SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
March 01, 1965
Few men in sport move faster than Lennie Wirtz, a college basketball official who dashes breathlessly from airport to airport to meet his schedule but still saves enough wind to tweet on that whistle
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March 01, 1965

Little Pal On The Dead Run

Few men in sport move faster than Lennie Wirtz, a college basketball official who dashes breathlessly from airport to airport to meet his schedule but still saves enough wind to tweet on that whistle

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While Lennie took his nap, I talked to the head coach at Iowa, Ralph Miller, who looks like a TV sheriff and discusses basketball like a Supreme Court justice delivering a decision. "I believe," says Miller judiciously, "that officiating is good, about as good as we can expect it to be, but," and there was a long before-the-final-verdict pause, "this game is too fast, too complex for two men to control."

Shortly thereafter the two middle-aged men entrusted with the night's action rose bright-eyed from their naps and commenced their pregame ritual. After a steak chased with tea, they drove to the Iowa field house. Though tickets are issued to them, striped-shirt men seldom have to use them, door guardians apparently believing that not even the lowest sort of gate-crasher would sink to impersonating an official. "Hey, pal, where can the officials go?" Lennie asked an Iowa student manager. Again there was the long stare, and a certain twitching of the lips as though some answer other than "over there" was contemplated.

In their cubicle, more or less safely hidden behind the training room, Lennie and Red lathered their legs with hot analgesic ointment and then each pulled on a pair of woolen long Johns. So encased, they began to glow immediately and noticeably. "Those kids," Lennie panted, "warm up on the floor. They'd laugh us out of the place if we came in and ran up and down for 10 minutes blowing our whistles. So we wear an instant warmer-upper."

The symbol of Lennie's calling is the official's whistle. Both he and Red pocketed a pair of Acme Thunderers, a model favored both for its rich tone and plastic mouthpiece. "It's softer than metal, in case someone shoves it into your teeth," said Red. Why two of them? "Just in case. I worked one time with a kid, his first college game. We're waiting by the table for the ball. He reaches up and then gets this sick look. No whistle."

"The Big Ten's got an observer at every game watching us," said Lennie, "and I get low marks on how I blow this thing. They like that long tweeeeeet Red gives them. I got this habit of going tweet, tweet, tweet."

At Iowa, Red Strauthers was designated the referee, Lennie Wirtz the umpire (about the only difference is that the referee tosses up the first ball). The tap was taken by Wisconsin, and Lennie sprinted along the far sideline, hooked under the basket Iowa was defending and took up his station on the backline as the "under" official. As he did so, Strauthers followed downcourt, behind the play. A two-man officiating crew works the court as though an imaginary line divided the floor diagonally into two long triangles. An official can call a violation wherever he sees it but is primarily responsible for play in his triangle. As the play reverses, so do the positions of the officials. The under man then trails the play, while his partner, whose triangle is based on the backcourt line at the opposite end of the court, goes under the basket. They switch sides and triangles automatically after each foul call.

Concentrating on basketball officials at work requires a willingness to ignore what other spectators are watching—the progress of the game. But in the case of this Iowa-Wisconsin game the shift in viewpoint did not involve much of a sacrifice. Both teams seemed to lack finesse, Wisconsin lacking more than Iowa. At one point seven of the 10 players on the floor were thrashing around in a pile at midcourt. Presumably all were looking for the ball, which had rolled somewhat to the left of the melee. The two officials stood aloof from the catch-as-catch-can proceedings while the crowd screamed at them to call a foul on somebody from Wisconsin, naturally, for something.

What with the confusion on the floor, it was not long before one of the oldest cries of the basketball fan was heard: "Ref, you need glasses." "I never hear that one anymore," Lennie said later. "They are just part of the noise. A guy has really got to have a pair of lungs and something special to yell before he gets to you. Next to bad eyes, rabbit ears are the worst thing an official can have." Toward the end of the first half one of the many loose balls took a freak bounce and caught Lennie, the under official, full in the face. Gales of laughter swept over the stands. ("They pay their money," Lennie said. "They're entitled to their kicks.") Nobody got much more of a kick out of the game, as Iowa won by 30. I counted whistles instead of points. Strauthers beat Wirtz 52 long, clear tweets to 48 tweet, tweet, tweets.

"Is that all?" Red asked wearily, when told. "I felt like I was blowing that thing all evening long." Both officials were dripping wet and had the look of men who have had a hard night. "When it gets sloppy," said Lennie, "you got to watch it close or it'll turn rough. One boy gets an elbow by accident, but the next time around he gives it back with interest, on purpose."

Lennie Wirtz and the dejected Wisconsin contingent met on the way out of the field house. "Good game, Lennie," said John Erickson, the Wisconsin head coach, shaking the official's hand. "You got a ride?"

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