Rich Rethwisch and his oldest son, Gage, have spent a lot of time together over the years in basketball gyms all over Northeast Nebraska.
From the early days of Gage playing youth basketball while his dad helped run a youth league in Tilden to more recent times when Rich and his wife, Kathy, would watch their kids play high school and college basketball, there doesn’t seem to be a time in their lives as a family when sports wasn’t a part of what they did together.
Now, father and son are entering into a new venue together — as basketball officials.
Rich, 64, has been a basketball official for most of his adult life, starting more than 40 years ago while teaching in Ainsworth. His son, soon to turn 25, is in his second year wearing the stripes after playing his high school ball in Wayne and competing in college at Briar Cliff University.
The elder Rethwisch had hung up his whistle five years ago and was working as an evaluator of officials for the Nebraska School Activities Association when his son first expressed an interest in officiating high school basketball games.
“Once Gage expressed an interest in officiating, I decided that I wanted to start officiating again. I figured that was a good time to get my knees fixed,” he said, joking about knee replacement surgery he went through two years ago.
Gage already had some experience officiating games, although it had been a while since his days as a ref for youth basketball games in Tilden.
“They had a Sunday league for fifth and sixth graders that I used to play in as a kid, and the high school kids would ref those games,” he said. “When I got into high school, Drew Rautenberg and I would do a lot of games together and I just really developed a passion for it from there.”
He said that when he was going to school at Briar Cliff, he would sometimes serve as an official during scrimmages, fine-tuning his abilities and learning to see the floor from the perspective of an official instead of as a player.
The elder Rethwisch got his start while teaching in Ainsworth, and couldn’t have had a much better mentor than the Nebraska School Athletic Association’s then-supervisor of officials, Bill Lewis.
“Bill was a principal at Ainsworth when I was a teacher and a coach there, and he got me started and I was blessed to have him as a partner,” Rich said. “He and I worked a district semifinal back in the early 80’s between Wayne and Columbus Lakeview that went five overtimes, and there were some great officials who I was blessed to have learned from over the years and worked with from all over the state.”
Gage said he was glad to have his dad as a partner when he first started doing JV and high school games in the area.
“To me, it makes me a lot more comfortable working with him and have him be there if a situation comes up,” he said. “There are rules to the game you never think about as a player and you see more as a ref.”
During one of the first games father and son worked together, Gage called traveling on a player who went for a loose ball and slid on the floor.
The only problem — it was the wrong call.
“I had always thought that if you rolled over or slid, it was a travel. And the kid slid a long ways,” he said. “I called a travel and it was the wrong call, and dad told me that you can slide but you can’t turn over, so I learned from that mistake.”
The duo has worked more than 25 games together during the past season, and every time out is a learning experience that they are able to discuss on the way home from the gym.
“We always try to talk before the game on things to look for, because you hear things from other officials about what a certain team does that you need to keep an eye out for, so it’s just like going through a game plan before the game,” Gage said.
“The road trip home is always a lot of fun because you’re replaying stuff and going back to a certain call or situation and ask if we should have done something different or did we handle it correctly,” Rich added.
There is also discussion about how to handle coaches who are only doing their best to help their team by talking to the refs about certain calls that didn’t go their way.
“People say you don’t hear the crowd or the coaches, and I think that’s crazy because it’s part of the atmosphere and you’re in the middle of it,” Gage said. “You know the coaches are going to yell at you and you just try not to take it personally. Dad says to talk with them and try to talk them through it and not get offended by it.”
“I try to arm him with ways to deal with the coaches,” Rich added. “Today, we can give them a warning rather than just giving them a technical foul, and it’s great because it stops the game and draws attention to the coach and tells them to tone it down.” I’ve never been big on giving technical fouls, so it’s great to be able to warn them and help them out.”
While his dad has worked 16 NSAA state tournaments in his career, Gage said he’s looking forward to improving as an official and earning a chance to follow in his dad’s footsteps and officiate a state tournament sometime down the road.
“That’s something that I would like to do and maybe try to do as many as he’s done, but I still have a ways to go as far as learning more on the officiating end before I deserve a chance to be there,” he said.
The evaluator in his dad says he’s well on his way.
“The blessing for him is that he looks the part,” he said. “Gage is in shape and is very calm, and that’s something that is all him. He knows a lot of the officials from having seen me work with them and playing while they were doing his games, so it’s like a potpourri of ideas to help him get better. I think he’s got a future in it, but I’m his dad. To hear to from somebody like Larry Wells or Randy Hagedorn and have them offer ideas on how he can improve, it’s better to hear that from them than to hear it from his dad.”