As a kid Teddy Valentine couldn’t get the words to come out. They were in there, buried beneath the trauma of something he couldn’t unsee, but he just c-c-c-couldn’t …
As if life wasn’t hard enough. Raised by his mom, a single factory worker, along with three other kids. Lived in a housing project in Glen Dale, W.Va. He can still see the cardboard his mom stuffed into her shoes atop the worn soles. Didn’t know his dad until junior high, when a stranger introduced himself as Henry Whitman Valentine Jr.
That was the same year Teddy and two buddies were goofing around with a gun, and one buddy shot himself in the head. Teddy watched him die. He was 13. All of a sudden, he can’t t-t-talk. He kept to himself in high school, embarrassed by his stuttering, an introvert where a gregarious kid used to be. Baseball was his outlet, and the ball spoke for him when he pitched and played first base for John Marshall High School. He played at Glenville State. Made second team all-conference.
Along the way he worked with two speech therapists and stumbled onto a career. He was pushing a broom in a basketball gym, doing janitorial work for work-study cash, and liked the way those two gentlemen in stripes were calling the game, as if they loved their work. He decided right there. He would become a college referee.
It was on the basketball court Ted Valentine found his voice. It was not quiet.
He still has those size 12 Cole Haan leather shoes, 35 years after buying them in Chicago. Wears them every time he leaves his home near Charleston, S.C., for Wescott Golf Club. Puts them in the trunk of his Chevy Silverado, puts on his golf shoes. The bottoms of those Cole Haans wore out years ago, but Ted Valentine won’t throw them away. He puts cardboard in there, just like his mama used to do. His way of honoring Hattie Jean Milliken’s memory.
He’s a sentimental man, this infamous NCAA referee known for his combustible theatrics. He can be a knucklehead too. Or he could be, back in the day.
One day was in 1979. Basketball season, and Ted Valentine always wanted to be a basketball coach. True story. He never played organized basketball, just street ball, but he loved the game and wanted to coach. He got his first chance in 1979 at Weston (W.Va.) Junior High. He was an assistant coach on the girls’ team when head coach Karen Pickens took maternity leave. Valentine replaced her, and in his first game drew three technical fouls.
He was ejected before halftime. As Valentine left the gym he passed Weston’s principal, who growled, “You just coached your last game.”
Imagine: Ted Valentine was ejected from the only basketball game he ever coached.
Two years later he could still be a knucklehead. This day is in 1981, and Ted Valentine is about to dump a cooler of ice water out the window, onto sunbathers below. It’s down time at a camp for basketball officials at a small college near Bristol, Conn., and somebody dared Valentine to do it.
And you don’t dare Ted Valentine. “I was a daredevil,” he says. “You told me to jump off a building, I’d probably do it.”
The guy running the camp, a future Naismith Hall of Fame official named Dallas Shirley, asked his campers who dumped the ice water. He was breathing fire, Dallas Shirley, and Ted Valentine decided to honor his father. Dad wasn’t around for his childhood, but Henry Valentine Jr. tried to make up for that later. He was a coal miner in a power plant along the Ohio River. Before that he fought in Korea as a U.S. Marine. And Henry Valentine always told Ted: A real man stands up.
Dallas Shirley was irate that day in 1981. Ted Valentine stood up. “Mr. Shirley,” 22-year-old Ted Valentine said, “I’m the one who threw the water and I’m so, so sorry.” “Young man,” Dallas Shirley told Valentine, “you need to pack up and go home.”
Imagine: Ted Valentine was ejected from referee camp.
A few months later Valentine received a letter from the Southern Conference coordinator of officials — a man named Dallas Shirley — offering him a job as a referee.
“Mr. Shirley said, ‘Anybody who can stand up and be a man and say he made a mistake, he could be a pretty good referee,’” Valentine says. “The rest is history.”
Since 1981, Ted Valentine has worked 60 conference tournaments and 27 NCAA tournaments. He has worked the Elite Eight seven times. Worked his first of six Final Fours at age 31. Four times he has officiated the national championship game.
Since 1981, Ted Valentine has made a lot of people mad.
“TV Teddy,” college basketball fans call him, and yes, he’s aware of that. He gets it — he’s gone too far over the years. It started in 1986, and it wasn’t even his idea. That was the year the Big Ten’s supervisor of officials, Bob Wortman, hired him and trained him personally, taking him up into the bleachers at Ohio State to watch officials work the game below. Don’t do this, Wortman would say. Don’t do that.
