When his former M.C. Napier basketball standout Tina Napier told him she was trying to become a hoops referee, longtime coach Randy Napier (no relation) had to pick his jaw up off the ground.
"I said, 'You? You are going to be an official?'" Randy Napier recalls. "She was about the last person I expected to hear that from."
It seems in her playing days in the early 1980s at the now-defunct high school in Perry County, Tina (pronounced Tie-nuh) could be a little hard on the refs.
"She rolled her eyes at every (official's) call," Randy Napier recalls. "Every time they called a foul on her, she'd hold her hands up like, 'Who, me?' The whole time she played for me she never committed a foul, not one, at least according to her."
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It's rich the twists one's life can take.
Today, Tina Napier is one of the most accomplished referees in all of U.S. women's basketball.
The Nicholasville resident, 46, has worked two NCAA women's basketball championship games and six Final Four semifinals, including Louisville's victory over Oklahoma last season.
Before retiring from the WNBA, Napier was one of the elite officials in the women's pro basketball circuit, too, having worked in the All-Star Game and the league championship series.
The unlikely journey from playing high school hoops in Perry County to reffing big-time college games involving Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma began with a friend asking her to do a small favor:
Refereeing some youth games at a middle school.
This was after Napier had gotten hooked on basketball as a kid. Often, she was the only girl playing in the pickup game that tended to be ongoing at her home, where she was one of eight children.
In high school at M.C. Napier, Tina — who is still known to many in Perry County by her school nickname, Tiny — was one of the school's first post-Title IX female sports stars.
"She was a shooting guard, and she was fiery. A very passionate player," says Randy Napier, now the head girls' hoops coach at Perry County Central, the high school formed by the consolidation of Dilce Combs and M.C. Napier.
After high school, Tina played for two years at the old Lees Junior College in Jackson, then for two seasons at Morehead State.
Leaving school with a physical education degree, Napier worked as a recreation director for various medical facilities.
She dabbled in helping Randy Napier coach at M.C. Napier. One of the young players she worked with was Kristie Combs, who would go on to become Sweet Sixteen MVP after leading M.C. Napier to the 1994 girls' basketball state championship.
Yet nothing Tina tried after her playing career ended seemed the proper outlet for the physical energy she had once put into playing basketball.
Then came the request to ref games for 9- and 10-year-olds at Perry County's A.B. Combs Middle School.
"I don't really know how to explain it, but when I put that whistle in and started running up and down the court again, it just felt right," Tina says.
Soon, she'd joined the local high school officials' association and was working junior varsity games. She eventually advanced to varsity games, then moved to Lexington, in part, to continue to advance as an official.
Working the Kentucky high school girls' basketball tournament "was still one of the biggest thrills I've had as a referee," Napier says.
Road to the big time
When Napier sought to break into college officiating, there was precedent for women from Kentucky making the jump. Georgetown's Lois Holmes was something of a pioneer in breaking into the big-time college conferences.
Lisa Mattingly, a former Marion County basketball standout, has long been one of the elite women's hoops officials in the nation. "There were people from Kentucky who had done what I was trying to do," Napier says. "That sort of showed me the path you had to take."
So Napier went to off-season officiating camps; learned how to play the politics; kept herself in top physical condition.
From NAIA and NCAA Division II college games, she worked her way up to the Ohio Valley Conference level. Eventually, she got the call to the Big Ten and the crown jewel of college conferences, the SEC.
"Any time you go up a level, you feel it," Napier says. "OVC, SEC, WNBA, the game gets so much faster at every step. Every time I'd move up, I'd say, 'Am I really ready for this?'"
At every step, the answer has been yes.
Mattingly, who has worked 10 Final Fours and eight national title games, says Napier's background as a player has been instrumental in her success as an official.
"She has a great feel for the game," Mattingly said. "The other thing, she's so good with people. Her personal skills allow her to handle situations that other people can't."
Controversy in Knoxville
Perhaps the most difficult "situation" Napier has faced as an official came in 2008 in Tennessee's Thompson-Boling Arena.
With Rutgers leading the Lady Vols 58-57, Napier whistled the Scarlet Knights' Kia Vaughn for fouling UT's Nicky Anosike on a put-back attempt with 0.2 seconds left in the game.
There was little controversy over the foul call; but there was a major hullabaloo because television replays showed that the game clock appeared to "freeze" for perhaps a full second before the foul was called.
After reviewing the replay, the officiating crew ruled that the foul call had occurred during regulation time.
Anosike sank both foul shots to give the Lady Vols the win. Afterwards, Rutgers Coach C. Vivian Stringer screamed bloody murder.
Subsequent to the game, both the SEC and Big East Conferences issued statements that the game officials had done nothing wrong.
Still, it was unpleasant.
"Do we have to talk about that?" Napier said.
Well, I'd like to.
Napier says officials now wear devices called precision timers that are supposed to automatically stop game clocks when their whistles blow. Many speculate that a malfunction with that led to the Tennessee clock stalling.
"I think if you polled most officials, maybe those aren't our favorite things," she said.
Still, Napier says, "We learned a lot from that incident. For one thing, as referees, we learned that when we go to the replay, we can ask the (television) producer for more shots and different camera angles."
The occasional controversy pales in comparison to the thrill of working Final Fours and making a living in college basketball.
Today, Napier is one of the select officials who work often enough and at such a high level of the sport that she is able to support herself solely as a referee.
With camps and travel days added to reffing college games from November through early April, that means 150-160 days a year on the road.
"I love it," Napier says of officiating. "I want to do it as long as I can do it and do it well."
In Perry County, Napier's career success has left an imprint.
Combs, 34, has begun refereeing high school games. The 1994 Sweet Sixteen MVP aspires to return to the state tournament as an official.
Long-term, she'd like to make it in the college ranks just like Napier has done.
"With Tiny coming from a small area like this, to see her in those big situations like the Final Four, it's an inspiration to me and I think a lot of young girls around here that people from here can do big things," Combs said.
Each year at NCAA Tournament time, Randy Napier says e-mails circulate among Tina Napier's former high school teammates and teachers that they need to tune in to see her work on college women's basketball's largest stage.
"If you'd seen her as a player, you'd never believe she's the calm, cool-headed official she is now," says Randy Napier.
To all the high school refs whose calls used to prompt her eye rolling and the 'who, me?' hand gesturing, Tina Napier has a message.
"I was so hard on refs," she says. "I feel really bad about that now."