Szelc earning his stripes as hoops ref
Paul Szelc truly does whistle while he works.
Born and raised in West Allis in a house his parents still call home, the 34-year-old Szelc keeps his Wisconsin roots with a home base in Wauwatosa. But during the winter months, he is constantly traveling, calling traveling – and other basketball violations – as a college basketball referee.
His resume building began while he was still on the court in uniform at Pius XI High School. A knee injury during his senior season prompted his officiating involvement with Saturday morning rec leagues. A laundry list of experienced whistle-blowers mentored Szelc and nudged him to keep at it, which he did while earning two degrees, in Economics and Political Science, at the University of Wisconsin.
Szelc got the bug and was hooked, so much so he hitched a bus ride home from Madison on Tuesdays and Fridays just to make calls in high school JV contests. When the buzzer sounded, Szelc hung around, watched the varsity zebras in action and then tagged along to soak in the post-game chatter, usually at some friendly neighborhood establishment.
With college degree in hand, Szelc spent half a decade working under a state senator's wing at the capital in Madison. That was his day job. His opportunities on the prep court continued to multiply, culminating with coup de grace assignments officiating WIAA State Finals seven straight years. In 2003, two more steps forward, with state college gigs in the WIAC (Division 3) and Division 1 games in the Mid-Continent Conference (now Summit League).
Szelc's workload expanded the following season, when the Horizon League added him into the referee mix in 2004. This past summer, the big stage of the Big East tabbed Szelc as one of only 42 officials to work its prestigious tilts. Szelc has yet to perform on the grandest stage possible, making calls in an NCAA tournament game in March. But that dream lingers, with a heavy dose of the real world always handy to help Szelc avoid rushing the process.
"It's a competition within a competition, so if you can get in, you might only work a Thursday game, but if you have a good Thursday, you might work the next weekend," said Szelc. "They would always rather have you go a year late than a year early. If you're just not ready, you might not ever recover from that. But if you go a year late, you're ready."
Szelc doesn't want you to notice him. If you don't, he's doing his job. Where he does want to shine is in the eyes of his peers.
"I want those guys I ref with to say, 'He does his job, he does what he is supposed to do and I'll work with him,'" said Szelc. "Because if they can work with you, they'll tell somebody else they can work a game. When it's all said and done, I would rather have the guys that I ref with say, 'He can work, I like working with him,' rather than a bunch of coaches at my funeral saying, 'He was great.' The guys you work with are the barometer of where you are at."
As a fan in the stands, the fantasy following a frustrating game usually runs along the lines of the wishful statement, "Boy, if I could just give that referee a piece of my mind." Rather than offer up a piece of my mind, I ventured into picking and probing Szelc's brain. Enjoy 10 questions and answers from a local product earning his stripes with each and every game and call.
OnMilwaukee.com: Do you ever finish a game and stew about a call or the feel of the game, or do you just let it go and move on?
Paul Szelc: Stew about it, all the time. One of the biggest misconceptions about what we do by coaches and fans is that these guys come in, make these calls and then move on. But the reality is we get in that locker room, and immediately, if I had a tough play that I think I might have missed or I'm not feeling good about, the first thing I say is, "Did you get a good look at that play?" I'll get to the DVD real quick. Sometimes the DVD comes right to the locker room and we'll put that thing in. The reality is there are plays where you say, 'I'm not sure...I might have caught the end of it or caught the retaliation of something that happened, and I know that.'
The best thing about reffing is the next game is coming because you can get right back to it. If I've got some time off - and it can be one play - I stew on that play until the next game. My wife will tell you, I'll get home at midnight, and I'll throw a DVD in and say, "There's a play in the second half I've got to see if I got it right." If it's wrong, it eats at you. I always tell people, "For 38 minutes you can be really good, but the last two minutes, you can't be wrong."
OMC: How much do you hear what coaches are yelling at you?
