Kleinsasser calls it quits after 40 years of basketball officiating

Joe Kleinsasser with the plaque he received from the Kansas State High School Activities Association during the Class 6A state tournament earlier this month for his 40 years as a high school basketball official. After 40 years of running up and down basketball courts, making calls that never please everyone, and managing the temperaments of coaches and fans, Joe Kleinsasser has hung up his officiating whistle.

With the physical challenge of officiating increasing with each year, the Hillsboro native said, ?I felt I?d rather stop on my terms than for people to say he hung on too long.?

Kleinsasser?s last outing was the Shawnee Mission Northwest and Blue Valley North boys? matchup at the Class 6A tournament earlier this month. It was the 59th state tournament game of his career.

?That?s more (state games) than most would work, and probably more than I deserve,? said the self-effacing Kleinsasser.

?I?ve been fortunate,? he added. ?I?ve worked the past 29 years in a row at the state tournament and seven or eight championship games.?

That is no small feat. State tournament officials are something of an elite group, selected by the Kan?sas State High School Activi?ties Association on the basis of coach recommendations, training meetings and a rules test.

?None of us knows for sure how it comes about, as officials,? Kleinsasser said. ?We?re just happy if get an email that says we?ve been assigned.?

A sports connection

Kleinsasser said wearing a whistle and a black-and-white striped shirt all these years has been one way to feed his lifelong love of sports.

His legacy as an athlete was less than lustrous.

?I was a small kid for my age?though people find it hard to believe now that I?m 6-2,? he said. ?I was pretty much a shrimp through my junior year in high school.

?I never played varsity (basketball) of any significance, maybe some mop-up time in high school. In fact, I didn?t even go out my senior year.?

While a student at Tabor College, Kleinsasser played some baseball, but it was the invitation of a college friend that put him on the officiating track.

?Lonnie Thiessen asked me if I?d want to go officiate a game with him at Goessel Junior High?and I agreed,? he said, then added with a smile: ?It was an interesting experience.?

His friend opted for coach?ing, but Kleinsasser stayed with officiating.

?I enjoyed the chance to stay involved in sports, and liked the challenge,? he said. ?I was naive to think people would appreciate the fact that you?re out there doing the best you can.

?You soon learn you aren?t going to be appreciated very often in that position.?

Climbing the ladder

Like most beginning officials, Kleinsasser worked his share of games in the ?minor leagues? of middle school and high school junior varsity.

He credits several veteran officials area?including former Marion resident Gerry Harris, who went on to work NCAA Division I games?as being his mentors.

?There were no basketball officiating camps back then,? Kleinsasser said. ?You just learned by getting thrown out onto the court and having someone see you and tell you what things you need to work on.?

Kleinsasser eventually began officiating high school varsity games, and even a few games at the small-college level, including the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference.

When he took his current job in the communications department at Wichita State University, Kleinsasser began officiating the larger high schools of the Ark Valley League and Wichita City League.

?It was more convenient do games in the Wichita area,? he said. ?Some other officials recommended me to (league) commissioners in the area. I pretty much worked a full schedule.?

Evolving game

Through the years, Klein?sasser has adapted to changes in the game, including the three-point shot, the rise of girls? basketball and an increasingly physical playing style.

Kleinsasser described one rule change as a lifesaver: having three officials on the floor rather than two.

?You did a lot more running with two because you had to cover more ground,? he said. ?Most games, with a three-person crew, you don?t run that hard very often?unless it?s just a wide-open game.?

Kleinsasser said that rule change also benefited the game as the style of play has grown more physical.

?Players are bigger and stronger because they work out in weight rooms nowadays, and more coaches play an in-your-face man-to-man defense. It naturally creates more chances for contact,? he said.

?It would be worse if we went back to two (officials) because you just can?t see everything. It would be what I call educated guesses if you went back to two-person officiating.?

Handling criticism

Officials notoriously bear the brunt of criticism from crowds and coaches?and it comes from either opponent, depending on the call.

As for derisive comments from fans, ?I don?t recall a lot of the individual comments because it all blends together,? he said.

?The worst thing is actually working a game with a small crowd,? he added. ?JV games are hard because the basketball isn?t as good and crowd noise is low?except for the alleged adult saying something they shouldn?t be saying.?

Dealing effectively with upset coaches is a skill every official needs in his or her repertoire.

?What make some officials better isn?t how they call the game, but how they manage the game and work with coaches,? Kleinsasser said. ?That separates good officials from the average ones.

?For me, it helps to have a sense of humor,? he added. ?If you don?t, you take yourself too seriously. We?re not as good as we think we are as officials?but we?re not as bad as everyone else says we are.?

Klein?sasser said he hasn?t assessed as many technical fouls over his 40 years as people might think.

?Typically, like this year, I didn?t have any, and last year I had one,? he said. ?I think the most was four or five in one season.?

As for ejecting a coach, it?s happened only once.

?Most coaches I got along with?or tried to?and at least gave the appearance of listening to them,? he said.

?An official told me once that you?re going to run into a coach who doesn?t like the way you comb your hair, or you made a call that he?ll never forget?there?s nothing you can do to satisfy them.

?But those are the exceptions. Just a personality difference.?

?Farewell tour?

Kleinsasser jokingly refers to this past season of officiating as his ?farewell tour.?

He received a plaque of appreciation during the El Dorado midseason boys? tournament, which he officiated for 30 years, then was recognized the next week at the midseason girls? tournament in McPher?son, which he was worked for all 19 years of its existence.

?I think the consistent theme was that they applauded most when it was announced I was retiring,? he said with a smile.

Kleinsasser isn?t sure how he?ll feel when the next season of high school basketball rolls around.

?I?m guessing now that I?ll miss some of the comradery with the people I?ve come to know,? he said. ?You feel like you?re going into battle together when you spend a lot of time with these guys?before games, during games and after games.?

But he?s quick to add this.

?In some respect, I won?t miss it as much as I think,? he said. ?People don?t realize the commitment, the support it takes from my wife and kids to let you do that a lot of evenings.

?It?s been a good run. Now I can officiate from the stands like everyone else.?

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