Jody Silvester doesn't remember the first game he refereed at the Palestra in Philadelphia, but it's doubtful he'll forget his last. Last week Silvester worked St. Joseph's 62-59 upset of then No. 7 Temple, a classic game befitting one of the nation's most storied arenas. Silvester, who is retiring this month after 32 years as a Division I official, says he hasn't been overly nostalgic during his final season, but on his last night at the Palestra he allowed himself a moment's reflection. "That's always been my favorite place to referee," says Silvester, whose Bethlehem, Pa., home is just 60 miles from Philly. "It was an old-fashioned, typical Big Five game. I looked around the building and said to myself, Man, I did a lot of these."
It might be said that Silvester is the Palestra of referees, a modern relic who has adapted to the changing times without losing his throwback charm. He has earned a reputation as someone who can control games without dominating them, and there may be no greater testament to him than the fact that most coaches respect him, but most fans have never heard of him. "Jody has always been a low-key guy who was just glad to show up at the gym," says Maryland coach Gary Williams, who has known Silvester since the early 1970s, when Williams was an assistant at Lafayette and Silvester was breaking into the profession. "He knows the players are the game, and he never forgot where he came from."
That's because he never left. Silvester, 63, was born in Bethlehem, attended Bethlehem Catholic High and worked for 39 years in the post office of the neighboring town of Emmaus before retiring in 1996. He began officiating in his early 20s at the request of his father, Danny, who was a supervisor in Bethlehem's department of recreation. Silvester started working biddy leagues and high school jayvee games before ascending to Division I by the time he was 31. In the years since, he has averaged about four games a week, driving to arenas after work or burning vacation days if he has had to fly to a game. "My wife, Helen, suffered because I couldn't take any vacation during the summer," Jody says. He has officiated in two NCAA championship games, Indiana- Syracuse in '87, which he considers to be the greatest game he ever worked, and Arkansas-Duke in '94. Next week he'll referee in his 22nd and last NCAA tournament.
Over the years Silvester has seen players' hair get shorter and their shorts get longer, but he has witnessed even more dramatic changes in the style of play. "The players are so much stronger and quicker, and the pace of the game has stepped up quite a bit," he says.
One thing that never changes is the abuse that refs hear from coaches, but Silvester long ago learned to take things in stride. Several years back he had to receive ultrasound treatment on his knee before working a game at Indiana. During the game Hoosiers coach Bob Knight said to him, "Jody, I know you're having a problem with your knee, but why is it affecting your eyesight?"
Silvester cracked up. "It was a great line," he says. "I had no comeback for it."