One of the young Oak Bluffs Blazers is fouled, and steps to the line. She’s about four inches shorter than everyone else on the court, and Phil Hughes can see it will be a struggle for her to reach the hoop from the foul line.
He gives her an encouraging thumbs-up and a wide smile.
She shoots, and the ball sweeps across the netting under the rim. No basket.
Hughes collects the ball, hands it to her, and pauses for a brief word.
The girl’s next shot is underhanded — an old-school style made famous by NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry (look it up, the guy was automatic from the free-throw line) — and the ball nearly goes in before spinning off the rim.
If you didn’t know better from the way he’s dressed, you’d think Hughes was the girl’s coach, not the guy in zebra stripes enforcing the rules of basketball. In this league of hoop beginners at the Oak Bluffs School, Hughes also serves as an unofficial on-court coach for the new players, a traffic cop showing them where to line up, and a Dad-like figure offering words of wisdom when a shot’s missed or a player takes too many steps after dribbling (or doesn’t dribble at all). He also calls fouls and jump balls, and urges the players to tuck their jerseys into their shorts. “It’s the rule,” he says to three girls who have just come off the bench.
On this particular day, Hughes and his fellow ref, Mike Magaraci, will officiate two games — one junior varsity, and the other varsity players in the Island’s youth basketball program. They take time twice a week to dress in their black shorts, black-and-white striped shirts, and lace up their black sneakers. Hughes, at 6 feet, 2 inches, tall with a shaved head and whistle pressed against his lips, is easy to spot on the court of sixth grade girls, mostly under 5 feet.
Let’s just say he has the command presence of a state trooper.
Officials, referees, umpires — they do thankless jobs. Yes, Hughes gets paid a stipend ($50 for two games), but no one does what he does for the money.
Hughes has been doing it for 18 years, picking it up shortly after he arrived on the Island with his family 20 years ago from Upstate New York.
His daughter, Taylor, was playing youth basketball. The gym teacher came to him, told him there was a shortage of officials, and asked if he could help out: “My daughter was playing, and I was going to be here anyhow, and I just wanted to help out as much as I could.”
He’s been officiating ever since.
On the court, Hughes easily backpedals as the young West Tisbury Hawks players dash up the court in a full fast break. He toots his whistle and spins his hands in that familiar sign of traveling as one of the Hawks picks up her dribble, but continues running with the ball as a defender approaches.
Hughes smiles, even as parents in the stands can be heard complaining the girls are “inexperienced.”
Hughes knows parents can take things too seriously.
“I was that parent back in the day, before I started,” he said after the game. “I’m glad I learned a lesson.”
Asked if he ever hears parents complain about his calls, he doesn’t hesitate. “Oh yeah, unfortunately. I think every parent envisions their child getting that full ride, and it’s really about getting the skill level right, learning the game, and having fun.”
The coaching part of his officiating gig comes naturally. “I coached for 10 years at the high school with Don Herman,” he said.
On this day, Herman is actually at the gym. Herman said he’d love to lure Hughes back to the sidelines to help him develop his Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School football program. Both men have daughters the same age, and when they were in school, they played youth hoops together, Herman said.
“He’s a great guy,” Herman said. “He does a great job with this. Phil’s an outstanding coach and role model.”
Hughes is the owner of Wheel Happy in Edgartown, so he sees some of the faces from youth sports at his bike shop.
“I’ve been lucky, because I substitute-taught for a long time too,” Hughes said. “So coaching, teaching, reffing — I meet some kids, and in the summer I grab a few of them and they work for me. Then they go from being players, students, to friends, to employees. It’s pretty gratifying.”
These days Hughes does four games a week, but there was a time where he was doing upwards of 20 to 25. He said Michelle Pikor of Edgartown is doing a good job of bringing younger referees along.
Magaraci and Hughes have a good rapport, smiling and having fun. “He’s not bad for an old man,” Magaraci deadpans. “He’s good. He taught me a lot through the years. I learned a lot from him about coaching and officiating. We go way back.”
Hughes interjects, “I don’t know about that.”
Both men put it all in context.
“We’re just trying to keep it fair and have the kids have fun,” Hughes said.
“And block out the crowd noise,” Magaraci says, as the two men jog out to center court to start the next game.