Tales of a whistle blower

Charlie Duff of Grafton has loved running up and down basketball courts as a referee for 43 years in spite of the occasional rude fan and angry coach
Ozaukee Press staff

After officiating basketball for 43 years and counting, Charlie Duff of Grafton can quickly identify some of his best memories.

They weren’t games for conference or state titles or where records were set.

“I did some Special Olympics games. I will tell you that is the finest basketball there is,” he said.

“They’re good sports. They’re going to give the other kid the ball.”

Duff didn’t even get paid.

“To me it was for the kids. That’s what it was all about,” he said.

But Duff soon stopped officiating those games for one reason.

“When we started hearing the parents I said, you know what? I don’t need this,” he said. “That was disappointing. This is Special Olympics. The kids are supposed to have fun.”

Duff said he got the officiating bug when he started doing games with Bill Reiebe under former Homestead High School Athletic Director Dick Peregrine.

“It was challenging,” he said of varsity games. “It was something where all of a sudden it was fun to read the rules and basically learn how to ref,” he said.

Back then, officiating camps weren’t offered like they are today. Duff relied on calling Dick Wussow, who did several state tournaments.

“I can’t tell you how many times I called him and said, ‘Dick, here’s the situation, what do you think?’ That kind of fed me. This is kind of fun to get into the details. From there it just started,” he said.

Duff said he appreciated all the partners he officiated with, including Becky Blank, Mike Setzer, Joe Dorr, Jim Miller and Tom Grabow.

The former Port High sports star played football in college but became drawn to basketball for officiating.

“Once you get it, the bug kind of bites you,” he said. “It was something to do for the winter to make it go fast. It was great exercise running.”

But it was never easy.

In the 1980s, Duff officiated in Racine after an official had been kicked down stairs. He got a police escort to and from the locker room and to his car.

“I told my partner, no more of this,” he said.

Duff found ways to make games run smoother.

“One time I made a call and I knew it was wrong. The coach started talking to me, I said ‘Coach, I made a mistake, OK?’ You know what? The rest of the night I never heard another word from him,” he said.

It’s not usually the coaches and players that cause issues, he said, “it’s the knucklehead in the stands that usually creates the trouble.

“You know they’re going to boo the kids and holler air ball, that’s OK, that’s part of it. The coaches holler and the parents holler, and that’s OK, but I think when it gets nasty, that’s sad.”

Duff said he tried to never get involved with the crowd unless they were throwing things onto the floor.

He never threw a fan out of a game, but he remembers that he came close once.

Three boys at John Long Middle School were making fun of players during a girls game. Duff reached the point that one more comment would get them tossed, but they settled down.

“The girls out there were trying to learn the game,” he said.

Faculty members usually handled crowd control well. Duff said former Webster Middle School Principal Tom Pautsch once supported him after a call the fans didn’t like.

“He came up to him and turned to crowd and said that if there was anymore unsportsmanlike conduct he would clear the gym, and I said thanks,” Duff said. “The kids still had fun.”

He remembers former Grafton teacher Tom Greifencamp held a middle school tournament at St. Kilian in Hartford. Duff walked into the gym to officiate and was met by two men standing about 6 feet, 5 inches tall and weighing about 280 pounds. One was a former Cleveland Brown.

Greifencamp told Duff if anyone gives him any trouble, these guys will take care of it. He didn’t have an issue.

Duff was among a handful of officials to start the Northeastern Association of Officials that used to meet in a classroom at Grafton High School on Monday nights.

“I enjoyed talking about different situations and how you handled things,” Duff said.

Duff remembers his final varsity game, serving as a fill-in at Port Washington. Josh Gasser was one of the players.

“To see him go on and play with the Badgers, that was really a special way to end my varsity reffing,” Duff said.

Not everyone appreciates officials until they’re gone. Once, Duff said a coach had to officiate during a clinic before a ref could get there.

“He said he was never so happy to see the official show up,” he said.

A couple of weeks ago, Duff got to talking to a former high school basketball star who tried officiating a game.

“‘This is hard,’” Duff was told. “I said, ‘Yeah, I know it’s hard.”

Duff without hesitation could name the most difficult call to make.

“Block/charge. It’s just a bang-bang call and boy, hopefully you’re in a good position. I would say that’s the one that really gets people. And sometimes you might have something that’s a no-call, and aye, yai, yai.”

The requirement for a charge on paper is clear, but in person it’s hard to determine.

“Did the player establish a legal guarding position, with both feet on the floor facing an opponent?” Duff said. “Sometimes it happens so quick, that makes it tough, and sometimes it’s your angle.”

Duff is a longtime high school math teacher who spent years at Grafton and now teachers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He has been trying to retire from officiating for a while.

His schedule slowed after he had hip surgery in 2007, but before long he was back at it.

Friends would call and request his services for youth games through junior varsity.

“They have no one,” Duff was told.

He still accepts officiating gigs, but not to pass time in winter anymore.

“I do it more so there’s a game. And I want the people to understand that,” he said.

“There’s nothing better than getting a good basketball game, I don’t care if it’s an eighth-grade game, sixth-grade game or varsity game.”



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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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