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Union Articles

Diary of a Winter Tournament

Chris Balasinski

December 18, 2019

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“Another day in the life?” my friend Joe asked.


Not exactly.  I can’t imagine how fast I would have left this business if that really were the case.  Rather, we were due for a weekend like this.  The past dozen were all too easy.  Here’s the breakdown for the uninitiated:  over the weekend we had to staff a club basketball tournament — use AAU as a reference — miscellaneous ages, boys and girls, a little under 600 games at a 25-court facility in Southern California.  Recruiting the referees was the dry part: just a lot of phone calls, texts, e-mails, referrals, negotiations, and favors.  Albeit not without its challenges, it didn’t really have any unusual tension or drama. 
For that we will skip ahead to the actual weekend.


Just a quick note:  names have NOT been covered up to protect any innocent.  Times are relative estimates and represent the only creative liberties taken in this recollection.  This was my weekend as the assignor for this tournament...

Saturday, December 14th, 2019

7:33 AM:  I wake up to a text message from one of my officials stating that he has been trying for 30 minutes but cannot find his car keys.  Already, I’d be one referee down out of the 50 needed to show up.


7:52 AM:  I find out that a referee I had planned to serve as backup for the morning hours was going to carpool with a crew coming later in the day.  Our margin of error is getting really slim.

7:56 AM:  A newer recruit, Pearson, poised to make his Ref Union debut texts me that he never received the e-mail with his court assignment.  Believing he is no longer needed, he says that I "shouldn’t worry about it" because he is feeling a little under the weather anyway.


“Woah woah woah woah,” I exclaim.  “While I don’t know why the e-mail never went through, that doesn’t mean I don’t need you today.”  Since the rookie's inbox was seemingly allergic to my transmissions, I text him a screenshot of his court assignments and convince him to come in for his originally-scheduled 10AM set.


8:00 AM:  Pandemonium ensues.  My phone starts blowing up with texts from the tournament staff about multiple officials missing. My site director and back-up in case of emergencies, Marcus, affirmed that he didn’t know which court to fill in, given that so many only had one referee. 

I put away the phone for a minute…8:03 AM, 8:04 AM…I’m just going to let the flowers arrange themselves for a moment.

8:05 AM:  The majority of late-comers make their way in  so many that we couldn’t even keep track of who to fine.  There was a mild semblance of relief.  We zero in on the last straggling zebra to come in at 8:12 AM.   Breakfast shall be on him. 

On a hectic weekend, it's good to pair up your most solid officials to at least be eliminate one court from having to worry about.  Rawlston Charles and Kenny Gardner are like rocks in that sense.  Solid.

I can now shower, get dressed, and make my way to the Sports Center, everything should run smooth until the first shift change.

8:08 AM:  A referee, Jason, starts blowing up my Facebook messenger about why he lost his Sunday set of five games, per the final schedule.


9:15 AM:  Pearson texts me again that he won’t be able to make it because he got into a car crash.  "Bullshit," I think to myself, but I don’t press the matter.  Pearson is a mere drop in the bucket — 3 games out of 600 — we'll be fine so long as we don’t lose any more.

9:41 AM:  “Yooooooooo…I literally just got a call [that] my mom died,” from another new referee recruit meant to come in that afternoon. 

I pause…already a little numbed by cynicism from what had Pearson messaged me earlier.  I text back  “Sorry to hear that…” or some other meaningless platitude.  I feel guilty of how unconvincing my condolences probably had sounded.  Then again, how genuinely bad can any person feel for someone they have never met, under the work pressures I'm currently facing, with about a dozen other matters breathing down my neck.  Furthermore what possibly could I have written that would have made him feel any bit better?  I have to move on...

9:48 AM:  I’m patrolling the Sports Center with that referee's mother's death still weighing on my mind when the first crew I encounter greets me with some much-desired good news.  They know someone that could cover the newly-vacated shift.  I confirm via text with the new official, Dwayne Johnson.  Yes, that is his real name and no, he has no relation to the star of the new Jumanji.


