Mike Kelly speaks during an interview with the Empire on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018. Kelly has been a longtime fixture as a referee or umpire at student athlete games in Juneau. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Mike Kelly speaks during an interview with the Empire on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018. Kelly has been a longtime fixture as a referee or umpire at student athlete games in Juneau. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Longtime basketball official heads south

Departure a loss for dwindling referee pool

Mike Kelly’s youngest son graduated from Juneau-Douglas High School last spring as one of the school’s all-time leading scorers and rebounders. Despite once being likened to a “bloodhound” for rebounds, Erik Kelly rarely ever fouled out of a game.

“Work hard, hustle your butt off and work hard and be in the right spot at the right time,” Mike would tell his son.

It’s what kept Mike Kelly in good graces with players and coaches for the last four decades as a basketball official in Southeast Alaska. He knew it would give his son, last year’s state player of the year, a fair shot when being assessed for foul calls.

Like Erik, who now plays at Peninsula College in Port Angeles, Washington, Mike and his wife are moving out of town this year. Right now they’re eyeing Olympia, Washington, which would put them in driving distance of Erik’s home games, one of their motivating factors in the move.

The move, though, depletes an already shallow pool of basketball officials in the capital city.

In recent years, Juneau-Douglas Officials Association Umpire-In-Chief Joel Osburn has stepped up recruitment efforts, spreading word about the group’s annual basketball official training. The first of four classes for referees is Tuesday night from 6-8 at Thunder Mountain High School. At the end of the four weeks, Osburn and the other officials take a National Federation of State High School Associations exam.

Kelly hopes it will be a packed house.

“If we don’t have officials in town, the game’s not going to stop but we’re going to have to pay to bring officials in, and all the other communities are suffering from the same lack of officials,” he said.

Officials are paid up to $55 per game, and Southeast schools cover travel and lodging costs.

Osburn said getting through Year 1 is always the most difficult. While Osburn’s grown immune to verbal jabs from spectators, it’s common for first-year officials to hear them loud and clear. As a result: “A large majority of new refs don’t make it through that first year,” Osburn said.

To help new officials out, Osburn recently started a mentorship program that pairs new officials with experienced ones for the whole season. These initiatives can only go so far though. He said the larger issue is improving the culture of basketball as it pertains to how people treat officials.

“Some communities are really looking at improving the education of players and coaches on how to properly treat the officials,” Osburn said.

It’s common for beginning officials to start at the middle school level. It can be a slippery slope for anyone to jump straight into high school action. In a hoops-crazed place like Southeast Alaska, games are well-attended and doing a good job is important.

“When you have a high school game, you have a crowd, you have people paying to see the game,” Kelly said. ” You have to be on top of the rules and you have to expect something crazy to happen.”

He began his officiating career right out of high school in 1978 and worked up to five nights a week. What started as a way to stay plugged into high school hoops turned into a way of giving back to the youth.

Osburn said the basketball officials will miss working with Kelly.

“There’s not a lot of flash in Mike’s style; it’s pretty much by the book,” Osburn said. “He doesn’t take guff from players or coaches. I think that it helps everyone on the court because they have a pretty good expectation of how Mike’s going to handle a situation.”

“I think most people know they’re going to get a good game when they have Mike Kelly’s on the court,” he added.

Know & Go

What: Basketball Official Training

When: 6-8 p.m., Tuesdays, Oct. 2-30

Where: Thunder Mountain High School Room C-105

Contact: Joel Osburn, 209-7897

• Contact sports reporter Nolin Ainsworth at 523-2272 or nainsworth@juneauempire.com. Follow Empire Sports on Twitter at @akempiresports.

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