The Unreasonable Zebra – by John Foley

When I arrived at the Skydome in Flagstaff, Phil Markus, my partner, was nowhere in sight. I headed toward the locker room and was intercepted by Donny Green, supervisor of officials. He officiated for twenty years and put on twenty pounds as soon as he quit running the court.

“Phil’s sick,” he said. “Gonna have you go with a new man, Adams. Just moved down from Alaska a couple of weeks ago. Lot of experience.”

“Okay by me.”

“He’s in the dressing room suiting up.”

First thing I noticed was that unlike most basketball refs, Adams was a small man. He pulled his zebra stripes over a black T-shirt, then turned to smile at me. His eyes squinted almost shut. His hair was slate gray and he wore a matching mustache.

“Nelson Adams,” he said, extending his hand.

“Sean Sanderson.” Nelson had a firm handshake and was obviously very fit for a man in his 50s, with wide shoulders and a trim waist.

“Donny said you’re from Alaska,” I said. “I’m planning to get up there one of these summers.”

“Yes, you should. Lot of tourists in the summer, but still worth it.”

“Why’d you move down here?”

“Oh, I recently retired from teaching, and my wife’s family is from here. Her mother is getting up in years and she wants to be close to her. Are we going to have a third, Sean?”

“No, we have a ref shortage in these parts. We’ll work three-man in the playoffs but not the regular season.”

“That’s fine,” Nelson said. “We mostly work two-man up in Alaska, too.”

“Ref shortage there as well?”

“More a people shortage,” he said with a wink. “I’ve worked high school games with one of the assistant coaches if we can’t get a second ref. Sometimes I’ve coaxed a guy from the stands.”

“Geez, talk about a conflict of interest.”

“Yes, but most of them called it straight.”

I dressed and we headed out to the court, shook hands with the coaches for Northern Arizona Lumberjacks and the Idaho Vandals. Northern Arizona was having a good season, Idaho was not. And with the Lumberjacks at home, it didn’t look good for the visitors. The coaches knew it. They would likely be more relaxed and less profane if the game was one-sided.

It can be tricky working together for the first time. To my surprise, Nelson and I called the game like we’d been partners for years. He was always in position opposite me, always had a good angle to make calls. It helped that Northern Arizona jumped out to a big lead which was never threatened, keeping emotions in check.

After showering and changing, Donny popped his head in our locker room and asked if we wanted to get a beer. We agreed and followed him in our cars to a quiet place a couple of miles from campus, where we were unlikely to run into fans or coaches.

Donny ordered a pitcher from the tap and a pitcher of water. Nelson and I both went for the water first.

“So why did you become a ref?” I asked him as I poured us beers.

“Well, I wanted to stay in the game somehow after my playing days were over.”

“High school?”

He nodded. “And college, University of Alaska in Fairbanks. Point guard.”

“Wow,” Donny said. “I rarely made it off the bench in high school.”

“I tried coaching,” Nelson added, “but I wasn’t very good at it. I had trouble caring about which team won a high school basketball game, to be honest, and it came across to the players and my fellow coaches. Then it occurred to me that not caring which team wins the game might be a bad attitude for a coach, but was a good attitude for a ref.”

We chuckled at that and Donny said, “You guys looked good out there tonight. I’m going to pair you up the rest of the season. Think Phil might have a case of the Irish flu. Gonna talk to him, figure it out, but I’m not going to assign him a game for at least a week.”


Our next two games were high school contests and went off without a hitch. Nelson was the best ref I’d ever worked with, completely composed and professional. I was the lead ref and, despite all his experience, he deferred to me whenever necessary. And when the coaches started riding him, probing for a competitive advantage the way they do with a new ref, he politely ignored them. The man seemed to have no ego.

Then came the high school game between Coconino and Williams that I think of as Nelson’s audition for America’s Got Talent. Early on I noticed that he was working the game with a slight smile, as if refereeing a high school basketball game was fine entertainment. We were in sync as usual for the first three quarters.

