By Heather Burnside
(radio interview by Travis Justice, Heather Burnside, and Sean Roberts)
Sometimes all it takes to check on the pulse of society is to attend a youth sporting event, or in this case, a freshman basketball game at an AAU tournament.
John Higgins has the resume, and the reputation, to be considered one of the top referees in NCAA basketball. He's officiated multiple Final Fours, been downwind of the outrage spittle from the likes of Bobby Knight, Bob Huggins, and Mike Krzyzewski, and gotten doxxed by angry Kentucky fans. In other words...he's pretty much seen it all. Or Higgins thought he had seen it all, before he offered to referee an AAU tournament in Council Bluffs, Iowa, with his 15 year old son. (MORE STORY BELOW)
John's son was actually supposed to call the game with another 15 year old friend of his, but his buddy couldn't make it at the last minute, so that's how a highly qualified, Final Four referee found himself blowing the whistle at a freshman AAU game. And, by Higgins' description, not even "the high level freshman teams...this is probably mid-level maybe, at best. And I'm being really kind, I believe."
The tournament director was thrilled just to have some officials, as they are hard to find these days, despite lowering requirements to having a pulse, a whistle, and a tolerance for being berated by irate parents. Higgins said the first game went smoothly, and his son was quickly learning that refereeing a game isn't "just blowing a whistle and running". But game two quickly started to go downhill when, as HIggins described it, one of the teams started playing really physical. A double flagrant foul, and a double technical foul were issued. One player in particular, number 38, stood out as not only overly physical, but mouthy. Not surprisingly, the kid with an attitude fouled out. Somewhat surprisingly, his team also managed to win the game.
But this wouldn't be a story about how our society is doomed, or maybe just devolving into a cesspool of stupidity, if the story ended there. The overly aggressive coach of this overly-aggressive team used language so foul during a timeout, to his own team, that Higgins wasn't comfortable repeating what the coach said on the radio. Higgins said he probably should have teed the coach up right then, or maybe even stopped the game, but "I was trying to be kind. I wasn't trying to be the Division I official coming in to a freshman AAU game. I was just trying to fit in". Unfortunately, Higgins was about to find out how much he was, in fact, fitting in.
After the game, Attitude Kid (aka # 38) walked up to Higgins, "put his middle finger up, and tells me 'You f**ing suck'". Higgins ejected him from the rest of the tournament. Then the coach came after Higgins, and he was also ejected from the tournament. The tournament organizers were fully behind these ejections. They also interviewed the coach to get his take about what happened, and when asked who number 38 is, Higgins said the coach told them, "I coach a lot of kids, I don't know who number 38 is".
Ready to fill in the obvious blanks? Number 38 is the coach's son. The coach had no idea it was NCAA referee John Higgins working his game under after it was over. In fact, during the game, Higgins said when he talked to the coach about his own behavior, he "pulled out his cell phone, and took my picture. I said 'Fine, take my picture. Tell your guy who's running this tournament Higgins worked your game'".
Higgins is still surprised that at the end of the day, when he changed his shoes and put down his whistle, THIS was his experience working (basically volunteering) at an AAU basketball tournament. When asked to rank where this coach and his behavior ranks in the all-time ranks of pissed off coaches, Higgins said, "He's probably close to the top. I mean, I've had situations where we've ran (Bob) Huggins, (John) Calipari, I mean big time coaches...Bob Knight. This guy...he's way up there, and unfortunately he's coaching the youth of today. Which is sad. It's just sad."
No story about AAU sports would be complete without an ancedote about parents berating Higgins' 15 year old son and his friend at the next game they officiated, all under the blanket of entitlement they called "WE PAY A LOT OF MONEY FOR OUR KID TO PLAY THIS SPORT". Higgins was at the game to help teach his son and his friend about the basics of refereeing- positioning, how to call fouls vs. out of bounds, etc. Willing kids, wanting to learn. Higgins told us 80 to 85 percent of first-time officials never come back because of fan/parent behavior.
So the next time you're at a youth sporting event and nobody wants to umpire, or be a ref, remember this story, and that statistic. We're not sure when some parents and coaches are going to stop being part of the problem and start becoming the solution...but it's probably not going to be any time soon.