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Photo courtesy: of Terry Gilbert for Referee

Basketball players at every level use the summer months to improve their skills on the court. They often do so by playing in as many games that they can, be it pick-up, AAU or park league.

It’s a proven formula for success.

So if the players can improve by using this blueprint, why not referees?

Actually, that’s the exact path many officials in the greater New York City area have followed in their quest for development and advancement.

Officiating summer park-league games, like those held at legendary Holcombe Rucker Park in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan, gives referees invaluable experiences, according to veteran official Terry Gilbert, director of the Pro-Am Referee Training and Development Program.

Gilbert not only helps train officials but also assigns them to leagues throughout the New York metro area, including the Rucker Park League, where many of the top-flight high school, college and professional players display their talents.

“The leagues in New York have been a hotbed for players and officials for years,” Gilbert noted. “(Officials) get to see the size, speed, quickness and skills of players who have pro-like ability.”

He compared it to a junior varsity basketball player who wants to improve by playing against the varsity players.

“The same applies to officiating,” Gilbert said.

Just like the players, summer basketball in the parks is where the good officials become better.

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Tommy Morrissey, who travels all over the country officiating major college games as well as the NBA G League, has been refereeing at Rucker Park for five years.

“I would not have progressed as quickly in my career if I didn’t work at Rucker and some of the other leagues around the city,” Morrissey said. “The level of competition and intensity is amazing. Every play is life or death for these guys.”

Morrissey said the way he improved from a skills aspect, and gained the respect from players and fans, was officiating games as often as possible.

Over the last five years, he worked 65-70 games a summer. “If somebody asked me to go, I went,” he said.

The park leagues provide officials with the opportunity to referee players more mature than the high schoolers they officiate during the school season.

“They’re older, they’re faster, they’re bigger and they’re stronger,” said Will Mensah, another Rucker League referee who now officiates in the G League as well as small-college basketball.

Having grown up in the city, Mensah is familiar with NYC park ball, where the games can get physical and tempers often flare.

Morrissey admits the games can be taxing on officials.

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“You’re dealing with people with multiple emotions,” he said. “You just never know what can happen. At any point any coach, player or fan can lose their mind. It’s stressful. You have to be strong, you have to communicate and you have to be good. These guys are out there playing for a lot, not only pride, but a chance to show their skills and improve their game.”

 A tough environment

Morrissey noted the environment can toughen an official and actually “contribute to working on your craft to become the best you can be.”

Officiating a park league game can be like a class in conflict resolution.

“As a referee you have to learn how to argue and how to resolve issues,” remarked Morrissey.

“You learn quickly how to deal with emotions and people. You are there to make sure the game is being played fair,” Mensah said. “You have to let them know why you made a certain call.

“There’s no set way to deal with people. Every game and every person is different. You kind of learn about the players through the course of the game. You get the idea what kind of mood the player is in. You may not be able to say one thing to one person that you could to another.”

Gilbert developed a slogan that he uses to promote the Pro-Am program. He calls it “Bringing Unity to the Community.”

“It’s all about getting officials, players and coaches on the same page,” he remarked. “We also want to offer the fans an insight into basketball officiating. By doing this we want to foster a harmonious atmosphere (at the games).”

When it comes to fans, the crowds at Rucker Park are notorious for their zest for basketball and the players.

“Well, you have to know the dynamic of it,” Gilbert said. “A lot of these (fans) don’t have the chance or the means to go to the (Madison Square) Garden (to see top-flight basketball).”

“The crowd is interesting because you often have fans there who are not biased to one team, like when you do a college game,” Mensah said. “They just want to see a good basketball game.”

“The people in New York City know all the facets of good basketball,” added Morrissey. “They recognize good players, good coaches and they recognize good referees.”

Of course, like any game anywhere, they also think they can officiate, too.

“Everyone loves the game and wants to be part of it,” Mensah said.

“Sometimes when you’re outside there’s an issue of security,” Morrissey noted. “Rucker does a good job with security, but there’s always that element when you’re officiating a game.”

Because the fans are right on top of the action, officials have to be careful, especially when running along the sideline.

“You could step on someone’s foot and break your leg if you’re not careful,” Mensah noted.

All of which causes Morrissey to say, “If you can survive the summer pro-am circuit in New York City, you can survive any league in the world.”

Is refereeing a game outdoors different than one that’s played in a gym or stadium?

While Gilbert said, “Basketball is basketball and players play wherever,” Morrissey and Mensah said there are some distinct variances when the game is played outside.

“Weather can be a factor. You can’t rely on a jumper when the wind is blowing 20 miles per hour,” noted Morrissey.

A windy day likely means more drives to the basket.

