In charge on the court, at school
By Scott Akanewich
Travis Motal knew he wanted basketball to be a lifelong venture.
Only one problem.
“I always loved it, but I wasn’t a near good enough player,” he said.
So, after high school, he decided in order to continue making hoops a part of his life, he would trade his jersey for a striped shirt and a whistle.
He became a referee.
Now, Motal, who is the principal at Liberty Hill Junior High, is a seasoned college basketball referee who has had many enjoyable experiences over the years as he has continued his love affair with the game from the other side of the law.
According to Motal, he wouldn’t have it any other way these days.
“I’ve always liked the aspect of having the pressure on me to always have to do the right thing out there on the court,” said Motal, who officiates NCAA Division II and III games, as well as in the NAIA. “If there’s an upset coach, I use the structure and skills I have to resolve any issues.”
As far as the in-game banter that exists between coaches and officials, there must remain a constant line of open communication in order to properly regulate the temperature of the proceedings, he said.
“Before the game, we’ll have a meeting and talk about any rules changes,” said Motal. “But, once the game begins, all referees are different as far as what kind of tolerance level each one of us has as far as anything which goes on.”
Usually, Motal will give coaches a fairly long leash, but there’s one line you can’t cross, he said.
“No profanity when arguing about calls,” said Motal.
Of course, inevitably the lines are crossed when the frustration level boils over and things are said in the heat of battle sometimes, which are unforgivable in Motal’s book, he said.
“The worst thing any coach ever said to me was I was a cheater,” said Motal. “It really hurts to hear something like that because as officials, all of us work very hard to be better referees and what that does degrades everything I do.”
Concerning his relationship with players during games, a different approach altogether is needed, he said.
“Before the game, when we meet with the captains, I’ll ask them, ‘Okay, who wants to call fouls today?’” said Motal. “If you don’t want fouls called, don’t commit any.”
Motal added over the past decade or so, the powers that be in the officiating community have strived to make rules interpretations more clear – regardless of who’s making the calls, he said.
“What they’ve really tried to do is make officiating more of a science than an art,” said Motal. “As far as what constitutes a foul, it should be cut-and-dry. Over the last 10 years, they’ve tried really hard to get rid of inconsistency.”
After all, Big Brother is always watching.
“Our career assignors watch our games, evaluate us and make recommendations,” he said. “So, I go into every game like it’s always the biggest.”
One thing officials must constantly monitor during games is the rhythm of the proceedings, always ensuring nobody gains an upper hand from a fairness standpoint.
“Everybody’s always looking for an advantage – whether it’s coaches or players,” said Motal. “So, I always try to see the game from both perspectives.”
One aspect of basketball officiating that differentiates it from other sports is the sometimes claustrophobic conditions under which games are played, he said.
“The size of the court and the closeness of the crowd allows everything to be contained in a small space compared to a football field, for example,” said Motal. “As a coach, you can easily see all three officials from the sideline at any given time.”
Motal described the synergy, which must occur between everyone involved, to make a game go smoothly.
“The game can only be played with all of us – officials, coaches and players – working together,” he said. “I always try to help players know what to do – I enforce the rules, but there’s always a mutual respect. But, I always enjoy the challenge and the intensity the coaches bring to the game.”
Of course, in this day and age of technology, sports officiating is under even more of a microscope than ever and the trickle-down that has on officials presents an entirely different layer of expectations as far as their performances are concerned, said Motal.
“The level of scrutiny we face as officials is immense,” he said. “Especially with the advent of video replay – we want to get as much right as we can without taking the feel out of the game.”
So, what would constitute a perfectly-officiated contest?
“Nobody gets hurt, first of all,” he said. “After that, all three teams – including the officials — leave the court feeling like we gave all we could to the game.”
Motal’s officiating career has taken him far and wide from his native Texas and provided him with opportunities to call games at high levels in far-flung places, such as Southern California and South Dakota, along with many other places on the map in between.
Usually, he flies to farther destinations, although sometimes the road is the way to go, with an eight-hour drive to New Orleans being the longest to this point.
One thing being an official for two decades has done for Motal is change his entire perspective on the game – even if he’s simply spectating, he said.
“I find now even when I’m just watching a game, I’m focusing on the officials and what they’re doing,” said Motal. “I always like to see how other referees work.”
With all his responsibilities to the community of Liberty Hill in his role as junior high principal in addition to his officiating, Motal said it can be quite challenging to make everything fit into one nice, neat mosaic.
“Definitely, it’s a delicate balance,” he said. “It’s tricky – a never-ending process of what’s best for everyone involved. At any point, my schedule could change and I have to take care of everything.”
However, one thing he stresses is although officiating is a passion, it’s simply a hobby from his day job, as well as his family, said Motal.
“Basketball is second to everything,” he said. “Although it’s great to have a hobby you love which you also get paid to do. But, I have a great wife and kids who are always very supportive of everything I do – they all know they come first in my life.”
Despite the fact his playing career is long since over, when it’s time to take the court as an official, Motal said anxiety still exists, but one of a different kind.
“I wouldn’t say nervous, but there’s an anxious feeling while you’re waiting for the game to start,” he said. “All you ever want to do is go out there and do a good job. But, sometimes when you make a bad call, it can be gut-wrenching.”
Motal also drew a parallel between his duties on the court and those he finds himself faced with as principal.
“In a lot of ways, I think it’s the same,” he said. “As far as always having to be in the right place at the right time to do the right thing. Using verbal and non-verbal communication and being able to diffuse situations.”
Just like he tries to guide players to remain on the right side of the rules during games, he finds himself helping students at LHJH to also stay on the straight-and-narrow, he said.
“I think it’s an excellent comparison to my job here at the junior high school,” said Motal. “I really love working with the kids and helping them on a career path. Many of the skills I use in one I use in the other – whether it’s an upset coach or parent.”
In coming to resolutions to correct issues that arise, one aspect always remains the same for Motal – be it a player in foul trouble or a student who may have lost his or her way.
“The children are what’s most important in what we do here,” he said. “We help them fix problems by saying ‘Okay, here’s what we need to do about this’ and then hold them accountable, which is where my skills as an official have really helped me to be able to work under pressure, perform well and stay calm and focused in certain situations. I need to be able to project confidence and stability in doing what’s right because life is a game which is never over.”