The life of a high school basketball referee isn’t easy, but 1974 Wayland High School graduate Pat Wilde, who hung up his whistle this fall after 28 years, says he doesn’t have any regrets.
Wilde, son of longtime well-known Wayland residents Arnold and Virginia Wilde, only gave up the part-time job because he just didn’t feel he’s in good enough physical shape any more to keep up with hectic pace of the game.
“Nagging leg issues and the realization that the game may now be too fast for me,” he explained. “I also have grandkids and want to stay involved with their activities.”
Wilde, a three-year varsity basketball player at Wayland, in 1972, 1973 and 1974, still works at his day job in the technical department at furniture manufacturer Herman Miller.
He didn’t get into reffing until 15 years after he graduated from high school.
“I started in 1989 after watching some local high school games then attending the state finals, where they actively promote officiating and thought I’d give it a shot,” he said in a recent interview. “I was fortunate to be able to get full schedules of junior high and eventually freshman/jayvee doubleheaders in those early years. Worked those games for years and eventually varsity boys and girls. About that same time, I worked some MIAA girls’ JV games. You can’t underestimate experience.”
Wilde always has been a lover of athletics and he and his wife, Sara, still attend prep basketball games, even though he’s no longer part of the action. They watched Wayland play Forest Hills Northern and Godwin against Covenant Christian this past week in the Cornerstone holiday tournament.
“My very first game was a 7th/8th grade girls’ doubleheader in which the 8th grade game ended with a rare technical foul because the coach called a time out with one second left when he had none,” Wilde recalled. “In a game without a free throw made by either team, both were made, resulting in a one point win.”
Through 28 years of watching and officiating, he said he’s seen a lot of strange things happen.
“One of my (officiating) crew had a friend who was a cop in a small town in Newaygo County where we were en route,” he said. “The crew member called him and arranged to have my car pulled over outside the high school. The cop played it up perfectly and informed me there was a warrant for my partner. We all got out of the car and the guffaws began. I was told the look on my face was classic.”
Some things stay the same, but some have changed.
“The traditional uniform consisted of black pants and black belt,” Wilde said. “Forgetting your belt was never a good thing, so when the beltless Sansabelt pants became available I was all over them. Because of my long legs and short torso, these new pants gave me an all-leg look. The very first game I wore these, a group of fans called me ‘Johnny high pockets’ throughout. I had a hard time not laughing out loud.”
And sometimes, the uniform could be challenging.
“During the first game of a doubleheader, the zipper on my ref pants ripped wide open,” he recalled. “My two partners continued with the game while I retreated to the locker room for repairs. The AD provided a box of safety pins and I was able to get my pants closed but after returning to the floor, we had to stop the game several times to retrieve safety pins I was shedding as I ran.”
Wilde changed his appearance over the years.
“I wore a beard in my early days until I heard a fan say: ‘Oh no! It’s the ref with the beard!’”
Of course, there are memories about the amenities.
“The sloppy joes provided by the Kent City Athletic Boosters were legendary,” he said. “You never left without eating at least one.
“The dressing rooms for officials covered a wide spectrum, from teachers’ lounges, bathrooms, closets, kitchens and choir rooms to spacious rooms with leather furniture, TVs, full refrigerators and complimentary towels.
“Showers or hot water were not a given. Nor was privacy, as your room usually served many purposes.
“Once we found a mother watching her son’s wrestling match on a computer in our dressing room. When told that we had to get dressed for our game she replied, ‘Go ahead, it doesn’t bother me. I’m a nurse.’”
There are quirks in the game that most fans don’t know about referees.
“You’d be surprised how easy it is to forget who had the ball after a time out,” Wilde said. “You would pray that the players or coaches didn’t ask you when they came back out.
“You never parked your car near a sign that indicated ‘referee parking.’”
Wilde retold about how a gym had to be evacuated two different times during a game because the popcorn machine set off the fire alarm.
Some teams and coaches were memorable as well.
“I worked the Godwin/Wayland district final the year Godwin won the 2015 Class B State Championship. That Godwin team was probably the best high school team I had ever seen, let alone officiated.
“I did have the pleasure to officiate the late Wes Leonard from Fennville. His athletic skill and leadership made a difference in any game he played, on offense or defense.”
When it came to coaches, Wilde said, “Zack Moushegan (Wayland girls’ basketball) was unforgettable. He could be really mad at you, yet have you laughing out loud at the same time.”
“Ken George at Forest Hills Central is maybe the most underrated coach, year after year in this area.
Mark Keeler at Tri-Unity had so many great teams and players but I always just considered him a friend. Same for Jim Gorman at West Michigan Christian.”
When asked about the biggest difference in reffing back in the day and now, Wilde replied, “Players are faster, stronger and much more skilled across the board now than when I started officiating. Most schools have built new, full-size gyms. You hardly see small courts anywhere now.
“Back in the day there were only two-man crews. Now with three, the court coverage is so much better. The physical play in the paint is more consistently officiated, as well as coverage in pressing situations and off-ball fouls. The game has benefited.”
However, Wilde wasn’t shy about criticizing the decision to combine the girls’ and boys’ seasons into the winter.
“I don’t like it, and frankly I can’t think of a girls’ player, coach or AD who does,” he said. “It took away the only real spotlight girls’ basketball had and made winter basketball, for girls and boys, something less that it was before.”
He also hasn’t been a big fan of Schools of Choice and the resultant recruiting wars between high schools for top-notch athletes.
“Well you know it’s there (recruiting). You see it in other sports too,” he lamented. “It surprises me that it’s just casually accepted now.”
When asked what he liked and disliked about being an official, he responded, “I always thought Friday night sports were special, and that was ingrained in me as a player. Being an official let you walk right back into that experience. Basketball is as intimate a sport you can possibly be a part of as an official. Every game meant something to me. I take pride in that.”
When asked if he had any words of wisdom for anyone else wondering about becoming a basketball officials, he suggested, “Work as many games as you can. Ask questions, attend rules meetings, study the rule book. Watch as much basketball as you can in person and on TV.”
COVER PHOTO: Pat Wilde chats with an unidentified Wayland player in game against Hamilton years ago.
(Photos courtesy of Sara Wilde)