PS: Fans, rarely. It's a trait where you get to a certain point where you learn how to tune it out. And after awhile you realize they're fans, from the name fanatic; they're not supposed to be reasonable or rational. Coaches, you hear them, and if you're not hearing them, you're probably not doing your job. They're right sometimes and we miss them, and they know we miss them. I think what you hear and what you listen to are maybe different things. I always hear what they're saying, and I think a lot of times they don't even know what they say, it's a reaction.
But if you've got a guy who is complaining on every trip, I can guess and not be wrong on every trip ... I'm going to get some of them right. So if he's complaining on every trip, that's just what he does. But then there's a coach who picks his spots, doesn't say anything and then all of a sudden, he'll say something.
Now, I'm not saying I agree or disagree with him because I didn't call it, but I guarantee you that weighs on me now and I'm going to take a look because he doesn't complain all the time. Questions often deserve answers. Statements are just statements. I've learned that sometimes when somebody makes a statement, they don't expect an answer, they're just saying it.
OMC: What goes on behind the scenes hours before a game?
PS: We have to be in there an hour and a half before tipoff. Maybe the first 15 minutes is nothing serious or basketball related. But an hour and 15 before is when I'll get dressed, get stretched out, and the (scorers) table comes in before the game to talk about things like clocks. We're getting memos constantly, and like that Wisconsin thing, we got a memo saying, "Let's remember the clock on the board is the official one." Stuff like that.
When they're gone, we start to talk about us. We talk about the game. What's the matchup? We've got X and Y, X likes to press, let's not be surprised after made baskets don't leave, stick in there. If they've got big guys, this team might try to get in there and beat those guys up; we've got to be aware. So we talk a lot about style of play because it's important. We talk about us as a crew and how we're going to handle plays. We talk about dealing with coaches. Not a personal thing, but how do we handle these two personalities and styles.
As the season wears on, the pre-games seem to get a little more condensed because we're not talking about new rules and there are things that we've all been through. An hour before tip, let's start talking basketball to get your mind involved. You may have been traveling in a car for five hours, click it off, let's talk hoops.
OMC: Do you ever have an officiating dream? Is it good or a nightmare?
PS: I have a recurring dream, and this is funny. I have a dream where I'm reffing a game and I blow my whistle and the whistle wouldn't go. So I've got a play that's a foul, I blow it and it doesn't go and they keep playing, it's a mess and I can't stop it. I don't know what that means, but it isn't probably anything good ... probably some sort of control issue. It happens every so often and it's the worst feeling because you're trying to stop the game and you can't.
OMC: What's the toughest call to make in a game?
PS: Conventional wisdom tells you a block or a charge. I disagree. It has gotten a little bit more difficult with this restricted arc because it's changed the way we ref that play a little bit. We used to always watch torso because you wanted to see where the contact was, but now you've got to look at his feet first. But I still think, and this changes from guy to guy, it's the travel.
What makes it hard is a couple things: the players are really good, very athletic, very crafty, so it's very difficult sometimes to determine the pivot foot. It seems like a very elementary thing but it's very difficult. The second thing that makes it difficult is the closer you are to it, the more difficult it is. What looks like a travel to the coach 72 feet away may be a beautiful look, when you're standing next to it is very difficult because I've got to look at feet, at hands, at body, and it's hard sometimes when you're 10 feet away to see all of that.
For me, when I watch tape, I know it's the play that I miss more than any of them. I want to get the big ones. Because if I start nitpicking travels, I could probably find it on almost every play. But if I nitpick a travel here, then I have to nitpick all of the travels. If I'm going to make an error, I want to make an error of omission, where I miss a travel, but everybody plays on. If I miss a travel on a kid, the defender doesn't stop playing. But if I call a travel that's NOT a travel, I've taken a possession away and that's a big error.
OMC: You are the supreme ruler of college basketball for one day. What rule would you change?