Then it happened.

A kid for Williams received a pass as a defender was closing in. He took a couple of steps before dribbling. Travelling. We both blew our whistles at the same instant, but Nelson was closer so he made the call.

Not in the traditional manner, though.

Well I can tell by the way you use your walk you’re a travelling man, no time to talk.” Nelson swirled his hands, which was not only the travelling signal but a favored gesture of ‘70s disco kings. He was on key and sounded just like that guy from the Bee Gees. My mouth fell open, my whistle fell out and I laughed. Couldn’t help it.

The players and coaches looked confused. Too young for the Bee Gees reference, maybe, although I caught a few smiles. Sort of funny even out of context.

I needed to talk to him about this, but there was no chance. The game must go on. I was hoping it was a fluke and that he’d call the rest of the game straight.

No such luck. I made the next two calls, but Nelson was positioned under the basket when there was a violent collision right in front of him. He blew his whistle and I held my breath.

You’re not a love machine,” he sang, “and that right there is an illegal screen.” Some fans were ready this time and were recording him with their phones. Lots of laughs, naturally. I felt my face grow hot.

I tried to make every call the rest of the game. With less than a minute left, though, I was running toward the far baseline while Nelson was trailing the kid from Coconino bringing the ball up the court. At the halfcourt line a Williams defender pressured the kid who was dribbling, and he took a step back across the line. I was too far away to see it. Nelson blew his whistle.

Jumpin’ Jack Flash, that’s over and back, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, you’re over and back.” Another roar from the crowd. Everyone seemed to be holding up a cellphone. Jesus Christ.


After I shut the door to our small dressing room, I turned to face Nelson. He had his head down, looking sheepish. “So what happened out there?”

“Just came out,” he said. “I didn’t plan to break into song.”

“Well, you have a fine voice,” I conceded, “And it was kind of funny. But this is going to make the news, and is probably already on social media. I saw quite a few people filming during your, uh, second and third song snippets.”

He shook his head with his eyes shut. “I’m sorry, Sean. I know we’re supposed to be invisible out there. I feel like I’m either going crazy or…”

“Or what?”

He blew out a breath. “It’s hard to explain.”

“Let’s get showered and you can tell me over a beer.”


Once we were in the bar, I looked at my phone. And there it was, “The Singing Ref” trending away on Facebook and elsewhere, getting lots of likes. I had a message from Donny that I decided to ignore until later. I looked across at my colleague.

“So Nelson, you were going to explain?”

“Yes,” he said, “and I promise that I’ll do my best not to let it happen again.”

“That would be good,” I said. “Donny’s a fair guy and I think he’ll give you another chance, but he’s going to want an explanation.”

He sipped his beer. “It started a few weeks ago,” he said, “when I was overwhelmed by unreasonable happiness.”

“Hmm. What’s that mean?”

“Well, I’ve had my ups and downs, like everyone, but I’ve always been reasonably happy. Then we moved down here to Flagstaff and something shifted. My wife and I always wanted to see the Grand Canyon, like everyone else, so after we settled into our place here, we made a reservation at a lodge on the south rim.”

“A must-see,” I agreed, wondering how the local tourist destination was related to his performance.

“Charlotte likes to sleep in,” he continued, “and I’m an early riser, even if I worked a game the night before. So I ate breakfast in the dining room and walked over to the rim trail just as the sun was coming up. I always thought of Arizona as mostly desert, you know, and the canyon as a big crack through the desert. But it’s more like a crack through a mountain range. Couldn’t believe it when I read that the south rim is at 7,000 feet! And the north rim is even higher!”

His childlike enthusiasm was touching. I’d been to the canyon dozens of times over the years and the views never got old, never ceased to amaze.

“There was snow on those geometric rock formations,” he said. “All those horizontal slashes of orange and white lighting up as the sun rose, and all of the sudden I was overjoyed. I couldn’t contain it. I started laughing like a madman and singing my favorite songs at the top of my lungs. Not too many people up there this time of year, but the few that were around looked at me like I was crazy, and maybe I was. I thought one guy was going to jump over the railing to get away from me.”

