For Jackson Ingalls, basketball was a birthright.
He grew up splitting time between gyms and a home where basketball was always on TV and in conversations.
That’s what happens when your mom is a legendary high school coach with five state titles to her name, and your dad is a former Division II college player.
But Jackson’s introduction to the game wasn’t exactly a pleasant one.
"Here in St. Ignace, we've got a ball rack that's about six feet tall, and there was one time when I was climbing the ball rack, and it did fall over," Jackson recalls. "But I did fall off of the ball rack, so that was kind of not good."
"Poor little guy had a big head, so it was hard for him to keep his balance," recalls Jackson's mom, Dorene. "So he kind of tip-toppled over, and then the ball rack kind of went on top of him.
"He wasn’t quite 2, so he was pretty young. I remember what he was wearing and everything. You know, he had his little basketball outfit and his basketball shoes. And I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ So I ran over there, and he was all right. He was a pretty tough little guy, and so he didn’t really cry much. And then he started dribbling, so I knew he was OK."
Jackson learned to stay off the ball rack, and his mom learned that her little boy was tough. Good thing, too — he would need that toughness down the line, when he discovered his passion.
You probably think you know where this story is going: Here’s a kid who grew up in a gym with parents who live and breathe basketball. He’s going to grow up to be a star player, right? Wrong.
Jackson had other ideas: He wanted to be a referee.
'Why Don't I Try This?'
Jackson’s affinity for the striped uniform and whistle is surprising. Not only because of his age, but also because his parents spend lots of time arguing with refs on the sidelines.
"It came as a shock a little bit," Dorene says. "It is surprising, and that’s what makes it kind of special. It’s not exactly a glamorous position. I mean, you’re always getting yelled at and what not. And he just loves it. That’s his passion."
Jackson discovered his love of officiating seven years ago, when he was just 10 years old.
"We were down at, I want to say, Grosse Pointe South [High School], Michigan, and the girls had a camp. And only one referee had shown up," Jackson recalls.
The "girls" are the St. Ignace High School team his parents coach together.
"And I was kind of like, 'Well, there’s a whistle in the car. Why don’t I try this?' " Jackson recalls.
"Well, there’s a whistle in the car. Why don’t I try this?"Jackson Ingalls
"He knew the rules, but he hadn’t really reffed a varsity scrimmage yet, or anything like that," Dorene says. "And so, we're like, well, you know, Kevin Richard is the Grosse Pointe South coach, and I know him pretty well. And the referee that was reffing was really generous, and we're like, ‘Hey, Jackson can probably ref, you know.' So he had his whistle and he went out there, and he did a great job. And he held his own."
It was the perfect scenario for Jackson. If his mom hadn’t known the other coach, or the official wasn’t as kind, he may not have gotten the opportunity.
And after that day reffing girls who were five, six, seven and even eight years older than him, Jackson was hooked. He started using his free time to study the rules of basketball. From there he worked his way through the officiating ranks, starting with middle school games and summer scrimmages.
For Love Of (Refereeing) The Game
Jackson worked hard at his craft, but he had something else going for him — for a while at least.
There are pictures of Jackson reffing at a young age, with his striped official shirt buttoned all the way up, a red whistle around his neck, and boyish blonde bangs hanging over his forehead.
"He was just really cute running up and down," Dorene says. "And he had that cute factor, being a little guy doing that. He had that for quite a few years. As he got older, I was like, ‘You better make sure you’re good because the cute factor’s kind of gone now because you’re kind of bigger now. So you gotta make sure that you get it all correct."
That was no problem for Jackson. He was ready to put in the work.
"You could just see that he loved it, you know?" Dorene says. "Even when we're watching games, and then you take your DVR, and you go backwards to replay a good play — you know, my younger son Johnnie is like, 'Oh, did you see that finish?' and then Jackson's like, 'Did you see how he rang that call up?' I mean, it was just, it's just a natural — you know that that's what he's gravitating towards."
One day, Dorene found her son practicing in the yard.
"I was so excited," Dorene recalls. "I'm like, 'Oh, cool. He's out there shooting.' And ... I opened up the door to go see what he was working on, and he's working on the jump ball. He's throwing it up and he’s working on that. So I'm like, 'Well, you know, OK, I thought you were working on some post moves. But good job, buddy.' "
Jackson, now 17, practices everyday at home, and even in the hallways when he’s at school.
"In the morning before you go to school — or work for most people — you practice your mechanics and your signals for about five minutes, and that helps a lot," Jackson says. "So, when the intense moment comes at the end of the game, you know, you have the mechanic down, and it's muscle memory and in your head and you're ready to go."
Jackson worked his way up from middle school games, all the way to the Division II college level. The certification process took about five years. It includes training camps, tryout camps and study groups with other officials.
At every camp and in every study group, one thing is always the same.
"So far, I have been the youngest at a camp," Jackson says. "We’ll see though. You never know."
A Long Future Ahead
Age has never been a deterrent for Jackson. Instead, it’s served as a motivator.
"A lot of my teachers and my parents and grandparents would say, 'If you put as much time into your science and your English homework as you did officiating, you'd be Valedictorian.' So I've put a lot of time into it, I think," Jackson says.
Jackson is past the point of being a little kid who looks cute in his officiating outfit. Now, as his mom says, "He has to know his stuff."
And he does.
"I definitely learned that there's a lot you need to know to be able to ref. You know, it's easy to sit up in the stands or sit at the bench and say, 'Why aren't they doing this? Why aren't they doing this?' " Jackson says. "And I finally got out there and did it. And it really is eye-opening. You know, you realize that there's a lot to officiating that most people don't understand."
Jackson admits that he does get nervous occasionally. His first college game was one of those times.
"I did an exhibition game ... up at Lake Superior State, and that was, I was really nervous for that game," Jackson says. "But, like always, once once the ball goes up, it's game time. So you better be ready to go.
"You know, there's the casual — the whole crowd boos or they all cheer, but I mean that's part of the game. We just have to kind of ignore that but enjoy the atmosphere as well."
To Jackson, officiating isn’t just a hobby. It’s his passion.
"Since he was 10, he was saying, ‘I'm gonna ref in the NBA,' so who knows if that's what's gonna happen for him?" Dorene says. "I can see him going to college, getting into either business or some kind of political-type ... who knows what he's gonna get into that way? He's got a lot of different aspirations. But he definitely wants, whatever his career is, he wants to be able to keep reffing."
In February, when he turns 18, the high school senior will have almost eight years of officiating to his name. So don’t be surprised if a few years from now you turn on an NBA game and see Jackson Ingalls with a whistle and a striped shirt.
This segment aired on August 15, 2020.