PS: If you are in the back court with 10 seconds, you're pressing me, and at :09 I call timeout, I come back out and that count starts over, I don't think that's fair. I think if you play good defense for nine seconds in the back court, we should be coming back and say you've got one second to get it over. Instead, you get a new 10. The other one is maybe coaches calling timeout. I know they like it, and I like it, because you're right by them a lot of times, but it becomes a problem with these scrums on the floor. I don't know if that's really good for basketball because we've got a lot of kids hustling on the floor.
OMC: Can you ever just "watch" a game as a fan or an observer, or are you an armchair referee?
PS: I'm always a referee. It changes the way I watch games. It's funny, I'll go to games with my wife and she'll say, "You are the worst person to watch a basketball game with." I really don't armchair referee to critique them or be critical because once you've been in the suit you know that it's not what you think it is with me sitting in Row 6. You don't want that kind of scrutiny from someone else and would certainly never comment on how one of my guys is doing out there because I don't have the luxury of being where he is.
But you're always watching the plays and reffing the play. I'm not a fan anymore and in some ways; it ruins the game, it stinks. But it doesn't because I love what I do. You're always watching the game as a referee because the reality of it is, that's how you're trained. The worst thing is sitting at a game, and people know you're a referee, and there's a play, and I don't want anything to do with it.
OMC: What keeps you busy in the offseason?
PS: It's a long season. We start beginning of October with meetings, so we're traveling all the way through the end of March and you're tired. You're sick of basketball and you want it to be done. And then there's about a month and half into the middle of May where you're hopefully disconnected ... you don't talk to anybody about it, you don't talk to the other referees because everybody is doing the same thing. But then June comes and we start to get into clinics and camps and it starts to rev up again. You get that little fix in the summer doing the camps, but August comes and it cools off again.
September is the month where I find myself sitting at home a lot watching college football and loving it because you're home and you realize it's about to end. The other side of it is, as you get older, you've got to work out. There was a time where I wouldn't do anything until October, I would put the same pants on and go. That doesn't happen now.
What I've been trying to do is not get out of shape, so in the middle of April when I'm starting to not think about basketball, I'm still working out because it's harder to get into shape."
OMC: Do officials enter a game planning to call a "close" or a "loose" game?
PS: The players really dictate how the game is going to be played. And I'll always say it in the captain's meeting, I'll say, "Listen, this is up to you tonight. If you want to play, we're going to let you play all night. If you don't, we'll shoot free throws, that's up to you."
That being said, it is always easier to come out and set the tone early about what you're going to allow and what you will not. If I come out in the first five minutes and call a hand check, we're going to have a better game. Kids respond best when you put it out there. You're setting the expectation early, so if that play happens with two minutes to go in the game, we've had that all night. But if I let something like hand checking go for 38 minutes, I can't call it in the last two minutes. We never say, "We've got to call this tight." I think the players determine that.
OMC: Is the "makeup call" a myth?
PS: Completely. When I played I thought it was definitely in play, but the scrutiny of our calls, especially at the level we work, people don't understand that if I miss a call, I'm going to get that play emailed to me. So the scrutiny is pretty high. Let's say my partner misses a play. I'm not going to come down and make another bad call and put it on top of the other one to even this out. Because you know what happens to my bad call? I get called out on it. And they're not going to take me saying, "Well, did you see the call before that?"
As soon as I made that bad call, I probably know I made a bad call. The last thing I want to do is now add another bad play that's going to come back to me. It's a lot like a player in many ways and how you respond to missing. If I miss a play and know I missed it, it's not me thinking, "Oh boy, I took a possession away, I need to get them the ball back." It's, "I can't miss another one!" I can never make a play up; it's got to be there, because if it's not, that play is going to be in my inbox. And if there are too many in my inbox, I might not be back anymore.
There are so many people that want to do what we do. The lines are long for the spots available in the Big East, Horizon League, even the WIAC. There are lots of guys who want to do it, and there are not enough spots. So if you're not good, you won't last. I always tell people, "The hardest part isn't getting hired. The hard part is staying."
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