“Some actor said crying is acceptable at funerals and the Grand Canyon,” I remarked. “I guess laughing and singing are too. But you must have seen a lot of beautiful sights up in Alaska.”

“All the time,” he agreed. “Maybe I took it for granted because I grew up there. I’ve heard people who live near the ocean do that.”

“That makes sense, I suppose. You weren’t at the Grand Canyon tonight, though.”

“No, I wasn’t. Ever since that morning I’ve had periodic fits of laughter and singing. Mostly singing. I just feel so full of joy, and that’s how it comes out. Charlotte thinks I should get counseling. But Sean, who goes to a shrink because he’s too happy?”


Our next job was another college game at the Skydome, Northern Arizona versus Sacramento State. Nelson had assured Donny that he wouldn’t break into song again; it helped his case that he’d turned down all interview requests. He thought he had it under control.

Of course he did get some mild teasing from the coaches, players and fans. When he reported the first foul to the table, a fan yelled, “Hey ref, you taking requests tonight?” Nelson ignored the ribbing and did his usual excellent job.

The final game of the regular season for us was a high school contest, Prescott versus Flagstaff. In the first quarter I noticed the slight smile was back on Nelson’s mug and I became concerned. He did manage to make it to halftime without breaking into song.

In the dressing room he admitted to feeling unreasonably happy, but added that he thought he could refrain from refrains. “Good,” I said. “Why don’t you think some sad thoughts for the next few minutes?”

He smiled and his lip quivered. The laugh emerged after I went over to relieve myself, and I thought there was a slightly manic edge to it.

Still, his first two calls in the third quarter were by the book, and I started to relax. A minute or so later, however, a Prescott forward was hacked hard as he drove for a layup; the kid was so pissed off that he didn’t even notice he’d made the shot. Nelson tooted his whistle.

Count the basket,” he rapped. “Don’t blow a gasket! You get one shot, to make it or make it not!”

The gym exploded with cheers and laughter. I wasn’t laughing, nor was Donny, who was watching from the scorer’s table. He put his bald head in his hands and slowly rocked it back and forth.

Nelson avoided looking at me, knowing he’d let me down. His next two calls were routine, though, so I was hoping it would be a one-song night.

Early in the final quarter, a Flagstaff player drove to the basket. There was some mild contact, but not enough to warrant a call. When the kid missed the shot, he turned to Nelson and said, “That’s a fucking foul!”

Nelson whistled him for a technical. “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” he sang, “and that was just good dee. R-E-S-P-E-C-T, show some respect for me.”

The crowd gave him a standing ovation. Donny sat at the scorer’s table and glared at me as if to say, “Do something!” I threw up my hands and shrugged. Maybe I should have broken into Neil Young’s Helpless. We were calling our usual good game, now with some added style. Nelson was a force of nature, high on happiness, and I could only watch in awe.

In deference to Donny’s wishes, though, I did dominate the calls for the rest of the game, making all but one, when a tall kid from Prescott pinned the ball against the backboard in the last minute. I was watching for contact down low and was a split-second late in seeing the goaltending. Nelson was all over it.

Love me, goaltender,” he crooned, “love me true…But that shot, counts for two.”

As soon as the final buzzer sounded, Donny stormed over, getting right in Nelson’s face. “That’s your last game,” he said. “You’re not the show!”

Nelson looked up at him, a serene smile on his face. “I know, Donny,” he said. “I understand.”

He winked at me, then jogged across the court toward the locker rooms, waving to the crowd like a star who’d just hit the winning shot.


John Foley is a writer, artist and retired high school teacher. His novels include Hoops of Steel, which was named a Book for the Teen-Age by the New York Public Library, and his stories have appeared in Sail Magazine, Spirituality & Health, Alaska Magazine and many other publications. He lives with his wife and son in Prescott Valley, Arizona.