Kentucky’s loss wasn’t the only blemish from last Sunday’s South Region finals in Memphis. The concept of empathy also took a beating.
Apparently, some UK fans threatened to kill referee John Higgins, and tried to damage his roofing business by flooding its website with fictitious negative reviews.
Former UK All-American Tony Delk, who is part of a group concerned about fan behavior, suggested people keep in mind that referees are human, too.
“Keep supporting Kentucky,” Delk said, before adding, “You have to think about would you want someone to threaten your life? Threaten your family?
Delk, who capped his Kentucky career with the 1996 national championship, is part of the Dove Men+Care Real Strength movement. It aims to address fan behavior that “has left a scar on the basketball experience.”
Others involved in the effort include former UK All-American Anthony Davis, Butler Coach (and Nicholasville native) Chris Holtmann, Gonzaga Coach Mark Few and Florida State Coach (and former UK assistant) Leonard Hamilton.
“Everybody has family,” Delk said. “You have to consider that when making comments about certain people. You wouldn’t want anyone to come out and talk badly about your kid, your family.”
Those with even a casual interest know basketball is a difficult game to officiate. The action is fast, the time to consider a call measured in split seconds. Ever present is a TV camera equipped to show the action in slow motion. All the while, players try to fool the referees by flopping.
Delk suggested another complicating factor.
“I think the referees have a tough job, especially how the game has changed,” he said. “If you touch somebody. When I played, there was a little more physicality.”
The rule changes have “opened up the game,” Delk said. “It’s more exciting. I thought the referees, not just that referee, but all of the refs, have done a tremendous job of adapting to the new rules.”
Players must adapt, too. Delk said UK players took unnecessary chances — reaching to make steals or impede North Carolina drives.
“By the time you reach the NCAA Tournament, you should know that whenever you reach in, you can get fouls that hurt your team,” he said. “There might have been questionable calls. But at the end of the day, you put yourself in a position for the referee to make those calls.”
That’s not to say Higgins and fellow refs Keith Kimble and Mike Reed were correct with every call. Delk said he thought the referees did a better job in the second half of last Sunday’s game.
“Referees are human,” he said. “They make mistakes. Just like everybody else does every day.”
During the broadcast of ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption” show on Thursday, co-host Michael Wilbon criticized UK’s measured response to fan harassment of referee John Higgins.
“I don’t want to hear, ‘We appreciate your support; can you dial it down?’” Wilbon said. “No! The leadership of the University of Kentucky, if there is any … they need to say to these people, ‘Hey, do not do this. You are embarrassing the university. You’re embarrassing yourselves. Do not do this, or there needs to be repercussions.’
“Or are they too scared of their fan base, their rabid fan base?”
Jay Blanton, a spokesman for UK’s administration, said a statement released by the athletics department had “spoken quite clearly about the expectations we all share regarding mutual respect and behavior.”
Here is the statement: “While we were all disappointed to see a memorable season end on Sunday and we appreciate the support our fans showed our student-athletes all year, we encourage our fans to demonstrate good sportsmanship to everyone and discourage any other kind of behavior.”
UK Coach John Calipari’s tweets on Wednesday contained the same hint of damage control. “I wanted to take this time to thank our fans for their support all season long. … ,” he tweeted. “I always brag that we have the classiest fans in the country. Let’s make sure we remain that way even after a tough loss.”
After calling the death threats and harassment “disgraceful,” retired referee Don Rutledge said fans should be punished.
“I think Kentucky should locate these people and take their season tickets away, if they have any,” he said, “and (take away) the ability to come to games.
“I think the SEC and all people John Higgins works for should do the same thing. And the NCAA should look into it.”
On “Pardon the Interruption,” co-hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon said fans who made death threats should be prosecuted and jailed.
Although usually stopping well short of death threats, fans harassing referees is nothing new. Retired referee John Clougherty said an irate fan once got his home phone number and called to berate him. The fan, who rooted for North Carolina State, went beyond mere murder.
“It was what I would call a religious fanatic that started talking about how I would be condemned to hell because I refereed a bad game,” Clougherty said. “I was going to be condemned to hell and to burning fire.”
