Life as an NSAA basketball official

NORTH PLATTE, Neb. (KNOP) - Bob Lantis and Landon Swedberg are both basketball officials for the NSAA. The path to becoming a referee was similar for both Lantis and Swedberg; they both played basketball in high school, started officiating for smaller games in college (intramural for Swedberg, rec leagues/high school junior varsity for Lantis), and now officiate varsity contests in Western Nebraska.

NSAA official Bob Lantis speaks with a fellow referee during a timeout at a high school basketball game earlier this season. (Credit: Patrick Johnstone/KNOP-TV)

Lantis has been an NSAA referee for 16 years, and has even officiated NSAA football for five years. He is a small business owner, which allows him to have a flexible schedule, and officiates 40-80 games during a typical season.

Swedberg has officiated two seasons for the NSAA, and does not have a specific officiating crew, as he is a sub. Coming out of college, he knew he wanted to be involved with high school athletics, either as a coach or official, but officiating is less of a time commitment. However, Swedberg still officiated around 50 games in 2019-20. He is a business banker at Great Western Bank, and helps at his family's’ farm. When you factor in his full time job, helping on the farm, and officiating games, Swedberg does not have a lot of free time during the winter, but he doesn’t mind.

"I enjoy this so much that it's kind of like a hobby of mine. The car rides with the other officials; that's my down time to relax a little bit. I guess it’s not as much down time, but that's a good thing," Swedberg said with a smile.

Swedberg tries to stay pretty close to North Platte, travelling as far North as Sandhills/Thedford, and as far South as Wauneta-Palisade, but Lantis will go almost anywhere in the state. Lantis has officiated games as far North as Valentine, as far South as McCook, as far West as Scottsbluff, and as far East as Lincoln.

"It's border to border; it's kind of how far you’re willing to travel to officiate basketball. That's kind of the fun part, is the travel. If you get to travel with some of your buddies, it can be enjoyable," Lantis said.

At the beginning of his career, Swedberg quickly learned the expectations he had for the way he would officiate needed to be changed.

“When I started, I said I'm not going to miss any calls, I'm going to call everything. But, I got to the point where I was calling a lot of nitpicky fouls. If we call those nitpicky fouls, we take that flow away from the players, so I've learned to step back and slow my process down,” Swedberg said.

If fouls start going against one team, fans may think the referees are specifically targeting that team, but Lantis says that’s a misconception.

“I've never stepped foot out on the court and thought, ‘I would like to see this team, or I'd like to see that team win,’ it doesn't work like that. We're out there to make sure that it's a fair and equitable contest, and that both teams haven't equal chance at winning a ball game," Lantis said.

Lantis and Swedberg would like fans to know their job is harder than it seems.

"When we're on the court in real time, we have to make a split second decision on was that a foul, was it not, was it a travel, was it not. We don't have the luxury of sitting in the stands and not having the pressure of making or not making that call,” Lantis said. “I think it's easy to sit up with the fans and second guess what we do on the court, but I think the thing they have to keep in mind is, we're doing it in real time, and we're doing what we think at that moment is the right call."

Sometimes, fans may have a better view on plays, and see something different than what the referees see.

"In the crowd, you do have a better view, so you are seeing maybe a lot more of the fouls than maybe we are, When you're closer to the play, it's harder to see everything that happens,” Swedberg said. “On the counter to that, sometimes if you're in the crowd, just because if it looks bad, doesn't mean there was contact.”

However, the officials acknowledge they are not perfect, and they will make mistakes from time to time.

“As a crew, we need to call it as consistent as we can, that's what we strive for. It doesn't always happen that way, officials are humans too, we make mistakes, and we miss calls. It's just talking to your coaches, talking to the players, and sharing what you've seen as an official," Swedberg said.

“I still have it today, where I'd like to have call or two back at the end of the night. But, at the end of the day, you have to have short memory. You have to be able to move on from your mistakes because there's a next play that's going to happen, and you can't go down and be like I need to make up what I did down there," Lantis said.

Another misconception fans have is if a referee makes a mistake, they will call a ‘make-up call’ on the other end.

"It's not fair to the kids,” Lantis said. “If you truly messed up something on one end, you need to own up to it, and say ‘hey coach I got it wrong, ‘I'm going to keep working hard, ‘I'll get it right next time.’"

Lantis does not want to call fouls all the time, because he knows the focus should be on the players.

"Nobody is out there to watch us blow our whistles, they're out there to watch the kids play," Lantis said.

Over the last few years, Lantis has seen a decline in the number of referees across the state of Nebraska.

"If you look at just the numbers from two years ago, the number of officials that were registered with the NSAA compared to today, I believe we've lost almost 200 officials," Lantis said. “We're seeing older guys retiring, and we're not getting the younger kids into officiating to replace those people. I think that's a real challenge with the NSAA right now, is trying to get new young people into officiating."

Lantis hopes to encourage fans to be more understanding of officials just starting out.

"When those kids that think they want to officiate, they go to do one or two games. If they get yelled and screamed at, and decide, ‘you know what, I just made $50, but it's not even worth all the grief that I just took from the fans.’ I would just ask that if you're a fan, and you go to a contest, whether it's a freshman game, or junior high game, just understand that those guys that are young referees, they want to get better, and they're not going to get everything right, but they're learning, give them a chance,” Lantis said.

If the NSAA cannot get officials who can consistently work games, it will make it harder to get games, or they will have to get officials who are just looking for the money.

“If you can't keep the numbers around to fill those games, then you're going to end up with sub-quality officials in some cases, where a guy truly just wants to go out and make $50, and doesn't care if he gets yelled at or not, and he'll take $50 all night long," Lantis said.

"It's just like anything, you want to encourage new people to try new things. If we're constantly screaming and yelling at them, why would they want to stick with it?" Lantis said.

Experienced referees also know they will get yelled at from fans and coaches, and know not to take it personally.

“It's part of the game as an official, you can't take it to heart, because you realize it's kind of part of basketball. You just have to realize that they're not thinking of you in a personal way," Swedberg said.

However, the positives do outweigh the negatives when it comes to officiating.

"At the end of the day it's very rewarding. You're going to build friendships, you're going to build memories that will stick with you for a lifetime," Lantis said. "It will provide me with memories that I'll never forget, I'm grateful for that. I'm grateful for the opportunity to have officiated in Nebraska."