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IHSA Officials Reflect on Special Olympics World Games

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A pair of Illinois High School Association officials were selected to work the 2015 Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles, Calif., July 25-Aug. 2. Mokena native Bob Reczek (pictured left) and Lake Zurich resident Jerry Blum (pictured right) had each been selected to work the IHSA Girls Basketball State Finals three times apiece before adding this honor to their resumes. Both were picked to officiate basketball in Los Angeles and were actually considered “international officials,” along with any other officials from outside California. Jerry was working his second Special Olympics World Games, after being a part of the 1999 games in North Carolina. Bob was accompanied by his wife, Karen, to his first World Games, as she volunteered by working in one the cafeterias that fed the athletes during the event. Bob and Jerry talked to IHSA State about the experience:

Q: How long have you two known each other?
JERRY: We knew of each other because of the officiating connections in both Special Olympics and IHSA, but we didn’t meet until an IHSA Basketball Super-Sectional and then got to know each other well through the Special Olympics State Tournament in Bloomington-Normal.
BOB: I remember that Super-Sectional, it was a double-header in Elgin in 2009. I worked the first game, a Class 2A Super, and Jerry followed in the second game, which was a Class 1A Super-Sectional. I remember being somewhat intimidated by Jerry initially. He had a very commanding presence on the court, but we bonded as officials and developed a friendship that will last a lifetime.

Q: What was the process for being selected to officiate the Special Olympics World Games?
BOB: There was a written online application that I applied for in September of last year. I found out a few months later that I had been selected, but also learned that Jerry hadn’t heard anything back yet. I have officiated Special Olympics for 10 years, but Jerry is going on nearly 25 years. Now there was no way I was ever going to turn down this opportunity, but I did call the committee and told them there was someone more deserving who they should consider. Luckily, he found out shortly thereafter that he was selected and we would both get to represent Illinois.

Q: What made you decide to get involved with Special Olympics?
BOB: I have a 16-year-old special needs son, Matt, who has been diagnosed with autism. We moved to the Lincoln-Way school district 10 years ago and he currently attends Lincoln-Way East. We enrolled him in the Lincolnway Special Recreation Association where, one day, he was playing basketball and his coach recommended I should get involved. I inquired about the process and two weeks later I was working one of Matt’s games. It’s been a labor of love ever since.
JERRY: I don’t recall where I was, but another official mentioned that Special Olympics was holding a district meet at Barrington High School and needed help. I went there not having a clue what to expect or what to do, but I adjusted quickly. The kids were slapping hands with us and the coaches were great to work with. Some parents were coming up and thanking us or giving us hugs. It strikes you how difficult life is for some families. It was a chance to give back and I was hooked the first year.

Q: You received a special honor in Los Angeles when you both were selected to officiate a Celebrity Basketball Game that included several former NBA players like Dikembe Mutombo (pictured with Bob and Jerry). How did that come about?
JERRY: They had a meeting on the afternoon of the game and asked who wanted to do it. Bob and I’s arms both shot up.
BOB: I think a lot of officials were hesitant knowing that it was a big stage and the game would be on ESPN. For Jerry and I it was a natural thing. The IHSA prepared us to work in big games. We both wanted to be out there and have fun with it. I told (former NBA players and Celebrity Game coaches) Sam Perkins and A.C. Green during a break that it was a shame that the refs were outrunning the players. They got a kick out of that.

Q: What was the officiating like?
JERRY: We had a good mix of officials, some from Ireland, Italy, Belgium and Poland, but we didn’t know we were using FIBA rules and mechanics until we arrived there. We crammed the best we could, but it’s tough to learn all the rules in three days. The lead officials were great; they told us to do the best we could with the hand signals and make sure we verbalized the calls to the bench crew. It’s kind of neat the way you can blend different teams, countries, languages, officials, table workers and interpreters together and it all works out. We didn’t speak the same language, but we all spoke basketball.
BOB: It was a lot of fun, but it was serious business. One of the head officials was four-time NCAA Women’s Final Four official Carla Fujimoto. She gave us confidence that we belonged. My first game was a 9 a.m. contest between South Africa and Kazakhstan. I walked out and had a “I can’t believe I am really here moment,” then we tipped the ball and it was like officiating any other game.

Q: Can you single out a special moment from what must have been a memorable week?
BOB: There was one game in particular that was a “traditional” game which featured individuals who we commonly identify with the Special Olympics program. I make that distinction because today there are also “unified” games that feature Special Olympics athletes and people without disabilities playing together on a team as part of a mainstreaming initiative. Now in this traditional game, Team USA played Team France and it was incredible. Smiles, high- fives, handshakes, great crowd energy. Everyone walked out of that game with a smile and a memory. As I was leaving the court, a parent in the crowd yelled at me, “Ref! Ref!” I looked at him and he pointed to his heart and then back at me. It put the whole situation in perspective, why I was there.
JERRY: Mine was actually in a game that I wasn’t officiating. Before one of the games they brought out some young special needs kids, probably 4 or 5 years old. They were going to score an honorary first basket before the game and there was one little kid who was the last to do it. The crowd was cheering really hard for him. It was a precious, unbelievable scene.

Q: What would you tell fellow officials about officiating Special Olympics?
JERRY: If you have never done it, go do it once and you will never stop. You will get more than you will ever give. The World Games weren’t about me and Bob, it was about giving back.
BOB: We need more officials to get involved. I understand that there is an intimidation factor at first when you are dealing with special needs children in a different environment. You aren’t sure how to deal with the kids or how to call the game, but you will quickly understand the game and the officiating levels. Your time is a gift to them and they are so appreciative. It has made me a better person and a better official. If we get one more person to volunteer, that is a victory. Jerry and I laud the IHSA for its ongoing commitment in this area and are extremely proud to be part of an organization that is at the forefront of inclusion for all individuals.