Ashley Packer and Keith Johnson became basketball officials to give back to the game they've loved almost their entire lives.

Ashley Packer and Keith Johnson became basketball officials to give back to the game they've loved almost their entire lives.

Johnson's mother, Vera, jokes that her course to donning stripes started when she heckled a referee during a youth game in which her son was playing.

"After the game, the official knew the guy (Andrew Williams) who was coaching," she said. "He asked who I was and said, 'You know the game. Why not get your license?' I just shrugged it off. He said, 'No, really, you know the game. From the stuff you say, you obviously know the game.'"

High school referees must endure years of honing their craft, working their way up from lower-level games and undergoing detailed critiques during and after every game they work.

They don't ascend to working varsity games overnight. Vera Johnson has been a referee for about 20 years, while Packer and Keith Johnson got their licenses about 10 years ago.

For the Johnsons and Packer, like all officiating crews, experience, teamwork and camaraderie are keys to their success, much like the teams they officiate.

The Johnsons and Packer have been an officiating crew for three years and they worked the varsity boys game between Gahanna and host Pickerington Central on Jan. 27. It was their fourth game of the week, following contests at Marysville, Marion Harding and Berne Union. The Johnsons also worked a girls varsity game at Hilliard Bradley on Jan. 28.

"When I first put on the official's uniform, I felt like I made it," said Packer, a Northland graduate whose niece is former Pickerington North and Ohio State basketball standout Marscilla Packer. "I wasn't an NBA ballplayer and I never made it to the NFL, but I felt like I achieved some goals and I could bring some things back."

Officials approach the game much as players do, figuring out their proper placements on the floor and taking pains to not overstep another's boundaries. They know a positive attitude is critical, too.

And, yes, they can hear much of what's said from both the benches and stands - with a caveat.

"Believe it or not, I don't have rabbit ears on the court, but I do hear everything said because I don't want to miss anything," Packer said. "Everything someone yells, there's some truth in it, unless they're just an idiot. We don't see too many of those, but everyone has something to say and everybody wants to be heard."

They have routine, too

On Jan. 27, all three referees arrive later than they'd like - preferably 6 p.m. for a 7:30 p.m. varsity start - because a fatal crash on Interstate 70 near Brice Road has snarled traffic throughout much of the east suburbs. Even Gahanna's freshman team arrived 20 minutes after the scheduled 4:30 p.m. start, starting a domino effect that meant the varsity game wouldn't start until 8:35 p.m., 65 minutes late.

The Johnsons and Packer watch almost all of the junior varsity game, making a few observations and sharing them with those officials at halftime.

"Once we start getting dressed, we'll talk about what we're going to do," Keith said. "If we've (worked previous games involving) either team, we'll talk about their style of play, things we've heard about both teams, the type of coaches we'll have. Once we're of one accord, that helps how we'll call the game."

After fist-bumping the starters and hearing a few scattered cheers when their names were announced, the Johnsons and Packer take their places - Vera in the paint nearest Central's bench, Packer in the paint at the opposite end and Keith at center circle for the opening tip-off.

And we're off

A fast-paced, let-them-play tempo is established almost immediately. The first foul isn't called for 3 minutes, 45 seconds. A minute later, after Vera calls an offensive foul, Keith has to remind several players coming off the bench for both teams that they can't enter the game until Vera has announced the foul to the scorer's table.

There's a medium amount of contact, and that's where discretion comes into the picture.

"It's a contact sport," Packer said. "There's going to be contact on every play."

With 34.8 seconds left in the first quarter, Gahanna's Troy Mundy is so eager to enter the game that he almost forgets to report to the official scorer.

"Wait until I bring you on," Keith tells him.

After the first quarter, Central leads 19-8. Gahanna has committed three fouls and Central has yet to be whistled for any. The first "you gotta call it both ways" sentiment - or at least the first that's loud enough to be heard across the gym - does not come until the final minute of the first half.

The Tigers are whistled for the first time with 7:24 left in the first half, but it doesn't affect the fact that they're controlling the game. Central builds a 26-10 lead with 4:51 left in the half, and after a foul, Gahanna coach Tony Staib lets Vera know he's going to call a timeout once the ball reaches midcourt in attempt to stall the Tigers' momentum.

Finally with a moment to breathe, Vera has to wipe some perspiration from her forehead.

The half ends with a goaltending call on the Lions, giving Central's Caris LeVert a basket and the Tigers a 30-20 lead. Debating the call is the predominant topic of conversation in the dressing room. The prevailing logic is the ball was above the rim when it was touched by a Gahanna player.

Then the members of the crew discuss their positioning, hear a few observations from the reserve officials and drink as much water as they can.

"As we get older, the kids stay the same age. Every year, the kids get faster," Keith said. "You have to keep up with the game, so you have to stay fit and be aware, be able to move, be very agile. It's always going to improve. It's never going to slow down. And during the season, having games almost every night does keep you in shape."

Staib and Central coach Jerry Francis are a bit more vocal in the second half, but not much.

"Was that a tip?" Francis asks Vera on one foul call late in the third quarter.

"Nope," she replies. Francis nods and the subject is dropped.

The rest of the game goes largely without incident, other than that Packer asks Central administrators to escort a student out of the gym with 1:10 to play because of harsh language.

When it's over

Packer and the Johnsons rush off the floor the moment Central's 60-46 win goes final. They're in their dressing room before the Lions and Tigers are lined up to shake hands.

Veteran referee Tom Stoughton attended the game and visits with the crew for about 15 minutes. One of the first things he noted to the reserve officials, all of whom were still present, was a player who had received two technical fouls and therefore was ejected was not made to leave the gym, a longtime rule.

Some laughs could be heard from outside the crew's dressing room, but the critique is serious business.

With the crowd gone and almost every player having left for the night, Packer heads out with his daughter for a late-night pizza. The Johnsons don't leave the school until about 10:45 p.m., roughly an hour after the game.

"It's a nitpicking thing, but it helps," Packer said of the critique. "We hear how many fouls each of us called. I was told my arm was too high when making a foul call. I did it to emphasize the call, but it should have been lower. Stuff like that. But it's all to make us better."