He won't talk to me!
The assistant coach was steamed. His target: Dominic Frassinelli, in his third year as a hoops official. Frassinelli saw that steam rising. He said later you have to know where you are - not talking about when to blow the whistle, just when it's time to be a diplomat, when to lay down the law.
Tuesday night, Frassinelli couldn't ignore Keddy Harris, longtime Chester Clippers assistant, on the bench for a junior varsity game at the fabled Clip Joint where state championship banners from across decades adorn the rafters.
It was almost like Harris had been hired to give the young official a test. He had a question for Frassinelli during a first-quarter timeout, score tied. Frassinelli explained to the assistant he would only talk to the head coach.
"I'm going to just ask him a question," Harris said, walking back to Chester's bench. "He won't let me ask him a question! I've been doing this for 30 years."
In a little softer voice, out of the ref's hearing range, Harris added, "He wants to come back in here."
For Frassinelli, 31, a schoolteacher, due to be a first-time father in March, it might have been JV, Chester's gym just filling up, but this was a big game. He's already reached the point of his career where maybe he's being evaluated on whether he is ready for the next level of games, doing varsity. Frassinelli, who grew up in Allentown, now lives in Springfield, Delaware County. He first converted from recreation league hoop player to recreation league referee. He moved into working CYO games, AAU in the summer, younger levels of high school hoops.
He gets evaluated by the coordinators who assign his games, and also gets feedback from the varsity officials who show up for JV second halves and give quick input in the dressing room between games. Some tell Frassinelli he doesn't have enough of a court presence, others say he has too much of one. The balance is the job.
"You've got to sell it," Frassinelli said of calls, leaving no gray area.
He's not above admitting to himself he had a call wrong, but the coach will never know it.
Later in that first half of Tuesday's tight game with Chester's archrival Penn Wood, Frassinelli gave a little more rope to Harris, the assistant coach. Never belligerent, Harris approached Frassinelli a second time during a timeout, talking about a call. Frassinelli took one little step toward Harris, just the one step, kind of cocked an ear toward him. Clear signal: I'm listening. He let Harris talk. He answered. The Chester coach turned back to the bench, dissatisfied with the answer, but quiet. There were no more interactions between the two.
It's not just making calls and selling them. If you're working a Malvern Summer League game and a little girl has her sneakers on the wrong feet, you don't blow your whistle and tell her to change them. You walk over to her coach, explain the situation quietly, not wanting her to trip herself.
"She came back in with a huge smile on her face," Frassinelli said.
Playing rec ball, he once saw an opposing player who Frassinelli had already identified as someone to stay clear of take a bag of balls and slam it against a ref's back. He remembers how the ref threw the guy out of the gym but then deliberately walked to the far side of the court, trying to defuse things. (The guy came back in and the gym kind of froze, but the guy had forgotten his jacket.)
Frassinelli has figured out that if some JV parent purposefully walks by him along the endline, talking in a low voice about a horrible call, he can ignore it, the low talker's team down by 20.
"Anybody can regurgitate the rules to you, but can you identify what was a violation?" Frassinelli said, also explaining how you try to "mirror calls of your partner" so the game is being consistently.
"The worst thing, your partner calls charge, then you call block," Frassinelli said.
The pay scale is roughly $30-35 for CYO, $48-55 for freshman games, $56-67 for JV, $73-85 for varsity. Frassinelli has a mix of games, usually five or six a week.
The craziest atmosphere, Frassinelli said, is AAU games, "hands-down," with five to eight games going on at the same time, scoreboard buzzers and whistles going off from adjacent games, fans on top of you, the whole thing a circus.
"I haven't run into anything as intense as a suburban and Main Line parent,'' Frassinelli said.
After the Chester-Penn Wood game was over, the two JV refs returned to the basement, talking about how it had been a good game, both teams had played hard, there had been a good flow to it. The three men waiting to do the varsity game were in the dressing room.
What did they have?
One of the vets said to Frassinelli: "Watch out after foul calls, going to the table, go around them, don't squeeze between them - there were two players at the top of the key, take five more feet and go around them."
"Remember that one block call, third quarter, about a minute and a half left, you were the trail? It was a push going to the hole. They might have been able to play through that a little bit."
"You guys kept the coaches in line, they weren't bothering you," one of the vets said.
He just had one more question for Frassinelli.