Jim Burch, ACC’s first African-American official, remembered as ‘a pillar of strength’

Coordinator of officials Jim Burch watches the action and the refs during the Georgia Southern-UT-Chattanooga game. Photo by Todd Bennett 3/5/04
Coordinator of officials Jim Burch watches the action and the refs during the Georgia Southern-UT-Chattanooga game. Photo by Todd Bennett 3/5/04 The State

One of the first images inside the program at the funeral for Jim Burch, Jr. is a photo of a young Burch with Ralph Sampson, the 7-4 former star center from the University of Virginia, towering over him.

Sampson, in his orange UVA jersey, and Burch, in his black and white basketball officiating shirt, create quite the physical contrast. But as those close to Burch spoke about him at his funeral, it was clear he was the one who had the stature of a man twice his size with the impact he made in the world of college basketball.

Burch, 91, died at his home in Apex on Sunday, and his celebration of life was held at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Raleigh on Friday.

The bottom floor of the sanctuary was filled with Burch’s family, friends, former colleagues and referee pupils, many of whom spoke about how Burch planted the seed in them to call games, as he watched them develop throughout the years.

Burch was a pioneer, becoming the first African-American basketball official in the ACC, calling his first game in 1969. A graduate of Fayetteville State University, Burch started calling games at the high school level, before moving to the CIAA in 1959.

He paved the way for basketball officials like Ted Valentine and Haywood Bostic by calling games in the South at a time when African-American men weren’t always welcome to officiate.

Valentine told a story about being with Burch at Reynolds Coliseum and Burch standing for the National Anthem with tears streaming down his face, remembering what he had overcome to get there. Years before, Burch sat with his friends in the stands in that same building, in the section reserved for African-Americans, telling them he would be on that floor one day. They laughed at him, but years later, Burch was on that court officiating.

“I looked up in the rafters (at Reynolds) and was asking myself could I have gone through what he went through,” Valentine said during his speech. “He was a pillar of strength.”

Before retiring last year, Burch served as the coordinator of officials for the CIAA, SAC and Southern Conference. He had a background as a teacher and administrator in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, but his real teaching came to those who wore a whistle, and black and white stripes during college basketball games.

Valentine was one of several officials who was introduced to Burch at one of his camps for officials, where he handed out ‘The Burch Bible,’ an instructional book with his tips and insight on the world of officiating.

Jamie Luckie, a well-known college basketball official, said the word legend is overused today, but fits Burch perfectly.

“They say there are no more legends in refereeing,” Luckie said in his speech at the funeral. “But truly my friend Mr. Burch was a living legend and is a legend in our hearts forever.”

Former and current referees took up multiple pews on both sides of the church and delegates from the CIAA, including current commissioner Jacqie McWilliams and former commissioner Leon Kerry, were also there. Each spoke at Burch’s service about the impact he made. Kerry took credit for bringing Burch to the CIAA, but was quick to point out Burch didn’t work for him, the two worked together.

“I was surprised how we both had the same type of attitude, we both wanted the same things,” Kerry said during the service. “The most important thing is we were successful.”

Kerry added that Burch “walked like he was 7-feet tall,” a man small in stature, but could command a room when he spoke.

At one point the Rev. Robert L. Hodges, Sr. asked everyone who worked with Burch to stand, and the majority of the people in attendance did. Many were officials, and some were coaches and people who worked in sports administration. Those who spoke at the funeral came with stories and positive memories of the life Burch lived and how he touched them.

Almost every speaker addressed Burch’s family, including his wife Arcrena, telling them they are not alone.

“Jim left an army here for you,” Kerry spoke to Arcrena Burch. “You don’t ever have to worry, if you ever need something, all of them (the officials) can handle it.”

Sports reporter Jonas Pope IV covers college recruiting, high school sports, NC Central and the ACC for the Herald-Sun and The News & Observer.