Zehr reflects on Hall of Fame officiating careerJune 23, 2019
By JONATHAN SAXON
DUBOIS — Mike Zehr woke up one morning last fall and started to go about his normal business, making his rounds around his home as he prepared for another day’s worth of work ahead of him.
But this day would be different in a way that he never imagined. As he retrieved his mail, he noticed a letter from the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. That in itself wasn’t unusual, but the contents of this particular letter were a proclamation that swelled up Zehr’s emotions and caused him to sit down so he could take it all in.
“I got a letter in early November saying ‘Congratulations, you’ve been selected for a Center Circle Officials Award from the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame’,” he said. “Needless to say, I sat there and cried for awhile. It’s such an honor to be in the hall, it’s unbelievable.”
The Center Circle Officials Award is an honor reserved for high school referees whose contributions to the game of basketball have been recognized as outstanding and worthy of induction into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. Only a handful of honorees are chosen annually, and Zehr was one of two officials awarded this past year for their work in girls' basketball. There are only 85 officials in the Hall of Fame.
According to the Hall of Fame’s website, Zehr has called 33 sectional tournaments, 23 regional tourneys, nine semistates, and six state championship games for girls basketball during his 44-year career. He has also worked 24 sectional tournaments, 16 regional tournaments, three semistates, and the 2014 state title game in boys basketball.
All together, Zehr estimates he has worked a little over 2,000 basketball games in his tenure while also finding the time to squeeze in officiating action in baseball and volleyball. Not bad for a guy that initially started calling games in the fall of 1975 just to make a little extra cash.
“Gary Bauer approached me and said,' Hey, how would you like to make some spending money? We could referee grade games around the area’,” he said. “At that time you got paid $25 a night for two grade games. Back then in the early 70’s that was some good money.”
For the next two years, Zehr and Bayer worked together officiating grade school basketball. Bayer would go on to jump into the coaching ranks, but the zebra stripes had taken a hold of Zehr so he decided to keep on officiating.
He moved on to working freshman and JV basketball games for a few seasons before getting tapped to work his first varsity basketball game which featured the Southridge Raiders taking on the Perry Central Commodores.
“(Southridge AD) Jim Bardwell came up to me and said ‘How would you like to do a varsity game?,” said Zehr. “I said I don’t know if I’m ready or not. He said, ‘Yeah, you’re ready,’”.
After he broke through to the high school varsity ranks, Zehr said his next goal was just to work one sectional in basketball, as he wanted to be a part of the competitive proceedings that brought out scores of fans and focused on the great matchups that went through Memorial Gym back when basketball was organized in a single-class system.
Now, Zehr looks back on the 50-plus sectional tournaments he’s called, along with the numerous other games he’s been a part of and can’t believe that it’s led to a Hall of Fame worthy career.
“Knowing some of the names that are in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, I never felt that I was ever good enough,” he said. “I knew I wasn’t good enough as a player or coach (and) it’s very few officials that are in. I never dreamed I’d be good enough or accomplished enough to make the Basketball Hall of Fame.”
Zehr says he fell in love with the whistle and stripes right away, and has enjoyed everything that comes with being an official during his four decades on the court. He loves being able to work with kids and serve as a role model for them while he keeps order during his various games.
He likes being able to read the players on the court, diffuse tense situations, and just talk to the kids during breaks in the game to calm them down and get them refocused. There was a period in 1990 where Zehr’s work schedule conflicted with his officiating and he had to drop the rest of his winter games unit he could work out the balance. He said going without calling games during that time broke his heart.
“By February, I was so miserable,” he said. “My wife could see it, I missed it really bad.”
Zehr is still an active referee and doesn’t see that changing anytime soon. He says that he’s been blessed with good health in his 65 years of living, and even though he feels it after running up and down the floor all night he wouldn’t trade officiating for the world as long as he is still able to do it.
“I don’t know how many years I can continue, but the aches and pains that I have after a game are nothing compared to the joy I have doing the games,” he said. “A lot of guys have had to have knees and hips replaced, I haven’t. I’ve got a full basketball, volleyball, and baseball schedule for the coming season, and I’ll move on from there.”
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