Some of the players called him John Wayne.
For 20 years, Joe Thompson refereed Gold Medal and hand-picked the officiating crew. And he did it with a confidence and a demeanor that reminded some players, including Klukwan’s Stuart DeWitt, of the cowboy movie star of old.
“He kind of had that swagger about him,” DeWitt said.
The referees — and even some Lions Club members — are wearing “JT” patches this week in honor of Thompson, who died in October. Thompson, who was inducted into the Gold Medal Hall of Fame in 2017, refereed Gold Medal for 20 years. DeWitt was inducted into the Hall of Fame alongside Thompson, and remembered Thompson as a fair, no-nonsense official.
For the six referees working this week’s tournament, including Michael Smith, Thompson served as more than just a guy who called fouls and managed the games.
“We represent Joe, whether it’s on our sleeve or on our back, every time we step on the basketball floor,” Smith said. “For each and every one of us, we hold that piece very important and very dear.”
On Wednesday night, the Lions Club held a memorial service for Thompson during a break between games. Referee Erik Jonson spoke about his mentor during the ceremony, saying Thompson hand-picked the referees who he knew would grasp just how important Gold Medal was to the players and fans.
“If you weren’t able to understand that it’s more than a basketball game,” Jonson said, “then you weren’t going to be able to come back.”
Watching the players grow up
Thompson shaped this current group of referees, but he wasn’t the first to bring officials up from the Seattle area to referee the tournament. The tradition dates back at least to the 1970s, former Lions Club president and longtime Gold Medal fixture Steve Brandner said.
Brandner has been coming to Gold Medal since the early 1970s, and said there have always been out-of-state referees officiating the games. As it’s been explained to him, referees from down south were brought in because having local referees often drew the ire of fans. If a referee from Sitka was officiating a game that a Sitka team was playing in, for example, fans would pile on that official and accuse them of being biased.
To avoid the appearance or existence of bias in the games, the Lions Club brought in referees from the Pacific Northwest Basketball Officials Association to take on the task. The Lions Club even pays for the referees to stay in a hotel during the week, Brandner said.
The referees have seen players grow up before their eyes. Referee Craig Tamaki said he’s seen some players go from the B Bracket to the C Bracket and on to the Masters Bracket, such as Kake’s Rudy Bean. Tamaki said B and C Bracket play is as competitive and intense as many of the collegiate games they referee.
The M Bracket is not quite as intense. Tamaki said it’s more like high-level rec league play.
“When you’re reffing the Masters, it’s more about maintaining game management than anything else,” Tamaki said, laughing.
A tough job
Even as they’re making sure nobody gets hurt, the referees are running from end to end of the floor constantly throughout the week. The six referees who are up this year — Tamaki, Smith, Jonson, Manuel Fernandez, Kevin Chinn and Jason Crider — work in shifts, but still work multiple games per day. On days like Thursday, where there were eight games, the task can be exhausting.
They all have to show up every day, or else the shifts get even more stretched. Brandner said there was a time a few years ago when a referee was sick for four days and the rest of the crew had to pick up the slack.
The referees have to maintain an athletic level similar to what the players go through, and don’t get to take any days off.
“They’re going all day for a week straight,” Brandner said. “A lot of the players are one game a day and a day off and these guys are not getting a day off at all.”
The days are long and fans are loud — and not shy about their thoughts on officiating — but the referees often are doing their job with a smile on their face. Players complain to the officials from time to time, but by the final buzzer they’re patting each other on the back and joking back and forth.
After years of coming up to Juneau, the referees are as much a part of the tournament as the sight of little kids running around with flags or the smell of fry bread from the lobby.
“We have made some relationships here with people in the stands, at the scorer’s table, people in the Lions Club, those kind of things that we hold dear,” Fernandez said. “We didn’t know that just coming here for a basketball tournament was going to turn out to be friendships for life.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.