Metro-East Living

Not even a heart attack keeps basketball ref from the game

Tuesday was a rare night off for basketball ref Gary Gustafson. So what did he plan to do?

“Watch my grandson play. He’s a high school junior. He’s playing in Centralia for Central City.”

Gary, who turned 60 on Jan. 26, is a familiar figure on basketball courts around the metro-east. He has been racing up and down the hardwood for 40 years. Recently, he was at Triad on a Wednesday, Belleville East on Thursday, Salem on Friday night and had a college game Saturday in Lincoln.

Not even a heart attack while reffing a 2008 game could stop him. After quadruple bypass surgery, he was back at it.

“I was in good shape when that happened. My wife (Phyllis) works at Anderson Hospital. We eat healthy, work out. It snuck up on me. I had no idea ... The last time I went to see my cardiologist, he said, ‘I don’t need to see you for two more years.’ I’ve seen the entire film (of that night) one time. I don’t ever want to see it again.”

Support from family and his job keeps him in the game.

“My wife comes from a sports family,” said Gary, Illinois sales supervisor for Da-Com, a document management business. “My mother-in-law, who is 86, plays 18 holes three days a week and plays well. My wife is very athletic. She’s been my rock and support my whole career.”

The Gustafsons, who live in Troy, have a bike trail behind their house where they get exercise. Family keeps them busy, too.

“We enjoy our three children — two sons and a daughter — and eight grandchildren, six grandsons and two granddaughters. We have a pool in the backyard, and something is going on on the weekends all summer long.”

His son Jeff, is also a basketball ref.

“He was a very good athlete at Triad, an all-state wide receiver. He’s now in his third year of officiating. I get to work quite a few games with him. He’s off to a good start, a lot better than me when I was 26 years old.”

What made you decide to be a ref? “I played basketball all through school. At 5-foot-9, I was a point guard. You don’t last long at college at that height. It was a way of staying in the game.”

How did you start? “I was originally from Carlyle. I’ve been in the Troy-Collinsville area 30 years. The way I got my start is I coached a sixth-grade team in Carlyle. If you were coaching, you had to stick around and ref the next game. A gentleman from Carlyle who had been an official for years said, ‘Gary, do you ever think about doing this full time and getting your license?’ ‘No, not really.’ ‘You should. You have got a feel for what you are looking at.’ Dad was an official for 12 years. He told me the same thing. That’s what got me to get licensed. I started with fifth, sixth, junior high, freshmen, sophomores. I eventually got to the high school and junior college level. I never dreamed I would love it as much as I do. That I would have the success that I have had.

What is the hardest call to make? “Younger officials say the block charge call. That is one of the easiest calls for me. I use a technique and teach a technique. Basically, if you are officiating and an offensive player has the ball, there’s going to be some daylight between the defensive and offensive player. Whoever closes the separation is normally responsible for contact, which helps you get the call correct. .”

What do you do if you make a mistake? “We are going to make mistakes. There are 10 bodies moving at a very quick pace on the floor. When I miss a call, I am not above, when a coach says something to me, saying, ‘Coach, I would like to have another look at that play.’ I am not going to tell a coach that I flat out missed it. ... They tape every one of those games. They look at game tapes after they get home, or at the office. No sense trying to tell a coach you didn’t miss a call when the tape shows that you did.”

Do you worry about staying in shape? “I’ve been very fortunate. My wife went to a game with me (recently) and videoed me on an iPod. I want to see I am still running well. I work out 12 months a year just so I can officiate five months. One thing about officiating that is not fair? Every year, I get one year older. Those kids stay the same age.”

Do you root for some of the players? “It doesn’t take long for an official to figure out who is a very good player. Most importantly, who is a very good person on the floor. They know how to handle themselves in the most professional way they can. Those are the people who will go on to the next level, and when they are done playing, we will contact and recruit them into officiating. Normally, a player on the floor is nothing but a mirror reflection of his or her parents and coach. Sometimes, that can be very, very good and sometimes not very good. I’ve officiated several people who have gone on to play in NBA and Division One college.”

Do you have a soft spot for point guards? “Yes, I do. Truth be told, when a player goes into the game of basketball undersized and works his tail off and becomes a good defensive player, shooter and playmaker, I have a lot of respect. I have respect for the big guys underneath the net, too.”

Do you have a most memorable game? “One of them that comes into play would have been my state tournament championship game in 2006 where Chicago Simeon beat Richwoods in overtime. Derrick Rose, point guard for the Chicago Bulls, is the one who scored the game-winning basket (for Chicago Simeon) at the buzzer. I’ve reffed 2,400 games in my career. Picking out one game is tough.”

Do you wear black and white when you’re not reffing? “I do wear black and white. I have to wear a suit every day in my day job.”