SULPHUR — It's not often that officials are the heroes at a basketball game.
Over the weekend at the Great Plains Schools for the Deaf Basketball Tournament, though, they were plenty appreciated.
All of the officials at the tournament are deaf as well.
“I saw people in the stands talking about how good the refs were,” Oklahoma School for the Deaf student government sponsor Candy Tumblson said. “It's the first time I've seen them talking to the players and explaining their calls.”
For deaf basketball players and coaches, most aspects of the game are the same.
Sometimes, though, communicating with the referees can be plenty frustrating.
“It's hard for us to know what's going on sometimes,” OSD boys coach Chris Reagle said. “I'm a coach, I like to get specifics on calls so I can coach my players, but a lot of times when we have hearing referees, the other teams will get those explanations and we don't.
“This week, the kids understand what's going on and it makes a big difference. It's wonderful that we've got a deaf tournament with deaf referees. It's 100 percent equal.”
The GPSD tournament brought 260 athletes — basketball players and cheerleaders — from around the region to Sulphur for the annual tournament, which wrapped up Saturday night.
All of the athletes are staying in the OSD dorms.
“We're very competitive,” OSD senior Sassy Fields said. “We're going down memory lane when we're in there, saying, ‘I remember playing you all.' This is my last year for the tournament and I want to do my best.”
The OSD girls fell to Minnesota in the semifinals Friday after beating New Mexico in the opening round.
“This is like our state tournament,” OSD girls coach Angie Shelby said. “I've tried to tell the girls to play their best because GPSD is a memory that you'll never have another chance at.”
Guy Kirk is the senior deaf official in the tournament.
Kirk is a veteran NCAA official, calling college games for 27 years and high school games for 40 years.
He's worked in the SEC, Big 12 and Southern conferences and several NCAA Tournaments.
“When I was 12 years old, going to the North Carolina School for the Deaf, I was watching the team play and I was so fascinated by the referees. So I gave it a try. I called several games as an eighth grader and then when I was on the JV.”
Kirk eventually found a mentor, a veteran NCAA and NBA official who took him under his wing and started teaching Kirk the ins and outs of the job.
He eventually told Kirk he had the potential to call college games.
“The nervousness thinking of all of that was overwhelming,” Kirk said.
Kirk called LSU games when Shaquille O'Neal played for the Tigers and once T'd up Rick Pitino when he was coaching Kentucky.
Pitino didn't know Kirk was deaf.
“When the other refs told him that, he looked over and his lip started quivering a bit and he sheepishly went and sat down on the bench,” Kirk said.
He's having just as much fun this week calling the high school games at OSD.
“It's so inspiring for me,” Kirk said. “It's such a joy to call these games. This is one of the greatest times in my life calling this tournament.”
Phillip Smith Jr. is on the other end of the spectrum.
He's in his third year of officiating in the East Bay Basketball Officials Association in Oakland, Calif.
Smith became involved in officiating after watching his godson's basketball game and thinking he could do a better job than the officials on the court.
“His team was winning by a lot but there was some teasing going on out there and I didn't think that was right that they let that go on,” Smith said.
Smith would like to reach the same level as Kirk.
“My dream would be to become an NCAA ref, especially in the Pac-12,” Smith said. “If I did that, I'd be the first deaf official there.”