Nicholson hanging up his whistle

COLUMBUS – It takes a special type of person to be a high-school basketball official. On any call which is not blatantly obvious, half the people at the game will be displeased at best. The men and women who choose to don the striped shirts know that just about every night they are going to be verbally abused.

Anyone who chooses to officiate for 30 years usually falls into at least one of three categories: masochist, extremely tolerant, a true fan of the game.

Bill Nicholson likely falls into the last two.

Thursday morning Nicholson officiated the Division III state semifinal between Ottawa-Glandorf and Ironton. At game’s end he unceremoniously ran off the court, something that didn’t always happen, for the last time.

After countless hours on the hardwood, seven times as a state tournament official, and probably thousands of “You stink ref” from the stands, Nicholson is hanging up his whistle.

His reason for quitting now is simple. “I don’t want people saying, ‘Hey, that guy used to be a good ref’.”

It was his love of basketball which first got him started in this often thankless profession. While a student at Youngstown State, he wanted to play intramural basketball on the weekends. There was one big problem though: “Dad paid for my gas Monday through Friday. He said, ‘I’m not paying for you to go back up on Saturday’.”

Thus, Nicholson began officiating intramural games after playing his own.

“I’d do five or six games a day,” he said. “They paid me three dollars a game.”

That was the start of a three-decade love affair with officiating. Nicholson, a 1979 graduate of the former Warren Western Reserve High School, is generally regarded as one of the top officials in the Mahoning Valley. If one were to survey most area coaches, Nicholson’s name would likely be on most lists.

His first high-school game came “four or five years” after the intramural days. It was Maplewood versus Southington. At the time, legendary coach Norm Urchek led Maplewood.

“After the game he came up to me and said, ‘Nice job Bill’,” Nicholson recalled. “I thought oh my God. He said nice job and he knew my name.”

Although Urchek was a pleasure to officiate for, Nicholson said not all are coaches were as easy going.

“Bobby Patton (former Liberty coach) was difficult, very intimidating,” he said. “(Don) Andres was very intimidating at Howland, especially for a young official. (Bob) LaRicca was tough to do because he was my ninth-grade teacher and coach.”

Nicholson is currently a principal at Willard School in Warren. LaRicca, long-time coach at Reserve and Warren G. Harding, chuckled when told of Nicholson’s comments.

“So I was on the bad list?” LaRicca said. “He’s (officiated) for a long time. He’s one of the most respected officials in our area. He has a great demeanor, but he knows when to lay down the hammer.

“Beyond that, he’s a great guy, not a grudge holder. Through being a teacher and administrator he has sacrificed a lot for Warren schools.”

Since there was a somewhat bad list, what was the good list?

“John Cullen’s and Tom Fender’s teams (Canfield and Austintown Fitch, respectively),” Nicholson said. “They were so well-coached, so easy to do. If they got on you, you knew you messed up.”

Several coaches have mentioned Nicholson’s tolerance while on the court. But there are times when a referee has to regain control and issue a technical foul. Nicholson admitted he wasn’t big on technicals nor could he recall his first one or whom he’d given the most technicals to.

“One I remember I T’d three consecutive years was Ron Moschella at Boardman,” Nicholson said. “You just couldn’t make him happy.”

John F. Kennedy coach Shawn Pompelia said Nicholson had given him a few technicals throughout the years but always welcomed him as an official.

“You knew if he was on your game you were going to get fair officiating,” Pompelia said. “He always did his best and he was fair.

“One thing I really enjoyed about him is that you could communicate with him. He didn’t take it personal. He communicated back as well. It doesn’t mean you always agreed with him, but he showed you respect.”

Of all the games Nicholson has done, he said the 1999 Division II state semifinal was the best one he ever officiated. In that game, Kettering Alter defeated Columbus Beechcroft, 83-81, in two overtimes.

While that may have been the best game he saw, the most memorable one (at least for the parties involved) had to be the 1997 D-III state championship game. Hamler Patrick Henry led Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph 63-61 in the waning seconds. St. Joseph put up a shot as time expired that appeared to send the game into overtime.

“I was the official opposite the table; it was my call,” Nicholson recalled. “I immediately started waving it off and out of the corner of my eye I saw the ball go through the hoop. I thought, uh oh.”

Most of those present at St. John Arena that day felt the shot should have counted.

“The evaluator told me I was either a tenth (of a second) right or a tenth wrong,” Nicholson said. “Channel 8 in Cleveland showed a freeze frame, and it showed that the ball was an inch out of the kid’s hand as the horn was going off. I know Cleveland people didn’t like me, but I think Patrick Henry built a statue of me in front of the school.”

Remember the part about unceremoniously running off the court? As he was trying to do that after that game, a VA-SJ assistant coach bumped him and Ohio State Police intervened.

“As we’re running off we had to go in front of the St. Joe’ fans,” Nicholson remembered. “We got hit with gum and pop was being thrown down on us.”

Nicholson’s final game was a thriller, as O-G made a free throw with 1.1 seconds remaining in overtime to win 61-60. The foul was not Nicholson’s call.

“I thought, here we go again,” Nicholson said.

This time he’s gone for good.