In 1981, when Richard Laing first began to officiate basketball games it was pretty much about the money.
Oh, refereeing didn't pay too much, but for a recently married guy, the little extra pay was nice to have.
A long time ago, though, the money stopped being the purpose.
“Officiating became a passion for me,” Laing said. “I would hear from the kids sometimes that they thought I had a chip on my shoulder, but I would tell them, 'I am calling this as a job, this is not a game for me.'”
“It's really been about the kids. All this is a learning experience for them, and I wanted the game to be fair.
Now after 30 years, Laing is hanging up his whistle and black-and-white striped shirt – in a manner of speaking. He plans to mentor other officials coming along, teach some of the tough lessons he's learned about being “the ref,” the guy the coaches, kids and fans want to blame when things don't go right.
Soft spoken, Laing admits the fierce whistle blow and firm hand and arm motions are a learned trait for him. His job now will be to convince those coming along after, they've got to be tough.
“We tell them, put the whistle in your mouth and stand in front of a mirror to practice your calls. Practice until you can do it with authority. When you are on the court you do not want to half-way make a call. You want to make every call very definite,” Laing said.
As a referee with the Pecan Valley Basketball Officials, Laing has run up and down every gym from Coleman to Priddy, Cherokee to Cisco – and most of them numerous times, a lot of them several times in one day.
Fellow officials said he never seemed to tire of them, Laing was always ready for the next game.
“Anyone can read the rule book, memorize the rules and be an official,” said Susan Westfall, president of the PVBO chapter. “Not everyone can be a referee. Not all officials have the ability to go out and balance all that we have to balance; manage intense coaches, competitive players and adamant fans while enforcing the rules. Richard had the ability to do it all and bring his fellow officials up with him.”
“Richard always said that the players deserve our best every time,” said Raul Martinez, assigning secretary for PVBO, and a lifelong friend of Laing's.
Martinez remembered a game one night where a father made a point to thank Laing for the professional and fair officiating of his daughter's game at Rochelle.
“He said, 'Thank you for tonight, my daughter got to play basketball, you called the game the way it was supposed to be.'”
“When Richard called one of our games, the kids knew from the start till the end what he was going to call and it wasn’t going to change during the game. He was consistent on both ends of the floor and you cannot ask more than that from an official,” said Steve Howard, varsity boys coach at May.
But Laing humbly adds there were a few coaches who had him stricken from their call list, and there were a couple he struck from his list.
Laing said at a ball game with 10 kids and two refs on the floor, there are things that get missed. He'll confess to his share of mistakes, but he remained true to the goal of calling what he saw.
“Sometimes I'd hear the slap, I'd know there's been a foul, but if I didn't see it, I didn't call it,” Laing said. “That's what you've got to do, call it as you see it.”
It's hard, for sure, giving up the whistle, but Laing said, it's time. Running up and down the gym three to four times a week, often two games a night, well, it's really gotten tough.
“I'm thinking of my health,” he said. “It's time to do this.”
And, of course, officiating was never Laing's primary job. He works – and has for more than 30 years – for Oncor Electric.
Laing is a “born and raised” in Brownwood man, Brownwood High School Class of '75, married to his high school sweetheart Elsa. They have two grown children, Brian Laing, and daughter Brandi, recently married to Bert Massey III.
“I am going to miss the kids, miss the chapter, miss a lot of things about this,” Laing said. “But I'm going to be around to mentor some the ones coming up.”