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Valentine spent three years reffing part time at high school games and in the Southern Conference when, at 25, he got a life-changing phone call. Bob Wortman, then the Big Ten's supervisor of officials, was looking to diversify his staff, and he had heard there was a smart, confident African-American official in his area. So he rang Valentine, asked him to come to the league office in Findlay, Ohio, for an interview and offered him 30 games on the spot.
While referees often hold other jobs, Valentine quit teaching to officiate full time. Many of the older refs back then were bombastic characters. "The idea of selling the call and having some personality was in vogue," says Hank Nichols, the NCAA's coordinator of officials from 1986 to 2008. "Ted was a little over the top when he started." Valentine says that being "a boy among men" led to a notion that he had much to prove; it wasn't enough to blow the whistle and flash a hand signal. He stalked. He pranced. He T'd up coaches when he should have walked away.
His reputation preceded him. Before each tip-off North Carolina coach Dean Smith wrote the names of the officials on a chalkboard, with a phrase next to each telling the Tar Heels what to expect. Beside Valentine's he would invariably scrawl just one word: Unpredictable.
As he worked Big Ten games Valentine caught the eye of Art Hyland, the longtime supervisor of officials in the Big East. Hyland mentored him and gave him plum assignments; Valentine took them in stride. The first time he worked a game at the Carrier Dome, he called a technical on Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. Former Georgetown coach John Thompson pays Valentine the ultimate compliment by saying he didn't like to have Valentine call his games "because I wanted somebody whom I could influence." Nor did Thompson think that Valentine felt he had to justify his presence because he was a minority. "There were a lot of African-American officials I was afraid to have because they went out of their way to show people that they weren't going to be biased for me," Thompson says. "I didn't ever feel that from Ted."
After reffing that first Final Four in 1991, Valentine returned to the tournament's final weekend five of the next six years, a remarkable accomplishment considering he had not yet turned 40. Yet Valentine's was an unfamiliar name to most fans. That changed at Assembly Hall on the night of Feb. 24, 1998.
Indiana coach Bob Knight had resented Valentine ever since Valentine gave him a technical early in the second half of Indiana's 1992 Final Four game against Duke. (The Hoosiers were leading by three points at the time. The Blue Devils immediately went on an 11--0 run and won 81--78.) The tension between them remained palpable, and when Indiana faced Illinois six years later, it boiled over. Knight was on Valentine from the opening tip, and he continued to jaw at him during a timeout with 1:51 left in the first half. Valentine ran into Knight's huddle, T'd him up and stalked away in anger. ("I was probably wrong for that," Valentine says. "Too much exuberance.") Knight smoldered. When the half ended Valentine stood at half-court with his arms folded to wait for the teams to leave, as was standard protocol. Instead of walking to his locker room, Knight headed in the opposite direction so he could brush by Valentine as closely as possible without making contact.
During the second half Knight's haranguing continued unabated. Then, with 9:37 to play, Hoosiers forward Luke Recker drove to the basket for an attempted layup. Illinois forward Sergio McClain, who was trailing Recker on the play, grabbed the rim, and Valentine called a technical foul. Knight mistakenly argued that goaltending should have been called. Meanwhile Recker had crashed to the floor and was writhing in pain. By rule, a coach is permitted to walk onto the court to attend to an injured player, but Knight gave yet another earful to Valentine, who stood just a few feet away on the baseline. Valentine called a second technical on Knight and ejected him.
Knight went ballistic, pirouetting twice and pointing at Recker to justify his presence on the court. Fellow ref Ed Hightower tried to get Valentine to rescind the call, but Valentine stood firm. When Knight refused to leave, he received his third technical.
Valentine then moved to the side of the court opposite Indiana's locker room, standing with his arms tightly folded and his left palm pressed to his face. ("That's how I stand when I'm trying to control my emotions," he says.) Again, Knight marched in Valentine's direction. He brazenly brushed by Valentine for the second time and stormed off to a loud ovation. After Indiana lost 82--72, Knight called Valentine's officiating "the greatest travesty I've ever seen in basketball in 33 years as a college head coach."
While Valentine wishes the incident had never occurred, he has no regrets about how he handled it. "I did what I had to do," he says. "He was more or less attacking my manhood." (Through an ESPN spokesman, Knight declined to comment.) The Big Ten fined Knight $10,000 for his remarks and censured Valentine for calling a "clearly erroneous" second technical on Knight, because the coach was allowed to be on the court. As punishment the Big Ten barred Valentine from working any of its teams' nonconference games during 1998--99. A year later Valentine gave a lengthy unauthorized interview about the incident to Referee magazine, after which the Big Ten suspended him for the 1999--2000 season for speaking to the media without permission.