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Introducing Our Newest Columnist, The Playcaller!

For a long time, we've thought it would be a great idea to have an official comment on officiating, so we're ecstatic to introduce our newest column, the Playcaller. The Playcaller is a basketball official who will be writing a column about his craft which will explain things most of us never really consider. It's a very, very tough job, and mostly thankless, at least as far as fans are concerned. It's about time we all had a better understanding of what they do.

For the referee, the game of basketball represents a very crowded market. Consider the competitive elements in this setting: A ball, ten players constantly on the move, two head coaches clamoring for attention, a court consisting of two baskets and upwards of fifteen important lines, a game clock, a shot clock, a scoreboard, a scorebook, and even the occasional overly exuberant fan or cheerleader; all needing to be constantly judged or inventoried-very often while running-by a very small group. On its face, this seems a daunting list for the three people charged with administering the activities among these entities, all according to a rule-book containing over 100 pages of fine print. It's enough to make anyone but an air-traffic controller relieved about his or her own job description.

Though officials work to develop the ability to stay cognizant of an extraordinary percentage of the above list, even the most skilled and experienced cannot completely escape the constraints of this tightly strung economy. Though general awareness and memory can be honed, there is still a limit to how much the brain can focus on at one time. Referees must be constantly prioritizing, deciding each moment where their eyes and brain are needed most, reconciling the opportunity costs of their decisions by trusting that their partners, too, have made wise choices.

The best referees are coldly analytical, more by necessity than choice. When one puts on the stripes, there is little room for intellectual freedom. Curious about whether Carter's shot will go in? I hope you don't miss Domzalski and Jamison fighting for rebounding position. You saw Taymon push a little too much and called it. Excellent. But was Brand's blocked shot legal or goaltending? Oh, you don't know? I hope one of your partners does. Quick, sound judgment; an even temperament; a keen, videographic memory; the ability to suppress one's ego while managing twelve (and sometimes thirteen or fourteen) other big ones: these are the cardinal virtues of the basketball referee. Curiosity? That's a luxury, one too expensive for even the most highly paid official.

The juggling act of the referee, however difficult, is made at least manageable by a system of mechanics (physical practices) that helps the crew to divide the game into pieces with varying degrees of overlap. It's important to understand where the edges of the pieces are, as well as where and under what circumstances such overlap exists. Once one grasps this division of labor and some of the more nuanced ideas that guide officials' judgments, some very entertaining questions become readily accessible, such as why DeMarcus Nelson's technical foul against Virginia Tech may have been the highest quality call of the year in the ACC; what officials should take from Len Elmore's philosophies on goaltending; and most importantly, why Tyler Hansbrough gets away with traveling so often.

The next few installments here will be a primer in the mechanics and the basic philosophy of officiating. I will do my best to keep the explanations interesting by referencing "black-and-white" plays that are accessible to the reader, whether by memory or television/Web. Rest assured that I will try to move through the introductory discussion as quickly as possible without sacrificing understanding. Once I get through that, it will be time to talk plays that aren't nearly so black-and-white, which is when the fun really starts. This is where judgment must take over, the point (if reached) at which t the rulebook has said all it has to say. Some fans-and even many officials-are really uncomfortable with the gray areas involved in officiating. I am not one of those people. I like the fact that the rulebook can't tell you everything you need to know on every single play.

That being the case, please note an important disclaimer: I don't like rules. I study them and always strive for complete mastery of them; but they're a necessary evil in my book, a means to an end. One of my favorite saws in officiating is that the rules won't get you hired, but they can get you fired. So I'm not going to write about rules here, except insofar as an explanation is necessary to help clear up a play that I find interesting or instructive. There are plenty of regular posters on the Main Board who have done a great job cutting-and-pasting from the rulebook, and I certainly can't improve on that. If I have anything to add, it's in discussing ideas you can't find in rulebooks. So I hope you'll stick out the lectures so you'll be ready for the interactive phase of the seminar. You're mostly Duke fans, so you'll doubtless be present for many discussions about officiating. Hopefully this forum can make you a more insightful participant in those discussions, providing you with more ammunition to fire back with when one of your colleagues (or even your spouse) tells you that the Duke gets all the calls.

The Play Caller is a nine-year high school and college basketball official who happens to be a Duke fan. He welcomes your questions, comments, and suggestions, and can be reached at