By Tim Eberly
Steve Huston is part of a package deal.
Wherever he goes, Duane Naber goes with him.
About 20 evenings between each September and March, Huston and Naber have officiated high school basketball games together since 1974. The duo met while working together as appraisers in the Hill County Courthouse.
Sharing his love of basketball he coached the men's basketball team at Northern Montana College for four years beginning in 1969 Huston pulled Naber into the referee game, and they've worked in tandem ever since.
"It was kind of our social life," Huston, 62, said Thursday. "The trip home usually meant a pool game and a couple of beers. We've kind of outgrown that, though."
Before each school year, Huston and Naber coordinate their schedules and notify Montana high schools of their availability. Traveling suits them just fine and they routinely drive "as far west as Cut Bank and as far east as Glasgow," he said. Huston and Naber alternate the driving duties for each trip.
"We've always wanted to add our mileage to see what our total would be. We thought it would be phenomenal," he said.
Huston and Naber are two of 17 part-time basketball referees in the Havre area. Eight other part-timers from Hill County are stationed in Rudyard.
Most of them are middle-aged men who don't mind the second paycheck, but in reality don the stripped shirts for another reason.
"All the referees talk about how it helps to pay their bills," said 49-year-old Greg Drummer, in his 20th year of officiating. "But the money is secondary to most of us. You couldn't run up and down the floor with people yelling and hollering at you for just $48. It just wouldn't work."
Drummer, like most of his colleagues, does it for the love of the game.
"I believe there are certain officials that do it for the money," Havre High School athletic director Dennis Murphy said. "I think they're in it for the wrong reasons. But I can't say that about the officials in our area. It's important to them to do a good job."
And frankly, the pay wouldn't be enough motivation to keep referees coming back.
There are between 1,350 and 1,400 referees in the state of Montana this year, said Bill Sprinkle, the assistant executive director for the Montana High School Association (MHSA). For sports like basketball, football and wrestling, each referee receives $48.50 for a single game or match. Officials for volleyball, soccer and softball rake in $45 per event.
Next year, however, officials in all sports will make the same flat rate $50 for varsity games and $30 for subvarsity contests, such as junior varsity and middle school events. This is because the MHSA adopted a resolution five years ago to make the various sports offer equal pay.
"We've increased (the pay) to get officials into the sport," said Sprinkle, who also heads the Montana Officials Association, a subdivision of the MHSA. "Retaining officials is tough too."
Since the passing of the resolution, the MHSA has steadily increased the pay for refs working in lower-paying sports in order to level out the pay scale. "This is the fourth year of this plan, so they're pretty close now," Sprinkle said.
Until the postseason, two options exist for referees to find work. Athletic directors like Murphy contract varsity games by calling referees personally. To spread the wealth, Murphy doesn't allow an official to work more than two games at Havre High per season.
"We don't have a hometown official," Murphy said.
So referees must be willing to travel to out-of-area venues, like Hays, Shelby or Cut Bank.
The other way to pick up games is at "study clubs," informational meetings that occur up to eight times (wrestling referees meet four times a year, while basketball officials are required to meet eight times) throughout a give season. At the meetings, officials from the various sports discuss different scenarios that could arise in a game. The chairmen of the groups veteran officials Terry Sather (basketball) or Dan Boucher (wrestling) post schedules of subvarsity games and officials choose games from the lists.
"I do any game I'm available to do, any time I feel my legs can go," said Drummer, a business instructor at Stone Child College. "I don't turn down a date if I'm available. Drummer has officiated about 40 games this year, but has done more than 100 games in a season.
Playoff time isn't just a chance for players to shine. In order for a referee to get a postseason assignment, coaches from across the state must vote for them. At the midway point of a season, coaches are mailed a list of every certified official in Montana, and each coach is allowed to choose six preferred referees.
"It's kind of like the frosting on the cake," said Sather, who has officiated a dozen state championship games. "When I played high school basketball, I never had the opportunity to go to a state tournament. So for me to be involved as an official, it's really a high honor and a great experience."
At the District 9C Boys Basketball Tournament this week in Havre, there will be four referees. All of them are from Havre, a testament to the high regard in which local officials are held in the eyes of Montana coaches. Drummer, as well as 40-year-old Don Evans, were voted in to work the tournament. Working four games apiece, they will each collect $195.
Greg Baltrusch will not be joining Evans and Drummer. A farmer and rancher, the 42-year-old Baltrusch just finished his second season in the zebra-striped profession. He officiated 60 games this year, mostly subvarsity games.
"I always wanted to referee basketball," Baltrusch said, "but I waited until my kids were through high school to do it."
Baltrusch's son, Nate, graduated from Havre in 2000; his daughter, Nikki, received her diploma in 2001.
Midway through the 2000-2001 season, Baltrusch took the 100-question test composed of multiple choice and true-false questions to become a apprentice referee, a level that lasts for two years. In that first season, Baltrusch didn't work a single varsity game, but officiated about 30 subvarsity contests.
"The first year, you're unsure of what's going to happen," Baltrusch said. "Every game, you gain more confidence. Every game, you see more and learn something new about the game."
This year, Baltrusch worked four varsity games.
"It's nice to get a call to do varsity games," he said. "It lets you know you're on the right track."
In the working hours, Boucher is a partner in a Havre law firm, Altman & Boucher. On weekends during the wrestling season, he burns most of his free time on the mat.
Boucher competed as a Division I wrestler at the University of Montana in Missoula. When he moved to Havre after graduating from law school in 1984, Boucher stayed close to the sport by officiating.
"For me personally, it's a welcome break from the work that I do daily," Boucher, 45, said. "It's low stress, compared to much of the work that I do."
Like Sather in basketball, Boucher heads the pool of eight wrestling referees based in Havre. In 1984, he was one of only three referees, but since he has been in charge of recruiting new officials, that count has swelled to one of the largest wrestling pools in the state.
Evans is in his second stint as a whistle-blower. He started officiating intramural games during his senior year at Havre, when he was the starting point guard on the Blue Ponies basketball team. One year after he graduated, in 1981, he became certified by the MHSA and officiated for three years.
He hung up his uniform, though, due to a conflict of interest faced by many local referees.
"Every time I went to a game, I had a relative playing," Evans said. "I didn't want to do it. It was my own personal decision. I didn't feel comfortable doing it."
For six years, Evans shied away from his favorite hobby. When he returned in 1990, he had to take the certification exam all over again. Evans doesn't plan on taking another sabbatical from the sport, but when his two children 9-year-old C.J. and Jaclyn, 7 get older, his priorities will shift.
"I'll be cutting back a lot to go watch them play," he said.