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'The Whistleblower' Explores The Life Of A College Basketball Ref

This article is more than 8 years old.

It is said that work of the best referees or umpires goes unnoticed. In basketball, at least, that is rarely the case. In his new book, "The Whistleblower: Rooting for the Ref in the High-Stakes World of College Basketball," Bob Katz examines the career of former referee Ed Hightower and explores the plight of the men doomed to be abused by at least half of any crowd.

Katz joined Bill Littlefield to discuss his project.

Highlights From Bill's Conversation With Bob Katz

BL: Perhaps the most-oft repeated phrase in your book is "Hightower, you suck!" Did you ever ask Ed Hightower if he had trained himself not to hear all the howling?

0124_oag_bookBK: I wished I had. I had some assumptions, and the conversation probably veered in that direction a few times. I know what he, and almost all the other refs said, which is, "You hear it, but you don't pay attention." And you certainly don't honor it as being a legitimate complaint that comes out of a studied assessment of the situation. ...

He's what you would have to call an elite college basketball referee. By elite, I mean he has reffed the national championship game, the NCAA men's finals, four times. He's reffed the Final Four 12 times — had one streak, in fact, of reffing the Final Four seven consecutive years. In addition to that, he is the superintendent of schools of a small, semi-rural, largely white community in Illinois across the river from St. Louis.

BL: Karl Hess, one of the officials, told you that calling the game is 25 percent of the official's job, while 50 percent of it is "managing people" and the remaining 25 percent is luck. Did that sound about right to you?

BK: Well, I'm sure he was being a little bit glib. And like anybody being interviewed, he might want to revise that statement now that it's been quoted and printed in book form. But all of sports involve a certain percentage of luck, whether it's 25 percent or 10 percent or 12.4 percent...I can't say. And the same would apply to refereeing, if only because refereeing and the challenges of refereeing are inextricably part of the sport experience. They don't get everything right, nor does LeBron James make every shot. It happens.

BL: Late in the book you reference one particular game officiated by Ed Hightower that you say wish you had seen. Tell us about that game and why you would like to have been there.

BK: It was a game in the early 1980s, actually. It was at South Bend, Ind. It was DePaul, which at that time, I believe, was, if not the top, one of the top-ranked teams in the country and Notre Dame. Always a rivalry. And it was a snowy, February afternoon game. Referees are required to arrive two hours before game time. Hightower did; his two colleagues did not due to a snowstorm. They were stranded in Illinois.

It was an NBC afternoon telecast. It was decided not to delay the game because network TV makes those kinds of decisions and that's how it goes. So Hightower had to ref the start of the game — probably the first six minutes — by himself. As he explains it — and I've talked to Digger Phelps, one of the coaches involved who confirmed this — with only one ref who is shorthanded and therefore encumbered from doing all that three refs might do in monitoring all the deviousness that goes out there, the players were perfect gentlemen, the coaches stayed away from him. They didn't carp, or at least not with their usual vigor. It was a game being played by gentlemen.

At about the six-minute mark, the two tardy refs, flown in by private plane, arrived, put on their uniforms, marched onto the floor and from then on the game deteriorated to the usual complaining by the players about every foul, complaining by the coaches about everything that didn't go their way. At the end of the game, Digger Phelps, one of the coaches, said to the media "I wish the other two refs who showed up late had never arrived."

Bill's Thoughts On "The Whistleblower"

For years, Ed Hightower worked two extraordinarily challenging jobs at the same time. He refereed men's college basketball games, thereby giving a great many people the opportunity to shout, "Hightower, you suck!" and he served as the superintendent of a school system near St. Louis. It's interesting that he's still employed in the latter capacity, perhaps because if anybody shouts, "Hightower, you suck!" he can suspend them for a couple of weeks.

[sidebar title="An Excerpt From 'The Whistle Blower'" width="630" align="right"]Read an excerpt from 'The Whistleblower' by Bob Katz. [/sidebar]Bob Katz, the author of 'The Whistleblower,' in which the ref/superintendent is a central figure, maintains that Hightower has been terrific at both jobs, though the fans who regard him as blind and biased would loudly disagree with regard to his work as a basketball official.

"The Whistleblower" provides a detailed and engaging description of the responsibilities of the ref, who "stands dead center in that snarled intersection between the pursuit of victory and the principle of fairness," and whom fans tend not to notice until he makes a call they regard as bogus, which is when some of them shout, "You suck!"

This segment aired on February 14, 2015.


Bill Littlefield Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.



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