by Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnists

It’s a cold Wednesday night at Villa Maria in Cheektowaga, and ten players are lined up for the start of a girls high school basketball game between Nichols and Nardin. None of them, though, will move a muscle until Jack Syracuse allows it.

That’s the power of a referee.

The two officials – he’s working with Roslyn Dominico on this particular night – know the routine. It’s choreographed to the point where they discuss who gets to throw the ball in the air for the opening jump ball.

“There is a referee and an umpire assigned to each game,” Syracuse said. “The referee is supposed to toss the ball. We talk about it. I don’t really care. I prefer to run at the start. Some guys would rather toss.”

The veteran referee sends the ball toward the ceiling, and the game is underway. It’s another night at the office for Syracuse, who recently allowed a reporter something of an inside and rare look into the world of officiating.

“It’s been 44 years,” he said about his time as an official. “One guy once said to me, ‘Why don’t you come out and do the girls with us? We need officials.’ That was 1974. I said I didn’t know the rules. He said, ‘Come to the meeting and you’ll learn the rules.’ We went from there.”

Syracuse, then, has been a witness to the rise of women’s sports during the course of 44 years. It’s interesting that he doesn’t have any strong opinions on how the sport of girls basketball has improved over that time. Then again, he’s rather busy when he works.

“I don’t really watch the game,” said Syracuse, pointing out that the specific responsibilities of the job keep him occupied. “I do have an opinion that the girls shoot better three-point shots (than the boys) because the ball is smaller.”

A DIFFERENT GAME

That’s not to say there aren’t differences between boys and girls basketball, mostly connected to the different skill levels. The official has some rules about such matters.

“Never assume someone is going to make a lay-up (in the girls’ game) – never, ever,” he said. “And don’t anticipate a play.”

Syracuse adds that while girls’ games usually have more traveling calls than the boys, most of them take place in the first half of games.

The game for officials starts well before the center jump. Syracuse likes to get to a game about 45 minutes early. That gives him time to dress and talk to his officiating partner.

From there, the two officials have several responsibilities.

“You have to check the number of players in the scorebook,” Syracuse said. “Teams have to have starting lineups marked 10 minutes before the game starts. You check the ball, obviously. You don’t want to play with a boys’ ball (which is an inch larger). That has happened. You talk to the captains and tell them who is going to speak if we have to talk to them.

“Headbands have to be the same color as the uniform. Many times, you have to tell them to change.”

BLENDING IN

Once the game begins, the officials more or less become anonymous – unless something happens that causes some sort of personal interaction. While the stereotype is that coaches and referees get along as well as postmen and dogs, reality is different.

“In 44 years, I’ve thrown out seven coaches,” Syracuse said. “There’s a line. I think most of the coaches know where it is. Seven in 44 years aren’t a lot.”

His record for ejecting players, outside of too many personal fouls, is even cleaner: none. Fans, however, are another story.

“I have ejected more fans than coaches,” Syracuse said. “They make obnoxious statements. When you tell them to knock it off, some keep at it. The sportsmanship code is announced before the game. They are told to respect the players, coaches and officials. If they don’t, there’s no warning. That’s it.”

The officials can avoid a few of those problems by knowing the rules. The state usually changes a few of them every year, so Syracuse studies the revised rulebook every season. He needs to do that in preparation for an exam, which takes place every year. A passing grade is 84, which means applicants can only miss four out of 25 questions.

Still, sometimes the wrong call is made. Syracuse points out that there’s no such thing as a “make-up call” for him. He simply tries to get the next one right, and tries not to linger on those moments.

“You just go on,” he said. “If you let it bother you, it will affect you for the whole game. I’ve even told a coach, ‘I blew that one.’ It’s better to say that, and say you’ll get it next time. … You do have bad games, just like a player has bad games.

“On the way home, I’ll think about it. I’ll get home and say I had a terrible game. But you always get another one.”

A NIGHT WITHOUT DRAMA

The game between Nardin and Nichols must have been the easiest of the season for Syracuse and Dominico. Nichols had a 12-3 lead after the first period, and ran away with a 52-20 victory. One call wasn’t going to change the game’s outcome.

“I think those games are harder,” Syracuse said about one-sided decisions. “You have to keep things under control when one team is a lot better than the other.”

There were no problems like that on this night. Neither team had enough fouls to put the other team in the bonus for free throws. There was not a sound in the gym once the buzzer went off to end the game; no one in the crowd of about 50 – roughly split evenly in their support of the two teams – even clapped. The contest was over in an hour and 10 minutes – so it was a quick way for the officials to earn the night’s paycheck of $91.

“It was pretty calm,” Syracuse said. “It was a big court, and that spreads out the players. On a different court, maybe that game is different. And the fans were a mile away, which is excellent. With some of the schools, the fans are right on top of you.”

Dominico added, “It was a pleasure. This was the first time we’ve worked together. Usually you have some anxiety, but Jack was cool. If you have a guy that doesn’t care, it can make the game brutal. But if someone actually cares, if it’s someone who wants to be out there, it can be an easy joyride.”

Syracuse doesn’t travel too far from his Tonawanda home to officiate games, sticking to jobs in Niagara, Orleans and Erie Counties. After 44 years, it’s easy to wonder when he’ll hang up his whistle. Syracuse isn’t sure, but he’s surprised to still be at it.

“Next year will be 45 years, and I’ll be 70,” he said. “But I can’t hustle up the court and do my job, I’d quit. If I could, I wouldn’t mind doing just modified games and helping out young people.

“I’ll do at least one more year, and then we’ll see.”

Budd Bailey

Budd Bailey has been involved in almost every aspect of the local sports scene for the last 40 years. He worked for WEBR Radio, the Buffalo Sabres' public relations department and The Buffalo News during that time. In that time he covered virtually every aspect of the area's sports world, from high schools to the Bills and Sabres and everything in between. Along the way, Budd served as a play-by-play announcer for the Bisons, an analyst for the Stallions, and a talk-show host. He won the National Lacrosse League's Tom Borrelli Award as the media personality of the year in 2011, and was a finalist for that same award in 2017. Budd's seventh and eighth books, one on the Transcontinental Railroad and the other about Ichiro Suzuki, are scheduled to be released in the fall.

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