“A lot of these guys, all they want to do is take it to the rack where you have to make the decision — foul or no foul? It’s much more difficult to constantly have plays that come right to the basket,” Morrissey said.

Mensah agreed.

“As an official, if there’s a lot of jump shots, it makes life easier,” he joked.

While there are plenty of other parks and leagues around New York City, as well as across the country, the Rucker Park Summer League, which is held from mid-June until about mid-August, is unique in many aspects.

For one, the park features a wooden court as opposed to concrete or asphalt. Secondly, it’s one of the only outdoor venues where a league has three officials, shot clocks and NBA rules.

The big names come out

Finally, it also frequently will have a number of current and former NBA stars show up to play.

“The players are different, the games are different. Everyone is trying to put on a show,” Mensah said. “In the Rucker Park League there are no set plays. It’s almost all one-on-one.”

When the pros are involved, the park draws huge crowds and wild responses. If you get the chance, check out some of the videos on the internet.

“Some of the guys who come through here to play are amazing … Kevin Durant, James Harden, Vince Carter, Kobe (Bryant),” said Gilbert, who witnessed Durant in one game hit seven straight 3-pointers, some from just a step inside the half-court line.

Decades ago those names included the likes of basketball Hall of Famers Julius (Dr. J) Erving, Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Earl Monroe and Wilt Chamberlain.

Gilbert admits that refereeing at Rucker when the pros show up is slightly different, so officials may let some of the stars get away with a violation or two.

“We have to be lenient to what is going on. After all, this is entertainment for a lot of these fans,” Gilbert remarked. “And we have to be grateful to those (NBA) guys for coming here.”

In his five years of officiating at Rucker Park, Morrissey has officiated games with the likes of NBA stars Durant, J.R. Smith and David Lee, to name a few. He said his most memorable experience involved Durant.

“Kevin came to the park and brought along Jason Williams (former NBA first-round draft pick of the Chicago Bulls and current ESPN analyst) and some other pros to play against the Sean Bell All-Stars, the best team in the city,” he said.

The game didn’t get started at Rucker until 11 p.m. It had to be moved because the court was slippery from the humidity, increasing the risk of injury.

“At least 500 people left the park to go to the Gauchos Gym across the bridge in the Bronx,” Morrissey said.

“KD did not take the game lightly. The crowd was on him. It got so wild they had to get security.”

The experience of officiating some of the NBA players increases the excitement level.

“You can feel the energy in the crowd,” said Mensah, who has refereed in games that included NBA pros Kemba Walker, Metta World Peace (Ron Artest), Lance Stevenson, Nick Young and Durant.

“Not only do the players want to do well, you want to do your best job so you can grow from it,” he said.

Gilbert said that several current major college and NBA officials come back to Rucker Park in the summer to referee a few league games in order to work on their craft.

Officiating at Rucker Park has allowed Gilbert, Morrissey and Mensah the chance to work alongside and learn from current NBA referees.

“I remember the first game I ever did with Zach Zarba. I was nervous. But I felt a sense of accomplishment. Here I am now refereeing with an NBA official,” Morrissey said. “It encouraged me to work even harder.”

Zarba, Kane Fitzgerald and Marat Kogut are three recent products of the Pro-Am Referee Training and Development Program that have made it all the way to the NBA.

“Those guys started the same way I did,” Morrissey said.

Another benefit of working the park leagues is the camaraderie of the officials from all levels.

“You get to talk with the other officials, whether it’s halftime or after the game,” Mensah said. “They may ask you about a certain play and suggest that you take a better angle the next time.”

Gilbert was playing in one of the New York area pro-am leagues when official Tom Washington, who has worked in the NBA for more than 27 years, said something to him following a game that stuck.

“He told me, ‘Since you like to talk, why not become an official?’” Gilbert joked.

The New York City native took it to heart and began his journey in officiating.

The climb began on the lower levels before eventually culminating with 10 years in NCAA Division I basketball in several different conferences as well as Spain.

All of his experience brought Gilbert, now 50, back to where he first learned the game, the parks of New York City.

And that’s similar to how Mensah and Morrissey got their starts.

“It’s odd how I got started,” said the 40-year-old Mensah. “I stopped playing ball and I wanted to stay in shape but I didn’t have the discipline to just go out and run by myself. I thought by officiating I could stay close to the game and keep in shape. I soon realized it could definitely become a career.”

While not everyone can referee Rucker Park League games, there are summer leagues across the country where officials can gain valuable knowledge and experience.

“The more plays you see, the more you have in your memory bank,” Mensah said. “You see a lot of plays, and if it happens again, you have an idea how to call it.”

It’s all part of the officiating learning curve.

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