Another thing Wortman told Valentine: “You’re babyfaced. You look 25. Coaches aren’t going to respect you at first, so I want you to ‘T’ up every coach this season, whether you’re scared, babyfaced, or not.”
Says Valentine: “And I followed his instruction. I T’d up every (Big Ten) coach that year.”
Valentine spent the next 30 years prowling, preening, enraging. Friends will tell you he’s not TV Teddy in his down time, that he’s closer to the introvert he was in high school.
“But you get me on that basketball court, it’s like a light just lights up over me,” says Valentine, 58. “That’s the two hours I get to express all my emotions and feelings. But after the game I go back to my other side. Very quiet.”
Next time you see him working a game, pay attention when he’s off to himself, arms crossed, left hand on his cheek. That’s Valentine, trying to gather his emotions. Remember his infamous ejection of Bob Knight in 1998? Before Knight stalked off the court, he was screaming at Valentine — who stood there and listened, his arms crossed, left palm on his face.
He’s not perfect. Valentine has always known that. That rookie year in the Big Ten, he was working Indiana’s game at Wisconsin and blew a call. Whistled a phantom foul on Wisconsin that led to two points for the Hoosiers. Indiana won, 86-85, in triple overtime, and Valentine called Steve Yoder and apologized.
That’s not the Ted Valentine you know and loathe, right? Try this: A Michigan fan was heckling him a few years ago at Crisler Arena. Valentine heard what the guy said, and when he got to his hotel room that night, he cried.
“Valentine,” the man yelled, “you’re a great referee. But you’re fat!” Valentine turned his head, saw the guy. At the next timeout a security guard asked if he wanted the fan ejected.
“No sir,” Valentine responded. “He’s telling the truth.”
It hurt. His mom had died in 2006 from complications of obesity. She weighed close to 300 pounds, and this is how he honored her memory? By going down the same path? Valentine cried that night, then made himself a promise: He’d lose weight. When he started as an official, the 6-1½ Valentine was about 210 pounds. When he worked the 2010 national championship game between Duke and Butler, he weighed 250.
Valentine watched video of his recent work and was unimpressed. He was slower, not always in the best position. To be blunt, he was fat. Back home he had a picture of another Michigan game, this one from 1993, where he’s slim and standing next to Jalen Rose. He took down the photo.
“I decided I’m going to get back to that,” he says. “I looked at myself on TV and said, ‘I want to get into HD shape.’ Some of us (referees) have gotten lazy because of the things we’ve achieved. We’ve refereed on who we are and what we are. I decided no, I’m not going that way.”
He lifted weights, stopped hanging out at night with buddies, bought meal plans from Nutrisystem. He weighs 202 pounds these days.
For 30 years Valentine has worked nearly every March Madness, but he missed it in 2015 to be with his brother, Henry Harris. Henry smoked too much, ate too much, ended up in a hospice in Perry, Ohio, last March. Valentine spent the final weeks with him, watching the Cleveland Cavaliers — Henry’s team — on TV.
Six months later Valentine was back in northern Ohio, in another nursing home. He revered his old boss in the Big Ten, Bob Wortman, the first person to referee a Super Bowl (1972) and a college basketball championship game (1976). In September 2015 Wortman was in a nursing home in Findlay, Ohio. Valentine remembers forgetting his hat once and returning to Wortman’s room, only to find him struggling to get to the bathroom. Valentine helped him do what he had to do, cleaned him up and hugged him goodbye.
“My heart was at my feet the whole time,” Valentine says. “He had dementia. Couldn’t remember me, but I could tell the way he kept looking at me, he could see me. Bob Wortman took a chance and gave me 30 games, and I learned how to referee. It was on-the-job training.”
A few years ago Valentine decided he was too flamboyant. Don’t be so showy all the time, he told himself. His showdown with Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin in March 2014 was the tipping point. Valentine made a theatrical call against Cincinnati and lost control when Cronin objected, getting in the UC coach’s face.
Valentine thinks he made progress this past season, less TV Teddy, more controlled, but he pursues the impossible. “I know what I want,” Ted Valentine says. “It’s a perfection you’ll never, ever achieve.”
It’s a soft Southern drawl he has, a gentleness he is trying to reconcile with his oncourt alter ego. Once upon a time he needed the bombastic voice of TV Teddy to be heard, but things have changed. Valentine isn’t that traumatized young man anymore. He talks just fine now.
He’ll keep looking for the right voice.
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