Jacobs: Sons of sports refs motivated despite downsides

correspondentFebruary 5, 2014 

They never lost the passion developed accompanying their fathers to arenas near home, enjoying behind-the-scenes access before fans filled seats and games commenced. The offspring of pro athletes tell similar tales of growing up around basketball. But players’ sons often hear their dads cheered and celebrated. The odd breed who follow their fathers into game officiating do so despite a work ethic that values a low profile, as well as an ability to withstand vitriolic serenades from which children are normally shielded.

“Some people have lawyers for dads, doctors for dads,” said ACC game official Bryan Kersey, whose father, Jess Kersey, enjoyed a long career in the American and National Basketball Associations. “Mine was a referee, so I was a referee junkie, I guess, when I was a kid.”

Kersey, 51, became enraptured with officiating when his father took him to Virginia Squires and Carolina Cougars games during the 1970s. The Newport News native avidly recalled sitting on arena floors getting acquainted with ABA greats such as Artis Gilmore, Dan Issel, George Gervin and Julius Irving. “It was a whole lot of fun,” he said.

Like other officiating chips off the old block, Kersey became a referee while a high school student. The 10th grader’s first game might have discouraged some people. When the middle school contest ended, the losing coach punched the younger Kersey in the head as he left the floor. Police on the scene immediately arrested the coach. “That was a great way to start my career,” Kersey says, laughing. “I’m sure there’s coaches out there now that wouldn’t mind following me out and throwing a couple (of punches) every now and then.”

While his father went on to earn a place in the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame as a professional referee, Bryan Kersey said a full-time job as an NBA official “was never my dream and aspiration.” Instead, he prefers the excitement and unpredictability of college basketball. “I lived the NBA atmosphere from the sidelines,” he said. “I grew up watching the ACC. I enjoy this a whole lot more.”

That enjoyment has not infected his own offspring. “I guess my son sat in too many stands and heard what they called me,” Kersey said. “Like I told him, my last name’s going to stay the same. My first name’s going to change a few times.”

Jeff Nichols, whose father Hank Nichols is one of 14 referees enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, similarly accompanied his father on drives from their Pennsylvania home to venues in the ACC and Northeast. He liked it so much, he too is now an ACC official. “I probably remember the most that in Cole Field House where the officials dressed, the room next door was the wrestling room,” the younger Nichols said of Maryland’s old basketball arena. “For a young kid, that was kind of the ultimate playground, with the mats and the other equipment they had in there.”

Nichols, 46, also began officiating in high school and worked prep games through college at Duke, where he played club baseball. (He doesn’t referee ACC games at Duke.) He has yet to achieve national prominence. That’s in contrast to his father, who worked 10 Final Fours and nine ACC tournament title games before retiring to become the NCAA’s first national coordinator of basketball officials. “I think, fortunately, I’m not at that point where the fans all know who I am,” Jeff Nichols said.

Not that Nichols escapes notice entirely. He recalled a game at West Virginia when familial recognition was accompanied by a rebuke. “We went to a media timeout after a call and it was relatively quiet in the gym,” he said. “And from behind me I could hear, clear as day, someone stand up and yell, ‘Nichols, your father sucked, too!’”

Of course verbal abuse goes with the territory.

Hearing his father excoriated by fans “never bothered me,” Tim Clougherty insisted. “He would be screamed at and yelled at. I thought it was really a neat thing.” John Clougherty, a former ACC referee, worked 12 Final Fours and is a member of the N.C. High School Athletic Association hall of fame. The older Clougherty has been the ACC’s Coordinator of Officials for Men’s Basketball since 2005.

Tim Clougherty, 46, works Division I basketball games in most major leagues, avoiding the ACC once his father became supervisor. “To this day, if you interviewed 98 percent of the officials out there, whether it’s football, whether it’s baseball, whether it’s basketball, the screaming and yelling and booing never really bothers you a lot from the fans,” he said.

Clougherty and a younger brother, Pat, often traveled from their home in Raleigh to games their father officiated. Tim Clougherty has “vivid memories” of the pre-teen pair exploring the basement of Reynolds Coliseum with an equipment manager; a highlight was trying on the basketball shoes of 7-5 N.C. State center Chuck Nevitt. But Pat, later an All-ACC outfielder at N.C. State, shied from their father’s path. “He didn’t want an officiating lifestyle,” Tim Clougherty said. “He hates to get yelled at. He was a very good baseball player growing up. He’s always been used to cheers and does not want anything to do with getting screamed at.”

The second-generation referees largely speak well of changes in the avocation since their fathers’ era.

Flamboyance like sliding on bended knee or racing from afar to make a call is discouraged. Personal expression is limited to small interactions with courtside spectators – handing the ball to a child during a timeout, exchanging fist bumps with a TV camera person, exchanging teasing banter with respectful students in the stands.

“A lot of the flair of refereeing is gone,” Bryan Kersey said approvingly. “We’re more professional. There’s so many games on TV now that we just can’t get all hyper and crazy. There’s never going to be another Lou Bello, there’s never going to be another Lenny Wirtz or Dick Paparo or any of those guys.”

There is more stress on communication these days. Immediately after a game, officials get video critiques of their performances from the league office on iPads. (Kersey said he gets unbidden post-game analysis from his father, too.) Talking with coaches during a contest is also preferred, and generally relieves tension.

“Sometimes you’re a little bit of everything,” Tim Clougherty said of a referee’s role. “Sometimes you’re a psychologist. Sometimes you’re a babysitter. Sometimes you’re a policeman. Sometimes you’ve got to be a good partner to your other two partners.”

Players are stronger, bigger, and faster, making it tougher to keep up. “Ty Lawson was a hundred miles per hour,” Kersey recalled wearily of North Carolina’s point guard during the late 2000s.

Some things don’t change. Travel is nearly constant during the winter, and regular jobs must be flexible. Officials like to take their children with them to games. Bad legs and backs are occupational hazards from hours running the hardwood. Maintaining composure within high-pressure circumstances remains essential. And you’ve got to get the call right, or at least act like you did.

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