friend of mine claims that the real thrill of locating a rare creature is not
in stumbling on it by accident but in knowing its habits so well that you can
go to the place where it should be and find it there. Thus there was a certain
satisfaction in first meeting Lennie Wirtz in his proper niche, leaning on a
reservations counter in the Greater Cincinnati Airport, Boone County,
Wirtz is a tiny
man, 5 feet 4, who looks very much like Hubert Humphrey must have when he was
35, Lennie's age—a lot of forehead, chin motion and quick eyes. "Pal, we
are all set," Lennie said, waving a fistful of airline tickets (3,000
miles' worth). All men—airline clerks, cab drivers, basketball players, even
such frequent antagonists as coaches—are "pal" to this smiling little
man. Little Friend of All the World, they called Kim in the Lahore bazaar. That
is Lennie Wirtz, Kim in a black-and-white-striped shirt. And what he had us
"all set" for was one frantic week in the life of that peripatetic
sports figure, the college basketball referee. In six consecutive days
everybody's pal was going to officiate six major basketball games. His stops
would be Iowa City, Iowa, Bowling Green, Ky. Charlottesville, Va., New York,
Washington and Ann Arbor; the teams would include three of the country's top
10, and there was not a gym on the route where the spectators—given the least
cause—would hesitate to let it be known all the way to Lahore that Lennie Wirtz
was no pal of theirs.
Lennie said, "there are two things about officiating you've got to think
about, travel and crowds. If either one begins to get to you real bad it is
time to put your whistle away. Crowds you can see for yourself this week.
Travel—I can tell you anything you want to know. If I am a professional
anything, I am a professional traveling man."
This claim cannot
be disputed. Wirtz is an accredited basketball official in five collegiate
conferences—Big Ten, Mid-American, Ohio Valley, Southern and Atlantic Coast—and
he works some 40 games a season. In March he turns to his other job, director
of the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour. Between following the
basketball boys and the golf girls, he logs something better than 100,000 miles
a year, and they are not easy miles. Getting from an Iowa City after the final
horn of one game to a Bowling Green before the opening whistle the next night
is no commuter run. But in 13 years Wirtz had yet to miss a game.
We were hardly
airborne out of Cincinnati that night when Lennie put on a big pair of black
glasses. "Great, huh, pal?" he said. "The ref is blind, just like
they say. Actually, I do it to rest my eyes. If they get tired I'm in trouble.
The glasses are a little thing, but you've got to think of little things. Maybe
it shouldn't come from me, but I'll tell you, the officials I know take these
games as seriously as the coaches or players." In Wirtz's case being a
serious official includes a daily mile of roadwork during the off season, daily
calisthenics and a weekly cover-to-cover reading of his bible, the Manual of
"We got to be
able to run with the kids," he says, "to be there when the call's got
to be made. I couldn't coach a team, and I sure can't play anymore, but when I
blow that whistle I want to be right—as right as you can be. An official that
says he's never missed one is out of his head or kidding you. Even when you
call a good game there's maybe one or two you worry about afterward. If you
really pull a rock you want to crawl under the floor.
the other kind—you make the big call when it should be made. Last year we got a
close Big Ten game with a minute or so to go and I blow an offensive foul on
the home team. It was a good call, but this coach is up like he's been
rocket-launched. After the game he's still purple. He says, 'Lennie, you stole
that one from me, you stole it.' But, you know, after he'd seen the films I got
a note from that guy. He said I was right, and he'd take me for his games any
night, if not for my brains at least for my guts. It's things like this that
make it. The money isn't that much. When it stops being fun there won't be
enough money to get me out on the floor."
O'Hare air terminal, Lennie changed planes and met Red Strauthers, a former
Miami University ( Ohio) classmate who was going to help work the Iowa-Wisconsin
game that night. Strauthers was a living if somewhat weary example of why
big-time basketball officials claim they earn their money—$50 to $100 per game,
plus expenses, depending on the conference—if not on the court, then in getting
to it. He is the business manager of a Dayton auto agency and had left his desk
at noon to meet Wirtz in Chicago. Following the game that night, he would fly
back from Iowa to Chicago and sit until 5 in the morning at O'Hare waiting for
a Dayton plane that would get him home and to his desk by 8 a.m. The next night
he would be working a small college game in Ohio.
The three of us
flew to Cedar Rapids, and then drove to Iowa City. At the motel Lennie asked
the clerk for a quiet room. "We're the officials for the game tonight,"
he said. This announcement was received with a long stare of the kind that
undoubtedly greeted traveling hangmen in merry old Nottingham. Then the room
keys were handed over.
One of the
imperatives in the schedule of most basketball referees is an afternoon nap. In
Lennie's case, panic seems to set in if he finds himself in an upright position
at 4 o'clock. "Pal, all you got to do is sit in the stands. I got to run
with those kids. I need that sack time."