Death of ref stuns Texas community


They make up the basketball team that rarely gets cheered and never performs on a home court.

The stripes. The zebras. The game officials hear other, more critical, names. They try their best to follow what's happening on the court with a sharp eye while turning a deaf ear to what's happening in the stands. Their job is not for the thin-skinned.

Last week promised to be a busy one for members of the Dallas Basketball Officials Association because a number of boys' and girls' high school holiday tournaments were being staged across north Texas. But the referees hadn't counted on one of their own dying during a game.

Jake Bethany, 48, collapsed at halftime of a game the night of Dec. 29 and was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. The refs all wore black Saturday at the Family Cathedral of Praise in suburban Mesquite for Bethany's funeral.

A slide show honoring the 6-foot-8 Bethany divided his life into four quarters. The final image was a close-up of his huge hands holding a basketball. Mourners included those who played with him, played for him in college and refereed alongside him. All eight pallbearers were fellow officials.

"You know we're always here to help," Grady Dale, assignment secretary for the association, told Bethany's family during the service.

Officials are used to being their own support group. Dale, who has officiated for 17 years, said he fields numerous calls from fellow refs simply looking to tell someone what happened during a game or to ask whether they handled something correctly.

Retired official George Watson said he once had to fend off an attack from a parent on the court during a girls' game. Watson said he defended himself with something like Mr. Miyagi's crane stance from "The Karate Kid" and that the skirmish ended in about 30 seconds.

"With irate fans, irate coaches and disrespectful players, it can be difficult to stay calm," veteran official Ron Jones said. "A lot of people don't have the patience for it."

Bethany had such patience, according to his basketball brethren. "He was always even-keeled, even when he played," said Gary Dotson, who worked games with Bethany. "He always refereed the same way. When he T'd you up, you really deserved it."

Bethany was an imposing presence on the court at Dallas Spruce High School in the late 1970s, at Abilene's Hardin-Simmons University, in European pro ball, as an NAIA coach at the University of Dallas and as a game official. And he packed a dry wit. Watson stands almost 5-foot-6 ("That's what I put on my driver's license," he said) and could only laugh when Bethany nicknamed him "2-foot-2."

"Big Jake refereed big," Dale said. "He took charge. He didn't take any nonsense. He was a good, solid official."

Longtime Skyline (Dallas) coach J.D. Mayo, best known for coaching future NBA star Larry Johnson, was an assistant at Spruce in the mid-1970s when Bethany arrived there, and the two of them built a lasting friendship. Bethany's funeral was held at the church Mayo attends.

"Big Jake knew the game was about the players, the coaches, not the officials," Mayo said during the service. "He kept himself out of things."

Bethany liked to help the players he officiated and the younger refs with whom he worked. That meant some subtle instructions and praise for players, plus some understanding on and off the court for young officials trying to gain a foothold in a part-time business that features bad hours and underwhelming pay.

Johnny Wilkins was one of the officials Bethany took under his wing. Wilkins and Blair Reed were working the game with Bethany when he collapsed. Wilkins said there was nothing in Bethany's behavior that foreshadowed what would happen at halftime. When Bethany bent over in the tunnel before the start of the second half, they thought he was laughing.

"Before the game, he took some Tylenol or Advil, just said it would help him walk the next day," Wilkins said. "He called a perfect first half."

The Dallas County medical examiners office said it would take 12 weeks to determine the cause of death.

Reed didn't know Bethany very well but was compelled to speak during Saturday's service from behind dark sunglasses. He told the family Bethany was strong that night and in good spirits.

Meanwhile, "2-foot-2" assured the gathering, "Jake is at peace. And he probably has a whistle in his mouth right now."

Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at miller.jeff55@gmail.com.