9:50 AM:  What I haven’t mentioned is that while Marcus and I were herding our zebras in the morning, tournament staff was monitoring the conditions of a water-damaged court.  I finally have a chance to see what the fuss is about, and indeed, the wood along the lane lines was so warped as to render the court unplayable.  An entire division of games has to be rescheduled with seemingly no place to put them. 


9:52 AM:  Jason, the crybaby from earlier, continues to blow up my phone about his lost Sunday set.  This time he tries to call me via the Facebook app.  WTF?  Is he incapable of sending a regular text or placing a regular call??


10:40 AM:  Dwayne Johnson texts me.  He apologizes for the inconvenience but his wife, a mail carrier, just got bitten by a dog and needs to be taken to the hospital.  Dwayne won’t be able to work this afternoon. 


11:52 AM:  Perhaps realizing that Facebook might not be most pragmatic way for grownups to communicate, Jason texts me to express his frustration about not seeing himself on the Sunday schedule.  I text him back that he was removed from his Sunday set back on Wednesday when I was making final determinations on crews for the weekend.  This change was reflected on five separate e-mails throughout Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday afternoon and evening.   Obviously he didn't check any of the updates and now wants to lay it on me that he gave up other work due to his commitment to my tournament.

He starts calling me a “dumbass,” a “liar,” and “a flake.”  I don’t think I have ever been cussed out in such PG language. 

I go ahead and let him vent.  He’s fired anyway so why not let him get his money’s worth. 

12:00 PM:  I’m sitting with the braintrust of the tournament staff as we try to come up with solutions for the water-damaged court situation.  When the idea of rescheduling the games for 7:00 AM on Sunday briefly comes up, I give the blankest stare in the history of blank stares, although I don’t think anybody notices.  All the while, every few minutes, a coach or parent affected by the continuous cancellations of games on that court comes into the office asking how we were planning on fixing it.


12:25 PM:  Jason texts me a final time, far more calmly, about why he wasn’t selected for a Sunday assignment.  I give him a no-nonsense answer:  “I do not need to explain my staffing decisions.  No assignor does.  If you were taken off the schedule, take it at face value: I preferred other refs on the games.” 

I later wonder whether it was his phone’s autocorrect or does Jason really think “dumbass” is two words.


12:36 PM:  I receive a text from one of my younger more-prone-to-panic officials:  “I need you on Court D3! Now!”

When I get over there, there is a lot of commotion, and site directors are interviewing the coaches and officials.  Turns out a fan came in with a wild haymaker and pummeled a coach from the opposing team for apparently saying something inappropriate to his kid after the game. 

“Were any of YOU hurt?” I ask the refs. 



Then it is not my monkey and not my circus.  That incident was the talking point of the rest of the tournament.  I guess everybody loves a good fight story.


1:22 PM:  I have almost NO energy to conduct quality assurance today.  Nevertheless one guy’s laziness just jumped out at me as I was walking past his court.  In a one-point game, he was letting 8-year olds beat him down the floor on a half-court set.  I watched for two minutes from way back in the crowd wondering if he’d ever ramp it up to at least a spirited fast-walk.


During his break, he texts me a thank you for the assignments and a link to his CashApp for payment. 
He had one 3-game set left to do in the afternoon. 
I ask him whether he would mind at least giving me a jog for the rest of the day because it was honestly depressing to have caught a glimpse of him work. 
He apologizes and attributes it to a foot injury.  I knew it was bullshit.  He didn’t even raise his arm on three-point attempts.  I'm no doctor but I'm pretty sure plantar fasciitis does not affect your shoulders.

1:30 PM:  I realize that the water damage court is actually a blessing in disguise.  Given that I lost one ref to a car accident (yeah right), a mother’s death (hoping that’s a lie) and one more who called out because her son got a case of pneumonia, I used the refs from the cancelled court to fill in for the refs I was missing.  For the first time all day, I feel like we are back at full-strength.