Conspiracy theorists cited that John Higgins was one of the referees in Kentucky’s Final Four losses to UConn in 2011 and Wisconsin in 2015. He was also one of the refs in the Elite Eight loss to Michigan State in 2005.
What should be made of this?
“Nothing,” retired referee Don Rutledge said. “Except he is a very good referee.”
The best referees work the biggest games. “He’s refereeing the toughest games in the country,” Rutledge said.
Example to follow
Surely, we can agree that making death threats and trying to ruin someone’s business is not the way to deal with feeling aggrieved.
So, what’s a better way for UK fans to have handled whatever incorrect calls referee John Higgins made in the Elite Eight loss to North Carolina last Sunday? An example came to mind, and it involved retired major-league umpire Jim Joyce.
Sportswriter Tony Paul of The Detroit News wrote that Joyce “made a whole lot of excellent calls over the years … but he’ll be remembered by many for one call he got terribly, terribly wrong.”
On June 2, 2010, Detroit pitcher Armando Galarraga retired the first 26 Cleveland batters. With the first perfect game in Detroit Tigers’ history one out away, the 27th batter, Jason Donald, hit a ground ball to the right side.
First baseman Miguel Cabrera fielded the ball and tossed to Galarraga for the historic putout. As Paul wrote, Joyce called Donald safe when Donald was out.
Galarraga’s reaction? He looked at Joyce. A wry smile appeared on his face. Then he went back to the mound and retired the next batter.
After watching a replay later that night, Joyce admitted he made the incorrect call. When Galarraga brought the Detroit lineup to home plate the next day, Joyce broke down in tears.
“He was human,” Galarraga told Paul the day after Joyce retired. “Umpires, how many calls do they make in a game? Like, a lot. Out. Safe. Out. Safe. Every play. When you’re doing it over and over, you’re gonna make mistakes. You’re not a machine. You’re not a robot.”
UK Coach John Calipari regularly extends this charity to his players when the inevitable mistake or failure occurs. He points out that players are not machines nor robots nor computers.
Why shouldn’t the same courtesy be extended to referees?
5 versus 8?
According to the official transcript, here’s how John Calipari opened his postgame news conference following Kentucky’s 75-73 loss to North Carolina:
“You know, it’s amazing that we were in that game where they practically fouled out my team. Amazing that we had a chance.”
When asked later about the officiating in the first half, and specifically a basket interference call that nullified a put-back score for UK, Calipari said he told the players at halftime, “It is what it is. And you’ve got to beat who’s out there, and let’s go, and don’t worry about it.”
When asked how he interpreted those comments, John Clougherty wrote in an email, “Losers most often find an excuse for losing. Got to blame someone. I interpret that to mean, ‘You’ve got to beat who’s out there — 5 UNC + 3 officials.’”
‘Extremely early guess’
About 12 hours after the championship game ends, Joe Lunardi will unveil his bracket for the 2018 NCAA Tournament. The ESPN bracketologist called his posting at noon Tuesday “an extremely early guess.”
Lunardi announced his 2018 one-seeds (North Carolina, Arizona, Kansas and Florida) during a telecast of the NIT semifinals last week. As of Friday, Kentucky was on his two-seed line.
Yes, a fan protested UK’s absence from the one-line. “Hey, aren’t we a one?” Lunardi said the fan tweeted to him. “And I said, maybe. Like, it’s March (dramatic pause) the year before.”
In light of the death threats delivered to John Higgins, Big Blue fanaticism doesn’t seem so funny anymore.
In assessing UK, Lunardi said he assumed Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo will enter this year’s NBA Draft. On the plus side, his appraisal included “the Philly kid” (incoming freshman Quade Green) and “whoever else next year’s cast of all-stars is.”
Lunardi said his bracket will include all 68 teams, plus last four in and first four out.
“I used to think this was a fool’s errand,” Lunardi said. “But, A) you do learn stuff about next year, and B) people love it.”
Lunardi expects to post his 2018 bracket on ESPN.com by noon on Tuesday.
To Johnathon Davis. He turned 48 on Thursday. … To DeAndre Liggins. He turned 29 on Friday. … To Erik Daniels. He turned 35 on Saturday. … To Chris Gettelfinger. He turned 59 on Saturday. … To Brian Long. He turns 25 on Sunday (today).