Monday, July 15, 2013

The Call: The Interview

This week's Spirit Launcher is Michael Kitts. He has been a college basketball referee for close to forty years.  I chose his story because it is so different from anyone that I personally have met. Michael's story is the perfect example of allowing life's experiences to take us wherever it is we need to go.  This is his story.

Born in Syracuse, New York, Michael's officiating career began as a bet made by a referee while he was playing in his own college basketball game. Michael admitted, "I was always really hard on the referees when I played basketball.  I was always complaining and questioning their calls.  During one game a referee got tired of hearing me complain and said to me, if you think you know so much why don't you take the test? So I did."

Michael began officiating at the high school level.  He began at the freshman level and then moved to Junior Varsity and Varsity games.  After building a name for himself,  Michael took another test and was able to apply to the college level and was accepted.  Michael was at the time officiating D-II and D-III games.  "When I got into college refereeing it was called lower D-I.  At the time it was called the ECAC North Atlantic. I was thirty four years old.  That was my first D-I league. And I went from there to the Big East, which I officiated there for twenty six years.  I got into a little bit of a disagreement with the office and told them that if they didn't rescind a decision I was going to quite.  I quit and got picked up by the Big Ten.  I've been in this league for about eighteen years and the last three years I've had the Big Ten final basketball tournament.  This upcoming year which will be 2013-2014, is going to be my last year refereeing. There is a supervisors job and you can't do both, so I'm going to retire this next year from refereeing altogether."

Upon retirement from officiating, Michael will then take over the supervising position with the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.  "Never in my wildest dreams when I started refereeing at twenty four did I think I would be where I'm at now," stated Michael. "I initially starting refereeing just to prove the ref wrong that was challenging me to do it.  I've always been like that.  Someone tells me I can't do something I'm going to prove that I can.  Little did I know when I started doing it, that it would lead to where I'm at today."

What was it about officiating that made you want to stick with it?
"It's almost like a competition where you don't want to miss a play, but the game of basketball you have so many variables involved it's really hard to have a perfect game.  You just have to get to the point where coaches and players feel comfortable with you.  I'm at a level now nationally where all of the coaches that I deal with know who I am, and its really self satisfying that you go out and do a game, you do a good job and they appreciate it."

"The relationship doesn't happen over night.  It's doing a good job by creating a level playing field.  Even if it's the home team playing, and say you're at Indiana and they're playing Michigan. I really don't care that Indiana is the home team.  I need both teams to have a level playing field so anybody has a chance to win.  I think I've developed that over the years and that is what has made me successful in what I've done in officiating.  It's been a really good career."

How do you remain a sports fan, yet be able to stay unbiased as a referee?
"I can go into a game and I don't care if Kentucky is playing Indiana or if Duke is playing North Carolina. It's something that you want to do that you give both teams a chance to win.  When I am officiating I don't care who wins. I really don't."

How is it different when you are watching a game as opposed to refereeing?
"When I'm watching I am so critical of referees.  I don't want to see referees mess up. I want them to get every play right and I don't want any controversy and just want the game to end fine.  Sometimes it doesn't happen like that. You hope it doesn't happen in your games.  The media is so involved in college basketball anymore that if you screw up, you see it on ESPN for days after.  When I'm refereeing the last few minutes of the game I'm saying to myself, don't screw up or you'll be on ESPN for two or three days (laughter)!"

How does it feel when you make a call that the fans don't agree with? How do you make a hard call?
"I know when I referee a game there can't be anymore than two or three calls that I think I should have called or didn't call.  So when I go back and look at a game there are only a few plays that enter into how the game is going to come out.  I just want to make sure I get them right.  Sometimes I miss them though, I'm human.  I'm not perfect.  It's an instinctive reaction when you see a play.  You don't think what should I do?  When I make a call it's something that I see visually and in my brain I think this is what the call is going to be, I have conviction and then I make the call. It doesn't matter who is going to be upset with me by what call.  I always make what I feel at the time is the right call."

Since you are getting closer to your last games refereeing, and now you are coaching upcoming referees, what are your hopes for the future in refereeing? Who did you look up to when you were starting?
"I'm going to have clinics and I'm a good instructor so I just want young referees to do well and aspire to be where I'm at someday. The only person I looked up to is a gentleman by the name of Hank Nichols, who I watched coming up.  Hank ultimately took over the NCAA tournament, which I refereed Final Fours for him. He had all the big games and there was just something about him, a confidence and people were just drawn to him. He is a personal friend of mine today and he is one of the best referees of all times.  He was recently inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame."

What advice would you have for new referees just getting started?
"I always tell young referees, you have to be a good listener, have patience and be able to communicate.  If you think that you have all of the answers and you're going to justify every call that I question you on, then I really don't want you refereeing for me.  You have to be able to take constructive criticism and self evaluate yourself.  If you can't do any of those things then you're not a referee that I want."

Thank you Michael for sharing your story.  Your story is proof that no matter what you are called to do in life, if you have heart and are persistent, life beyond your wildest dreams becomes a definite reality. For more information go to

As always with love,


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