Men in striped shirts

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Local basketball refs have seen, heard it all over a combined 55 years of officiating

By Mickey Patterson

 There’s no place for a basketball ref to hide during a game and with more than 55 years of combined experience David Watkins and Gary Teague are well aware of it.

“Guys like David and me, who have been at it so long, the fans know your name, where you are from and everything,” Teague said. “That’s all part of it.”

Teague, of La Grange, and Watkins, a Crestwood resident, are two of the most veteran and well respected basketball refs in the Eighth Region. Watkins, a 29-year veteran, has called four girls’ and boys’ state tourneys. Teague, a 26-year ref, has called a boys’ Sweet 16 and the girls’ state twice.

Oldham County resident Gene Hicks, a long-time member of the law enforcement profession and one of the most respected refs around in his day, brought both men to the job.

“Gene called me one day to ref a game between the state police,” Watkins. “After the game he told me I did a pretty good job and recommended me to  the officials association.”

For Teague, it was a different path.

“I used to get kidded a lot that the only reason they got me into it was I got on the refs so hard at games,” Teague said. “I guess they thought let’s get this guy out of the stands and into a striped shirt.”

Both Watkins and Teague cite a love for the game as one of the main reasons they have stuck with being a ref.

As the guys fans love to hate and blame for everything from a loss to the plague, they have seen and heard it all through the years.

From the minute they walk into the gym, they know they are targets.

“Oh yeah,” Teague said. “At certain places there are guys and you already know they are there. I would say though if David and I walked into a new gym we could pick them out before they ever opened their mouth.”

Both have developed a thick skin over the years.

“You learn over the years to let it go,” Watkins said. “A lot of them don’t have a good understanding of the rules and that’s where a lot of it comes from. Hey, they paid their money and as long as they are not violent or threatening, they have every right to question something. The thing is, I don’t have to pay any attention to them.”

There is an opposite side to the fan aspect.

“I go to Gallatin County to call a lot of games,” Teague said. “There is a crew of older guys up there who have been sitting in the same front row seats for 10 or 12 years and it’s like a family reunion. They ask about my kids, how my job is going. We always joke around a lot and it makes going there a little bit more enjoyable.”

Both agree the most enjoyable games are the big ones. Regular season and postseason, the more competitive the game, the better.

“There’s not a better place to be than the Henry County calling the regional tournament with two teams that can play the game,” Teague said. “That gym, it gets packed. It’s just a great atmosphere.”

For Watkins, the regular season matches between two arch rivals are just as fun.

“In the Eighth, and this is really true with some of the smaller schools, two of them that just flat out hate each other, those games are a blast to be a part of,” Watkins said. “You get them going at each other hard with a big crowd and it’s a great place to be.”

Both admitted they have had their run-ins with coaches over the years, but with their experience has come a measure of respect.

“Guys like Gary and me don’t really have any trouble with coaches,” Watkins said. “We have been at it so long there is not much we haven’t come across on the floor or from a coach and they know we can do the job.”

Teague said dealing with each gym, its fans and each coach is always different.

“One thing I have learned over the years is if a coach is up crying about every call then his kids are doing the same thing,” Teague said. “You don’t see that from the kids with a coach who is working to win the game.”

Both said the game has changed over the years. Watkins noted the players simply being bigger and stronger.

Teague credited the three-point shot with bringing big changes to the style of play.

Both have also been in on the ground floor of the rise of girls’ basketball and said the improvement in play is nothing short of remarkable.

“They have come such a long way in the way they play and in how athletic they are,” Watkins said. “One of the biggest things is the improvement in the quality of coaches and how they teach the game.”

Both admitted there are different ways to call the games from a boys’ to a girls’ game, but said the basics are the same.

Watkins said he practices a bit of what he calls “preventative officiating,” a tactic he learned from an older ref when he first started.

“I will talk to the kids a lot if I need to,” Watkins said. “You have to let them know what they can and can’t do. If I tell them they need to get out of the lane or get a forearm off somebody in the lane they are not going to hear from me more than twice. That third time it’s going to cost them.” 

Being from Oldham County, which has been known for its strong basketball teams over the years, has had its drawbacks for both.

Watkins estimated he has lost out on several regional finals games because a local team was involved as did Teague.

“I think the best stretch as a ref I have had was right when Oldham County was on that run of theirs of winning the boys’ regional or going to the finals,” Teague said. “I was ranked No. 1 several of those years and had the regional finals and that dag-gone Gary (Forrest) got his kids into the finals so I was a fan instead of a ref.”

Watkins said he enters each year thinking it may be his last as he gets older. Teague said he thinks he will go three to four more years before hanging up his whistle.

“Right now it’s still something I look forward to doing,” Teague said. “I will probably go crazy during the winter when I give it up. I guess I will sit in the chair and yell at the refs on the TV.”

E-mail us about this story at: sports@oldhamera.com