3:00 PM:  I am coaxed into attending a roundtable discussion between coaches, program directors, the facilities manager, and people from something called "LeagueApps" about how to improve travel basketball.  I was pleasantly surprised when the director spearheading the meeting acknowledged the recent “epidemic” of a shortage of officials putting sporting events at risk nationwide.  It was akin to naysayers finally agreeing to Al Gore's face that global warming "might be a problem."   We beat around the bush for a while, since obviously there is no quick-fix to this problem but it was nice that the problem is finally being recognized.

A few minutes later I have to check on an issue on a court; when I came back, the panel had moved onto the topic of Instagram or Tick Tock for their club program promotions.  My expertise has run its course...


4:00 PM:  The cancelled games finally get rescheduled/dispersed to the end of the day on the courts that were ending the earliest.  Given that some refs could not stay over, I need to find at least two fresh bodies within the next two hours.  A last-minute e-mail and a few texts and we miraculously got it covered.  Cheers to Jake and Tarius for coming through!


4:55 PM:  I’m on my third 5-Hour Energy of the Day.  Diluted within a water bottle, hopefully it will not give me a heart attack.


6:00 PM:  Home stretch!  I spend some time getting to know the two FIBA officials I imported from Mexico.  Like I mentioned, it is VERY hard to get locals to come in for rec. ball during the high school and college season.  I also pay off the lazy referee from earlier.  That’s how you know I never want to deal with you again:  I pay you as fast as I can so as to put our briefly-lived partnership behind us.  

Sunday, December 15th, 2019


8:00 AM:  Prairie level silence.  The e-mail I sent the previous night issuing yet another map of where to park apparently did the trick.  Unfortunately that one official’s kid still has pneumonia and therefore she called out again. But I made sure to recruit a spare body to standby just in case.


9:10 AM:  I usually never arrive so early to a tournament I assign.  Usually I hang out at home or a have a solemn breakfast before rolling into the Sports Center around 10AM.  However, given the issues from the previous day, enjoying a spinach and egg soufflé was the last thing on my mind.  I enter the office dressed in inconspicuous casual attire, passing unnoticeably by a parent talking with one of the tournament directors. The minute he utters the word “officials,” I dive into the adjacent storage room until he’s done talking.  I hear the director give my contact info to the parent and the footsteps of him walking out.  I peek out and sheepishly ask, “is he gone?” to laughter by the staff that saw me duck for cover.


Until all internal affairs are in order — ie. all courts covered and all referees relatively happy — I do not want to interact with parents or coaches.  Fortunately, I walk onto the courts and see two zebras on each one, all with a little pep in their step, all games flowing early on.  I smile for the first time all weekend.

11:02 AM:  I know!  Three whole hours without real issues.  I get a text that despite winning by 11, Kobe Bryant was not satisfied with the referees from his first game of the morning and that he would like two different ones for the afternoon.  I was almost disappointed that he was going to get two new refs anyway.  Mindset: WTF, Kobe?  This is not your building and the Black Mamba does not reign over my assignments.  You do realize you’re lucky to get varsity level at this time of year for your club ball games.  If I wanted to screw with you, I’d pair up the two rookies I had on the court across the Sports Center and actually give you something to complain about.
I am annoyed for a few minutes, then I let it go.

11:26 AM:  Two forfeits announced??  Don’t mind if we do!  That is free money for the refs under our Union rules.


1:15 PM:  I take this awesome photo with our head of security, Ramond.  How such a lovable personable guy got into the security business is a conversation he and I need to have one day over a beer. He always has our backs and has a way of killing even the most unruly coaches and parents with kindness, all-the-while escorting them out the door.  By the time they’re outside, they don’t even know what happened.

