It’s a dark, snowy Tuesday night in Hamden, Connecticut, the kind that last all basketball season in the Northeast. John W. Adams is sitting by himself in the last row at the TD Bank SportsCenter, preparing to take in yet another game in the long stretch of games that make up his life each winter.
Over the next five months, the NCAA’s head of men’s basketball officials will traverse the country, going from city to city, small gym to huge arena, to evaluate as many of our nation’s college basketball officials as he can. His recommendations will determine which referees make it to the NCAA Tournament, which ones advance, and ultimately, who will toss the ball into the air at the Final Four.
Adams’ goal is to watch at least one game from each of the 32 conferences, and he believes he will achieve that goal again this season. On tap on this night is Lehigh of the Patriot League visiting Quinnipiac of the Northeast Conference. It is an interesting game because of Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum, who scored 30 points in leading the Mountain Hawks to a monumental upset over Duke in the NCAA Tournament last March.
When I arrive, Adams is holding a manila folder and taking notes on the back side of the game program. He is 64 years old, with white hair, and he is small in stature, looking every bit the former referee. Adams settles into his seat, and for the next two hours, I am treated to an audience with officiating royalty.
When he attends a game, Adams usually likes to sit courtside, where he can get a better feel for the way the officials are handling each situation. Tonight, however, he feels like changing things up. The top row at the 3,500-seat TD Bank Sports Center isn’t a nosebleed seat like the the top row at Madison Square Garden, so he is still in position to judge most of the calls.
“I like it. It’s kind of like watching the game on TV. You can see everything at the same time,” he says. “Plus, nobody bothers me up here.”
Before each game, Adams meets with the coaches and referees, just to let them know that he is in the building. When he sits courtside, coaches often appeal to him after a bad call, looking over as if to say, “See what your guy is doing to me?”
The officials for Lehigh-Quinnipiac are Doug Grant, James Ostwalt and Frank Scagliotta. Adams has the scouting report on each man ready for me, and tells me that Ostwalt and Grant are relatively inexperienced. It will be Scagliotta’s job to police the game, while the other two focus on their zones on the court. If they are working in perfect harmony, no one will even notice them.
Adams’ main role is to pick out plays from each game that he believes the referees should take another look at later. If he sees a call he likes, he will have the TV crew send a copy of it to the referees. If he sees one he doesn’t like, he’ll do the same, always with an explanation on how to call a similar play the next time. He also does this when he watches games on TV.
Later that night, Adams will ask ESPN to cut him video of selected plays from the North Carolina-Indiana game, which he will send out in a memo to all referees or use in video demonstrations.
“I do try to accentuate the positive,” he says. “It’s funny, sometimes you’ll see a call in person and think, ‘Oh, that was a bad call.’ And then you’ll watch it on tape and realize the guy actually got it right.”
Adams got his start calling junior varsity games in Indiana in 1973, “so I could buy groceries.” Soon, he had worked his way up to officiating NCAA Division I contests. He also was upwardly mobile in his day job as a real estate executive.
He could have retired, bought a golf course and long ago called it a career. But when the opportunity to head the NCAA’s referees presented itself in 2008, Adams couldn’t pass it up.