Meet the people behind the AHSAA Basketball State Finals, Feb. 24-29 in Birmingham

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Alganese Gatson is a second-grade teacher at Hemphill Elementary School in Birmingham and a basketball official. Photo courtesy of Alganese Gatson

On February 24-29, the AHSAA Basketball State Finals — one of the top high school basketball championship events in the country — is coming to Legacy Arena at the BJCC.

Boys’ and girls’ high school basketball teams from across the state will compete in seven different classifications. Fourteen state champions will be crowned.

The student athletes will be in the spotlight, but they will be sharing the court with contest officials who have been chosen by the AHSAA for the championship week. Like the players, they are the best the state has to offer.

Not an Easy Job

Photo courtesy of Desmond Oden

One thing about being a referee — it’s not an easy job. You just can’t go down to the local sporting goods store, buy a whistle and striped shirt and step on a court. Refs go through a regimen that includes tests, as well as training sessions that focus on the game and player safety — especially concussion protocol.

Judged by their peers, tested and trained over years with hundreds of games to their credit, the road to get to the Finals is rigorous but fulfilling.

Regular Day Job to Center Court

I got a chance to talk to four referees, and they’re regular people with regular day jobs: Second-grade teacher and early childhood educator Alganese Gatson, automotive operations manager Desmond Oden, ex-combat vet and military contractor at Redstone Arsenal Marius Dockery, and Guntersville Fire Department Lieutenant Paramedic Matt Driver.

Why did you become a basketball referee?

Desmond Oden works at an automotive operations plant in Bessemer. Photos courtesy of Desmond Oden

Alganese: Having the opportunity to play basketball for 15 years opened my eyes to realize that this game saved my life. Basketball has always been my safe haven, and that remains the same to this day.

Having the opportunity to stay connected to the game, become more knowledgeable about the game, and give back to the game as well as the student athletes is what drove me to become a basketball referee.

Desmond: I have always been around or involved in basketball as far back as I can remember. My dad (Curtis Oden) a long time high school coach here in Alabama, and he was one of the pioneers in starting the AAU circuit in the city of Birmingham. He passed away last August.

I always remembered whenever I watched basketball games in person or on TV, I would look at the referees on the court more than the game itself. I admired their demeanor, the way they moved and their ability to make split-second decisions in high-pressure situations. It was like art in motion. It was an easy decision for me to become a referee.

Marius Dockery officiating a game in the Huntsville area. Photo courtesy of Marius Dockery

Marius: Love of the sport and wanting to stay involved with kids. I started refereeing 24 years ago. I used to play military sports, but I kept on getting hurt and I didn’t want to walk away from the game. I started officiating — It kept me involved with the kids and mentoring. I do it all for the love of the game.

Matt: I got into officiating after I finished high school. I just sort of fell into it by accident. My friend’s step-dad asked “what are you going to do this fall?” So, my friend and I became football refs. When that season was over he asked us what we were doing in the winter. That’s when I became a basketball official. I now have been a ref for 17 years.

What is it like officiating in the State Basketball Finals?

Matt Driver is a Guntersville Fire Department Lieutenant Paramedic and referee. Photo courtesy of Matt Driver

Alganese: Refereeing in the State Basketball Finals is like going to Disney World! Since I never made it to the championship level as a player, I truly felt like a kid in the candy store! I am truly appreciative as well as honored to be recognized for the hard work that I put into accomplishing this goal.

Marius: The state championship has become a family tradition. I’m still a fan of the game too. To be out there officiating with the coaches and the kids — it’s an amazing experience. To talk to the kids on the floor, the enormousness of the event. As an official you want to work as hard as them.

Matt: It is one of those things you strive for. Only 45 to 50 get to go out of 2000 officials statewide. It’s a huge honor…the camaraderie and relationships. We’ve all been through tough games and tough situations; you build a bond with your fellow officials

Desmond: The first time I ever got selected to referee the State Basketball Finals was both gratifying and a little stressful. There are hundreds of talented and well-deserving referees in the state of Alabama.

To get selected to referee the state tournament is one of the highest achievements a referee can attain, but with that comes a lot of pressure to perform at a very high level. The AHSAA does an outstanding job of putting together and executing the week-long event. The atmosphere is amazing for everyone who attends.

Tell us about your profession and how refereeing supports it.

Marius Dockery is a retired combat vet, military contractor and referee. Photo courtesy of Marius Dockery

Marius: I’m a retired combat vet. Officiating has enhanced my leadership abilities in corporate America. Being able to deal with different personalities, backgrounds, ethnic groups, understanding adversity and what the players are going through — I’ve blended that into my workplace as well. I take skills I’ve learned on the court and transferred them to my job.

Alganese: Being an advocate for education, I have the ability to work alongside parents to educate the youth. Doing so, I am able to produce lifelong survival skills at the foundational level in academics and character. These same traits carry over into officiating, where I also get to layer in fair play, teamwork and sportsmanship.

Alganese Gatson is a second-grade teacher at Hemphill Elementary School in Birmingham and a basketball official. Photo courtesy of Alganese Gatson

Desmond: I work in operations in the automotive manufacturing industry. Much like refereeing a basketball game where quick decisions have to be made in high stress situations, it’s much the same in manufacturing. To put it in other words, I referee almost every day of my life, up to 10-12 hours per day.

Matt: The fire service and officiating—they kind of go hand in hand together. I’ve had to make a big call in a championship game that decided the game. When you make it, you have to stand behind it.

That translates into the fire service which I’ve been doing for 12 years. There are times you’ve got to make life and death decisions. Whether it’s a patient you are treating or if you are sending someone into a structure fire. Officiating gives you the ability to make tough decisions in tough times.

Giving Back and the Love of the Game

Photo courtesy of Dennis Victory

There is one common thread running between these officials and refs all over Alabama: love of the game and giving back.

They want to make the AHSAA State Basketball Finals the best experience possible for everyone—for the good of the game, the student athletes, schools and communities. Come see them, February 24-29, at BJCC’s Legacy Arena. Get your tickets – today.

Becoming an official

Want to learn more about becoming a sports official? Visit the AHSAA’s Becoming an Offical webpage – HERE.

Alabama is proud to be the host of the 2020 National Association of Sports Officials (NASO) Summit this Summer, July 26-28 in Montgomery.  The NASO website, has declared it “The Officiating Industry Event of the Year”.  More information can be found at:

https://www.sportsofficiatingsummit.com/.

Desmond Oden, local Birmingham AHSAA basketball official. Photo courtesy of Desmond Oden

In addition to the national conference “Officiate Alabama Day” will be held on Saturday, July 25.  All sports officials from Alabama will be invited to attend  this extraordinary event to hear from the best in the industry and celebrate officiating in Alabama.  More information can be found at the following link, http://www.ahsaa.com/Officials/2020-Officiate-Alabama-Day.  You can also contact Mark Jones, mjones@ahsaa.com or Ken Washington, kwashington@ahsaa.com at the AHSAA office, 334-263-6994, for more information.

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  • Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.