Copyright 2014 The Deseret News Publishing Co.
Deseret Morning News (Salt Lake City)
HOLLADAY -- Can you imagine being the guy who's in charge of lining up officials for, oh, let's say a million or more basketball games?
Probably not. I mean, who in the world would want such a thankless job?
Pete Sparreboom, that's who.
Sparreboom, 80, recently retired as president of the Salt Lake Basketball Officials Association, a position he held for 51 years. And during that time, Sparreboom estimates he arranged to have officials for more than a million ballgames.
He took over as director of officials in 1962, when the high school officiating organization split from the recreation side of the officials' group. He still worked high school sophomore and junior varsity games in an officiating career that spanned 30 years, but his job as president of the officials association was to make sure that officials were assigned for all of the youth and adult recreation games in Salt Lake County -- six days a week for the last 51 years.
"I started it and I didn't want to see it fail," he said from his home in Holladay. "That's why I kept it and I really enjoyed working with the guys all these years.
"I wanted to put out a product that was first-class. I wanted to have everything that was professional-looking with our people out there, because some of these guys you see with headbands and their shirttails hanging out and things like that. If our association was going to do anything, it was going to be that they were gonna look like they were going to officiate the NCAA finals.
"There's always somebody new coming in new who wants to be a rebel and wears a headband or wears sweat shorts," Sparreboom said. "No, I said, we want everybody in pressed pants and nice shoes with a shine on 'em. Heck, some guys come in off the farm and they still had (manure) on their shoes."
It's been quite a ride for Sparreboom over the years. Back in the day, he got to officiate in the All-Church Tournament, which was a huge responsibility back in the 1960s and '70s. He officiated basketball from 1959-89, was elected to the Slow Pitch Softball Hall of Fame, and also ran his father's dairy for nearly three decades, too.
He remembers what it was like back in the early days of his officiating career.
"I started out making $2.50 a game, and I'd do two games a night," Sparreboom said. "You made five bucks a night because you did two games, so you thought you were on easy street, you know."
He has many fond memories from his days as an official, including a triple-overtime game involving then-Springville High star Scott Mitchell -- who would go on to become a star quarterback at the University of Utah and played for several years in the NFL -- when almost everybody fouled out and both teams were playing their third-stringers by the end of the game.
And he officiated a heated game between North Summit and South Summit High Schools. "They really hated each other," Sparreboom said, "and I needed a police escort to walk out of the gym. We hurried and got dressed and got the heck out of there.
"You're never more than 50 percent right, as far as the crowd is concerned. ... Lousy fans, oh my gad, no matter what you call, you're wrong."
After wearing that striped shirt and blowing his whistle for 30 years, Sparreboom decided to stop officiating in 1989.
"I was up at Skyline officiating a varsity girls game," he recalled, "and I'd heard an old guy say 'You'll know when it's the end.' At halftime, I was sitting there and looked at my partner -- I think it was Lee Shaw -- and I said, 'You know, Lee, this is not fun anymore.' And I just didn't do it anymore.
"I could always beat 'em down the court. At the end, though, I wasn't fast enough anymore. But other than that, everything was pretty good."
And then there was his job assigning officials, a huge undertaking in which he'd have to get officials for 10 gyms throughout the county, with four games being played at each gym.
"I needed at least 40 guys on Monday, at least 50 on Tuesday, maybe as many as 80 on Wednesday and Thursday was 60 or so," he recalled.
There were no recreation games played on Friday due to high school games, but on Saturdays, once the Jr. Jazz program got started, he often needed as many as 130 officials each week because more than 200 games were being played on that day.
"For all those many years, this is the first year that I ever sat down with my family on a Sunday," said Sparreboom who, sadly, lost his wife Carolyn of nearly 60 years to cancer last March. "I'd have to sit down each Sunday at 6 o'clock and start phoning the people with next week's assignments. Each Sunday, I'd try to line up the whole week's worth of games.
"I added 'em up and, over the 51 years, it's over a million games. It might even be more than that. Figure there's two officials for every game so you've got to make two phone calls to make it to one game."
It was a system that, Sparreboom insisted, could not be done by computer, as he found out that making phone calls simply worked the best for him.
"Some guys would have illness, or somebody's car wouldn't start, or somebody has a death in their family," he said of his countless hours spent on the phone. "Sometimes some guys would continually have deaths in their families and you'd start to wonder whether they're telling you the truth.
"If they'd say they couldn't do a game, I'd hang up and try to get somebody else.
"And, of course, sometimes refs don't show up," he said. "They don't listen to their phone message or write their assignments down, because they think they can remember it, or they'd leave it at work."
When Sparreboom took over his administrative role with the organization, there were around 60 officials; nowadays, that number has reached 150, and they need between 120 and 130 of them just on Saturdays alone.
Over the years, many of those officials often worked at different levels of the game, from Jr. Jazz all the way up to college officiating.
"All these guys that were doing college games before, they were doing college, high school, Jr. Jazz, it didn't matter what it was," Sparreboom said. "You just have to learn each level, because the further up you get the faster it is, and you're not ready for it.
"You go from sophomore to JV, and all of the sudden you say, 'My heck, these guys are quick.' And you go from there to varsity and it doubles again, and when you get into college it doubles again. I never did pro, so I wouldn't know, but I imagine it's really tough."
He feels good about what he has accomplished in his 50-plus years of service as the officials' go-to guy. "I always wanted to make sure that guys always got a fair game," Sparreboom said. "I always wanted to make sure that everything was fair, and no coach was gonna decide what I was gonna call. I just wanted a fair game. "That's what I strived for and that's what I was looking to accomplish. And that's what I tried to do for 50-plus years."