Luther Linderbaum of Dorchester, Iowa, is a member of the "third team" on the high school basketball courts. As an official, Linderbaum spends three to four nights a week in area gyms keeping games fair and athletes accountable. (Bluff Country Reader photo by Craig Moorhead)
Luther Linderbaum of Dorchester, Iowa, is a member of the "third team" on the high school basketball courts. As an official, Linderbaum spends three to four nights a week in area gyms keeping games fair and athletes accountable. (Bluff Country Reader photo by Craig Moorhead)
Luther Linderbaum trotted down the basketball court in Spring Grove last December, sweat running down his back. He clenched something between his teeth as he ran, trying to keep his eye on every move the ballplayer made...

Fast forward a few months, and you have March Madness. State tournaments in Minnesota and Iowa are reaching a crescendo, and one thing that fans forget is that at any high school basketball contest, there are three teams on the court at all times . . . home, visitors and referees. Linderbaum of rural Dorchester, Iowa, has "played" on the latter for 16 years.

"The goal is, go in, do the game, and leave without ever being noticed," Linderbaum noted recently. "But, very rarely does that happen," he grinned. "You don't care who wins the game, you go in with that approach."

Linderbaum began refereeing junior high basketball while attending Upper Iowa University. He said his love for the game led him to become involved at the high school level. For the last 10 years, Luther has worked a full varsity schedule. He now officiates in two states.

"I'll never forget the first game I ever did. I was just so darn nervous, almost afraid of blowing my whistle," he shared.

"You almost have to react and not think. If you think, a play is going to take place where you should have blown a whistle... a couple seconds go by and by that time it's too late because you're into the next play. You could be down at the other end of the court," Linderbaum continued. "It's become such a fast-paced game. Those kids can really get up and down that court."

Does it wear you out, running back and forth?

"It can, because a lot of the time you do two games, junior varsity and varsity, or girls' varsity and boys' varsity. I always tell myself that I'll do some running before the season to prepare, but I don't usually get to it. It's good exercise, though. It gets you in shape over the course of the season. We do three to four nights a week."

How far do you guys run during a doubleheader?

"It's hard to say, I'd guess about three miles."

Was it difficult, getting certified in two states?

"No. Minnesota and Iowa have a reciprocal agreement, so when you show the Minnesota State High School League that you are certified in Iowa, then you can be certified there as well. We now test every year in Iowa to maintain our certification, and that's something relatively new. We send in our fee, go to a rules meeting and test. It's a 50-question, open-book test, so we can take the rulebook. You have to correctly answer at least 75 percent of the questions."

Time-outs, substitutions, back court violations, alternating possession arrow, over the back, team-control fouls, traveling, dribbling rules, the size and shape of an official ball, when music is allowed from the band... Referees have to have it all straight, no time to stop and look it up.

"In basketball, Iowa has gone to three-man crews. For the most part, Minnesota goes with two. At a certain point in tournament play, however, they go to three. A three-man crew consists of a lead, a trailer and a center. Each has a specific responsibility, a section of the floor that they need to watch. A two-man crew just has the lead and trailer positions. I like the three-man system. Having that extra set of eyes can make a world of difference."

"What we're always told is, work for the best possible angle, no matter if you're lead, trail or center. You've always got to be moving."

Are Iowa and Minnesota rules identical?

"For the most part, yes."

"A guy I worked with once told me 'I'm only right 50 percent of the time.' That sentence has stayed with me for years... Especially if it's a close game, one team's going to hate you for the call and the other team's going to love you. That's just the way it goes... I'd almost rather do a game that's close as opposed to a blowout. You could start daydreaming in a blowout. It's hard to stay focused. But if you've got a close game, especially right down to the wire, you're right there. You're focused; ready to make a call."

Linderbaum also took up football officiating six years ago. He works on a five-man crew, wearing the white cap of the referee. He carries two whistles on the gridiron. That's because one fine fall day he reached for the instrument, but found only thin air since the device had dropped somewhere on the field. "Thank goodness someone else whistled that one," Luther chuckled.

Sometimes little accidents happen on the hardwood, too. "A partner of mine had the back of his pants split in Spring Grove," Linderbaum recalled with a laugh. "He didn't realize it. Some girls in the front row bleachers asked him, 'Do you know you have a big rip down the back of your pants?' He didn't believe it. I kind of peeked around, and sure enough, he did. He ended up going down to the locker room. I guess he was wearing black compression shorts, and the girls could see his white shirt tucked in..."

What are the best things about being a referee?

"There's a lot of trust involved, having trust in your partner, that he's going to make a call at a critical time. They also trust that I'm going to make the call in that critical situation... The best part of it is the camaraderie with the guys. I've worked with about 50 people in the last 10 years. It's about getting to know other officials, gaining respect from coaches, because you see them year after year. They get to know exactly the game you'll call, and you know how they'll react. The friendships last a lifetime."

But, most of all, Linderbaum said, it is about the kids.

"Some parents get pretty fanatical, but we're here for the kids," he explained. "We're not here for the parents or some person over there in the stands. We're here to ref this game. We have the guideline called the rulebook, and we're going to do it to the best of our ability. You're not going to like what we call all of the time, that's a given."

"We're doing it for the kids... we don't do it for the money," Linderbaum concluded. "We see some of these players from ninth to 12th grades, so over time you get to know the kids. That's why I'm out there."