ORIGINALLY WRITTEN BY DON RATZLAFF
He?s a nice guy in a no-win role. He?s widely recognized for fair and impartial judgment in an environment defined by strong biases. He?s respected for doing a job some people criticize at the top of their lungs.
And he?s been doing it now for more than a quarter century.
Not bad for guy who, while growing up, avoided criticism, struggled with his self-confidence, and was painfully self-conscious in public.
?People who knew me in high school probably couldn?t believe I?ve ended up officiating for 25-plus years,? says Hillsboro native Joe Kleinsasser.
Kleinsasser recently received a plaque for his endurance as a basketball official from the Kansas State High School Activities Association between championship games at the Class 3A state tournament in Hutchinson.
And that?s not all he?s received over the many years he?s worn the infamous striped shirt of an official.
?In an odd sort of way, by doing this and going through the experience, I?ve gained self-confidence and I?ve overcome some things,? he says.
He?s also gained the respect of coaches and peers. This was never more apparent than the past season. For the 14th consecutive year, Kleinsasser was chosen to officiate state tournament games?an honor determined by the recommendations of coaches.
What?s remarkable is that he was recommended for this year?s Class 6A state tournament even though missed a month and half of the basketball season because of a nagging leg injury he suffered in late summer.
Coaches selected him based on a week and a half of games?and the reputation he has established over the years.
?Getting sub-state (games) wasn?t totally surprising, because they need a lot of bodies to officiate them all,? he says. ?But getting state this year was surprising because the recommendations had to be in by the end of January?which meant the recommendations came from coaches who had recommended me in the past and put me down again because they liked the way I officiate.
?Or maybe because they disliked me less than others,? he added with the self-deprecating humor that both belies the confidence he has in his abilities and endears him to a lot of coaches.
Kleinsasser began officiating when he was 21 years old, encouraged to give it a try by a classmate and a professor at Tabor College. He discovered he liked the environment.
?It was just a natural outgrowth of my interest in athletics,? says Kleinsasser, whose full-time job is director of media relations at Wichita State University. In his spare time, he also writes a biweekly sports column for the Free Press.
?It?s just fun to be a part of sports,? he says. ?It?s always been a part of my life, whether I?m writing about it, talking about it, or officiating it.?
Kleinsasser has focused primarily on basketball, though for about a half dozen years he officiated soccer at the high school and college levels.
These days he focuses on high school basketball after also working some junior college and KCAC games for several years.
?I gave up college a couple of years ago because commissioners wanted me to work a full college schedule,? Kleinsasser says. College games demand additional travel and produce more pressure from coaches.
Besides those drawbacks, he enjoys the high school game. He has officiated at all class levels, but most of his assignments of late have been with class 5A and 6A schools in the Wichita City League, Ark Valley League and Chisholm Trail League.
Key to surviving as an official is coming to grips with the reality that no matter what you do on the court, someone is going to be displeased.
?It took me a while to accept the fact that if I?m out here doing the best I can, that should be good enough,? Kleinsasser says.
He says taking verbal abuse from fans is part of the job, but he often is oblivious to it.
?When you feel good about a call, then all the abuse in the world doesn?t matter,? he says. ?It?s when you didn?t see the play that well and you make one of those educated guesses you try not to do too often that you might hear it a little more.?
Big crowds are better than small crowds, he says, because individual insults are usually absorbed by the roar of the masses.
Abuse from coaches, though, is a little harder to ignore. Kleinsasser says he tries to avoid assessing technical fouls, and usually doesn?t hand out more than a handful during the course of a season. He had never ejected a coach from a game until this season.
?I have a lot of respect for coaches who let you do your job as an official,? Kleinsasser says. ?And I don?t mean they can?t ever question anything, but they respect what you?re trying to do. In turn, when they say something to me, I?m more inclined to listen because I respect what they?re trying to do.
?I don?t mind them sticking up for their team,? he added. ?It?s the manner in which they do it and how they conduct themselves.?
The fact that officials are evaluated by coaches, and that those evaluation, in turn, can affect an official?s ability to get games, doesn?t bother Kleinsasser.
Especially more than two decades in the business. He says he has not been ?blackballed? by a coach or a school, but if he would be, he?s at a place in his career where he can find plenty of other venues in which to officiate.
Like athletes, officials can have an off night on the court, Kleinsasser admitted.
?How you get through those nights with minimal damage to your reputation is probably going to be a factor in determining how long you?re going to last in the business,? he says.
A sense of one?s fallibility and good humor helps.
?You never have a perfect game,? Kleinsasser says. ?Because of all the calls you can make or should have made, there?s always going to be a couple of calls you?re going to miss. You just hope they?re not at key times in a ball game.?
Kleinsasser doesn?t know how long he?ll continue officiating, but plans to take it one year at a time.
?I?ve developed a confidence that I can do a good job for the players and coaches,? he says. ?I hope I know when to give it up?and it may not be because of age. It may be a loss of desire or intensity to do the job well.
?If you ever stop trying to improve or learn, it?s time to give it up,? he added.
Kleinsasser is paid for his services, but that can?t be they primary motivator either.
?I tell people I don?t do it for the money,? he says, ?but I wouldn?t do it for free either. It?s not that much fun. There?s got to be more benefit than just the exercise.?
He says in officiating, like other avenues of athletics, keeping a proper perspective on life is most important of all.
?When you look back on your career, does it really make a difference that you did 15 state tournaments?? he says. ?I don?t think it?s going to matter to (son) Ryan or to (wife) Michelle that much.
?It?s an honor to be picked, I?m glad I get to do it, and it?s a goal to shoot for from an officiating standpoint,? he says. ?But ultimately it?s not what matters most.?
ORIGINALLY WRITTEN BY DON RATZLAFF