Gary Durbin's memory of officials during his high school football days is not complicated.
"I didn't even notice they were on the field," he said, "unless there was a bad call."
Eventually, he did take notice of the officials and their duties, and joined their ranks. Durbin, executive vice president of the Lexington Legends, is now in his 26th season of calling college basketball.
After his college playing career, Durbin still had a desire to, in his words, "stay in the game."
"Some of my friends were doing basketball, so I started basketball," he recalled. "Soon after that I got into football and loved it. That was the way it started."
He eventually focused on college basketball, and has officiated at the Division I level, though most of his experience is in NCAA Division II and NAIA. His schedule now includes about 30-35 games per season involving NAIA schools such as Georgetown, Pikeville, Cumberlands, Campbellsville, Lindsey Wilson and others. A weeknight game will follow a full workday with the Legends, for whom he has worked since they began operations in 2001, and Saturdays are almost always booked for basketball in January and February.
"Gary's officiating has helped him build a large network of relationships in sports throughout the region," said Legends President/CEO Andy Shea. In addition to the fun of being involved in college basketball, that network and the skills needed to be a good official have helped build our company culture at the ballpark as well. It's great that he continues to be a familiar part of the sports scene in Kentucky throughout the year."
Getting his start in officiating involved registering with the Kentucky High School Athletic Association and attending camps for instruction in the basics. Durbin's first supervisor was Bobby Flynn, a legend in Lexington sports from his playing days with the Lexington Hustlers baseball team in the 1940s to his longtime and current involvement with the Legends and University of Kentucky event staffs, assisting media and fans at games.
"We lined up like soldiers," Durbin said of the camp. "Bobby would say 'violation,' and we would put our hand up open, then he would say 'foul' and you would close your fist for a foul."
Junior high and junior varsity assignments followed for about two years, and then it was on to high school varsity basketball games, the first in Tollesboro, Kentucky in 1985.
"The next thing you know, it's just opening up, and everything kind of blossoms," he said. "Doors open when they see you can officiate a little bit."
He received his first college assignment in 1990, and worked both college and high school games for several years after that. It was around that time that three-man crews became common.
Even with three officials in a crew, the speed of the game continues to provide a challenge.
"It's really fast," Durbin said. "The players have gotten so much bigger and better, it's almost as if the court isn't big enough. People can watch the game and see a foul, but when you put the whistle to a foul, or the flag to the foul if you're calling football, that's the hard part. You can see 'that's a walk.' But when you have to blow the whistle, stop play, make the call - that's different."
But, he said, the best officials know when not to blow the whistle. He says that's what separates good officials from great ones. He doesn't enjoy a free-throw shooting contest any more than the average fan does.
"Fifty-something free throws by each team? Everybody can blow the whistle," he said. "Only a few can take it through the whole play."
A part of his preparation is a conversation with his teammates on an officiating crew. They might cover rule changes, or team tendencies. If a team is known for attempting a lot of three-point shots, there might be a reminder about watching the three-point line.
"We have to make sure we stay focused," he said. "We have to be there an hour and fifteen minutes before the game. What better way to prepare than to talk about tendencies and what to look for in that game?"
Of course, every game involves a working relationship with coaches. Communication is the key, he says.
"I think it's paramount. It's one of the most important things in the business…communication. It's different for every official, but for me, having been around a long time, the biggest thing is to listen to them. If they have a question, talk to them. If they're just talking, you have to ignore that. And I'll just ask them - do you have a question? Are you asking me a question?"
If the coach does have a question, Durbin might signal his officiating partners to hold play while he answers the question.
"I might say 'I might have missed that one,' or I might say 'I think I got that one, my angle was a little different from yours.' And we can communicate that way. And he knows I'm giving him the time of day by saying that. But if he's just saying 'You missed that one, you missed that one,' that's not communicating - that's him doing the refereeing. Then I might stop play and say 'Coach, stop refereeing.' That's the difference. He knows then that I'm not going to listen to that."
He officiated the 2009 NAIA national championship game, a memorable assignment for him in that it was a big game with a title on the line. But a regular season game in 1996 involving Georgetown College still holds a more personal meaning. It turned out to be the last home game for Georgetown coach Jim Reid, who was seriously ill at the time and passed away not long after the season ended. The two had long-standing mutual respect.
At that final home game, "he could barely make it up the steps," Durbin recalled. "Georgetown went on to play in the national championship. Later, when I went to his visitation, his wife told me 'Jim thought a lot of you.' It meant a lot."
The desire to "stay in the game" also results in connecting with young people who might also consider officiating.
"I've talked to my son and others about it," he said. "It's a great opportunity, not only to stay in the game, but if you do move up, Division I offers a great money-making opportunity. There are friends of mine who are making really good money. If it works out for you to do it - if you have a job where you can travel, and if you have a family that understands you'll be out on the road three or four nights a week - it's a great opportunity."
Earning the respect of those involved in the game has been the most satisfying part of his officiating career, he said.
"That and being able to give back to the game," he said. "Just the respect I've earned, and being able to help people. When I started, people like Dave Bair, Jake Bell, John Drake, Ken Cox and Doug Hampton were there, and I looked up to them. Now, I feel like the younger people look up to me, and if I can give to them what those guys gave to me when I was getting started, that's pretty cool."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.