SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – The official start of the college basketball season was Nov. 5 and it was going to be a busy Tuesday for Eric Curry. The plan was to get in some work as senior vice president for corporate sales at Cambria, watch the first quarter at Williams Arena for the Gophers women’s opener to support his wife, assistant coach Kelly Roysland, and then fly to Sioux Falls to referee the Wisconsin-St. Mary’s (Calif.) opener.
It was Game 1 of the Sanford Sports promotion of big-time basketball at the Pentagon, with the Gophers men and Oklahoma to follow four nights later.
“Change of plans,” came the Tuesday morning text from Curry. “We’re driving.”
Shane Obershaw, Curry’s friend, a basketball fan and a private pilot, didn’t trust the weather forecast for later that night, when his small plane would be returning to Flying Cloud airport.
We took off in Curry’s Escalade at 2 p.m., with John Moore, the now-retired, longtime Benilde-St. Margaret’s boys’ coach riding shotgun and me in the back, with what became a failed plan to work on a column on another topic.
Failed because the basketball talk started with Curry and Moore on the drive southwest and didn’t stop until we pulled up next to a back door of the arena at 5:45 p.m.
By then, there was already evidence of a snow and ice mix, and Obershaw’s decision not to fly was becoming wiser by the minute.
John Higgins, the crew chief for the night, had arrived almost simultaneously. Higgins has been a Division I referee for 31 seasons. He might have been put through Hades by Kentucky wackos, with their threats and attempts to ruin his roofing business after the Wildcats’ loss to North Carolina in a 2017 regional final, but Higgins remains near the top of his second job — having been selected to referee four Final Fours.
“John’s my Butch Harmon,” said Curry, starting his 21st season in D-I. “He’s my swing coach when it comes to refereeing. I’ll be with him eight, 10 times this season. And when you have the privilege of working with John, you learn something.”
The third member of the opening night crew was Kelly Pfeifer, a younger referee from Mitchell, S.D. By all accounts, Pfeifer is destined to become a familiar figure on the TV screens of NCAA tournament aficionados.
Higgins, Curry and Pfeifer had agreed to arrive early and participate in a Q&A with referees from the Sioux Falls area. There were 80 or so attendees, and there weren’t many Pfeifers in the group; mostly older refs.
“We have to figure out a way to get younger guys involved in a game,” Higgins told the group. “I was attending a 13-year-old game for my son … and there was a parent who said something to the officials on every possession. I finally had to say something to him.
“We take way too much abuse all the way up the ladder. What I say to coaches is, ‘You can ask all the questions you want but no statements.’ ”
They talked about experiences; in Higgins’ case, the climb from grassroots to the Final Four. His pointers included:
“Don’t talk about other officials. Be happy where you’re at. Be the best you can be that night.”
The NCAA came up with a new complication for 2019-20. It is being called the “flopping” rule. This covers an unnecessary fall made by a defender, a jump shooter that falls without being touched or the dramatic “head snap” to convince an official that an elbow or shoulder has been used to strike a blow. The first time, a team gets a warning; the second is a technical and one free throw. Higgins, Curry and Pfeifer were getting into game gear in a small locker room and discussed this change at length.
Brad Davison, the Wisconsin guard from Maple Grove, gained a reputation for his flopping last season.
“We did talk to the captains in the pregame about the addition of the flopping rules,” Curry said.
The first time Davison hit the floor, it was called as a charge. The second time, it was a warning. Curry also gave a warning to St. Mary’s when a jump shooter hit the deck with no contact.
It was an ugly game that went into overtime, with St. Mary’s winning 65-63. The Gaels had the two best players on the court: guard Jordan Ford and 6-8 forward Malik Fitts.
The first half was trouble-free for the officials. Pfeifer, with the enthusiasm of a fan, said in the locker room at halftime: “That No. 3 [Ford] … he’ll shoot from anywhere.”
The officials scout individuals and teams, trying to decipher what to look for.
“It’s something you’re told from Day 1 in officiating: You anticipate the play, not the call,” Curry said.
Higgins has reached the top of the officiating chain by not being in a rush. There’s a pause — slight, but there — when making a call. Curry calls it the “one-second replay” that an official must develop.
After a mostly smooth night with minimal complaining, the refs got into civilian clothes, shook hands and headed into the snowy night.
Higgins was flying to the West Coast for a busy week of games. Pfeifer also would be on the road.
Curry? He had to drive through a snowstorm, get home at 3:30 a.m., kiss Kelly and the baby (Brekken Harmon, age 2), put in a few hours at Cambria, and catch an 11:30 a.m. flight to Albuquerque to work that night’s New Mexico opener in the Pit.
We engaged in considerably less basketball conversation as Curry drove the snow-covered dark roads of southern Minnesota. We didn’t want him flopping that Escalade into a ditch somewhere near Bingham Lake.