym he would stop the warm-up, and brief his players on what to expect.

I have often thought there may be a slight advantage to a home team when the referees are local ones, known to the players and coaches. The advantage is not that the refs favour the home team but that the home team players and coaches know what to expect. However, if those refs are consistent, the visitors will get to know – usually after a few calls – what to expect. The advantage disappears within a few minutes – as long as the referees are consistent.

By the way some of the most entertaining evenings I have spent at a game were ones when I sat with Charlie Diffin listening to his running commentary on the play and the refereeing.

Joe Scanlon

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