1:20 PM:  I get a text that I’m needed again on Court A3.  Those courts at the corners of the facility are like bad neighborhoods; always problems popping up.  At this point I’m watching and taking pictures of the officials on Kobe’s championship game on the complete opposite side of the Sports Center.  I text back that I’ll be taking my time walking over there.  The day is going too well to get bogged down with some mom whining about how “unfair” my referees are.  The strategy works!  By the time I get there, the scorekeeper tells me that the mom had left.


1:35 PM:  I’m back watching Kobe’s game when I get another text that the mom went into the front office to look for me.  At this point, I don’t want to make another venture.  I text the staff to hand her one of my business cards and if she really cares enough to raise such misery, then she should e-mail me and I’ll be happy to reply.

I get back this text:  “Nah, she doesn’t deserve that courtesy.  She was being a [you know what] and getting in the refs faces after the game [was over].”


“Why didn’t you say so?!”  I thought.  I LIKE dealing with these kinds of parents.  While I am in no mood for whining or complaining, I like to stamp out aggression at every opportunity.  No matter what the issue she was going to raise, the first words out of my mouth were going to be somewhere along the lines of, “and therefore you found it appropriate to antagonize them after the game?  The results of a 10U basketball game are so important to you that you would abrogate all civility in the process?  What is wrong with you?”

I was excited!  Unfortunately again, by the time I got to the offices, the mom was gone and I never got my chance.


That turned out to be the only regretful moment of the day.  Later on we had a referee get injured and we scrambled to get his last few games covered.  I also had to talk down a mom who got ejected for absolutely berating a scorekeeper.  While I always try to defend scorekeepers -- they're like our cousins in the referee family — I know how lazy some of these teenage recruits can be.  If you get one that's on his 8th straight game behind the console, he's going to lose focus and miss a basket or two.  Plus, the more complaints the scorekeepers get, the better the referees look by comparison.  So when a problem with a scorekeeper arises, even though its not my responsibility, that's when I finally flex my customer service muscles.

5:00 PM:  Word is getting around that a crazy dude is walking around the Sports Center pretending he is a secret service agent.  Although relatively harmless, he is creeping out some of the female site directors by asking for their numbers.  Police arrive upon request, however, the funny part is (again, all from hearsay) is that they couldn’t remove him for trespassing because nobody from the Sports Center had ever formally asked him to leave.

5:30 PM:  I get this awesome WhatsApp photo from one of my officials:


 In case you can't read what the fortune cookie says — a satisfying career is a worthwhile pursuit.

Around 6:05 PM:  the last 15 games of the tournament had begun, and my mission was to get as many of the referees to stay for our annual Christmas Card photo immediately thereafter.  A few had to leave because of family plans or other commitments but I was so happy that 24 out of the 30 were able to stay, some waiting as long as 30 minutes for the last of the games to conclude!  That demonstrated a camaraderie and that really warmed my heart.  Either that or Marcus just did a really good job in keeping them entertained.  As an extra bonus, Ramond was nearby to be a part of it.  Apparently earlier he had to restrain a parent who threatened to pull his "piece" out of the car.  Oh Ramond, the stories you must have...


7:30 PM:  Hugs and holiday wishes are exchanged all around.  My favorite being from the youngest of our FIBA staff who said, “thank you, Jefe” for the weekend.  I don’t know why that sounds so much cooler in Spanish than “boss” sounds in English.

8:15 PM:  I go with one of my favorite refs and friends in this business for dinner and conversation at Lazy Dog.  We order some drinks and food at full prices, although our waitress seemed annoyed later at our frugality — because when it came time for the next round, we opted to wait 10 minutes for Happy Hour to come into affect.  Has she never heard of #Winning?  I guess not.  I still tipped her because we did alright this weekend after all.


Monday, 11:10AM the next morning:  I woke up after 10 hours of sleep.  Time to get started on payroll.  I look forward to the next event, a smaller more cozy tournament in San Diego.  Can’t wait to see my officials again and for more Ref Union adventures in 2020.


*Last edited on January 5, 2020 for brevity and to correct a few grammatical imperfections.

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