Kenny Gant has spent the better part of the last 36 years on the sidelines, baselines and behind the plate. He started officiating basketball and baseball games when he was 16; the $9 per game he made back then was way better than the minimum wage ($2.70 an hour) his buddies were taking home.
“It was a no-brainer,” Gant said during an interview with the Herald-Leader last week.
The same could be said for getting his three sons — Marshall (20), Robert (19) and Haydon (17) — into the profession. Marshall and Robert are in their first full season of KHSAA officiating. Haydon, a junior at Tates Creek, won’t be able to officiate in the KHSAA until he turns 18 but is gaining experience in the same type of recreational church league settings that Kenny, Marshall and Robert came through as they were learning the trade.
“Let’s face it, he’s getting paid $25 a game,” Kenny said. “What other 17-year-old can make that type of money? ... Instead of him asking me for gas money, he can put that gas in the car.”
Kenny has officiated two boys’ Sweet Sixteens but his career as a baseball and basketball official hasn’t been limited to the high school level. He’s reffed multiple NCAA regionals and numerous games in the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast, Ohio Valley and Sun Belt conferences.
All of those experiences will be topped Wednesday when he, Marshall and Robert take the floor together for the first time at the varsity level to officiate the Madison Southern-Sayre girls’ game in Lexington. It’ll be Marshall and Robert’s first game at the varsity level, period.
“I know they’re excited, but I’m probably gonna be the most excited person out there,” Kenny said. “ … Whether we never work another game, the three of us, nobody’s taking that away.”
Kenny, who owns and operates a landscaping business and also is a baseball assistant coach at Centre College, gave up reffing baseball in 2002, when Marshall started tee ball, and gave up officiating completely in 2007.
“I heard all the stories from my older officiating buddies who took me under their wing,” Kenny said. “A lot of divorced guys, they all were like, ‘Man, I wish I was there at more of my kids’ games.’ I was like, I’m just not gonna be that dad.’”
He took up coaching in Lexington’s Southeastern Cal Ripken league, allowing him to spend ample time with his sons. When he came out of retirement for the 2012-13 season, his two oldest sons were playing baseball at Tates Creek and more easily accepting of their father being away.
Now an elder statesman who started in an age of two-man crews and has seen officiating salaries (and dues) spike, Kenny gets to mentor newcomers to the profession — whether they’re looking to make some money or turn it into a career.
Marshall and Robert fall into the latter category. At first it was about the cash for Marshall, who stands 6-foot-3 and has more of the “look” professional sports leagues want out of their officials. He plans to attend camps this summer to improve his skills and network for job opportunities.
Robert, who at 5-foot-10 doesn’t immediately scream “ideal official,” watches basketball games on YouTube just to track the refs. He has what he called “far-fetched dreams” of officiating in the NBA.
“People don’t know, a lot of NBA refs are chosen because of how they look and their cosmetics,” Robert said. “It makes me feel like I’ve got to work a little bit harder and let my game do the talking just because I know I’m not 6-4 and I’m not the prettiest looking guy out there.”
The pair joked with their dad that he couldn’t retire again until they worked a game as a trio. Now that the occasion is near, they’ve added the qualifier that he can’t retire until they do a boys’ varsity game together.
“It’s something we’ve always talked about,” Robert said. “We go to dinner after all of our games and just talk basketball every night. This time we all can leave at the same time and talk about the same game.”
Madison Southern at Sayre
Girls’ game, 6 p.m.