It’s called March Madness even though it ends in April — the wildly popular 64-team NCAA men’s college basketball tournament. The culmination of the college hoops season has fans all over the country filling in the brackets as an annual rite of spring that crowns the national champion.
This year’s Final Four was held at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, and sitting amongst a crowd of 73,000, midway in the upper tiers, was none other than Jerry Bendzak and his son Tyson.
Bendzak, who recently retired after a 50-year career officiating high school hoops in Cordova, and his son Tyson, who was a playmaking guard on the only Cordova High School (CHS) boys team to make it to the Alaska 3A championship game, were living the dream, and anyone who knows either of the two can imagine the energy and enthusiasm they brought to this moment.
The number one adjective in the Bendzak thesaurus is “awesome” and the pair had exactly that kind of time in a trip that was nine months in the planning. They attended a coaching clinic by former North Carolina Coach Roy Williams, discussed the evolution of the Fox 40 referee whistle at a booth selling the latest model, and even found time to visit the Houston Space Center and drive to Galveston, because “Tyson wanted to stick his feet in the Atlantic Ocean,” which he had never done before.
Naturally, Jerry wore his striped referee shirt to the games, and had fun bonding with nearby fans, saying “Referees always make it to the Final Four.”
Alas, the call never came over the PA system asking him to come down and referee the games, but the very thought brought memories of an unforgettable game Jerry and I officiated at the ASAA State 2A tournament that still is talked about in Alaska referee circles.
It was in March 2006, and a 9 a.m. consolation game between the Yakutat and Pt. Hope girls.
Jerry and I had always hoped that someday we would have a chance to work a state game together, and here we were.
Back then the games were still officiated by two refs, and state was played at cavernous Sullivan Arena. Also the venue for hockey, it had one unusual feature — the wooden court came in sections, which interlocked and were laid on top the cement surface. Consequently, there was a three-inch drop off on the edges of the floor.
There also was a considerable space beyond the basket at one end, so a three-foot curtain mounted between metal stanchions stretched along the end line to prevent ball from rolling away. Additionally, a ball boy was usually there to track down balls that bounced over. At 9 a.m. no such help was available.
Predictably, midway through the first quarter the ball bounced over the railing. It lay right behind the fence so Jerry reached over to pick it up. Oops. Because of the drop off it was further away than he realized.
From across the court I watched as my partner’s feet came up in the air followed by a complete back flip as he vanished behind the railing. As he had gone over, his feet had clipped the top of the fabric railing, pulling it down.
Like dominos, one by one the stanchions and railings began collapsing in both directions, making soft plopping sounds. By now the crowd was howling, nearby players were giggling, and the coaches and benches were standing to see what was happening.
In rhythmic fashion, the entire railing collapsed. The crowd was standing and applauding as I went over to check on my partner. The clapping, whistling and cheers reached a crescendo when a bit red-faced, Jerry popped up and held the ball high over his head.
When I asked him if he was ok, you know what he said: “Yeah man that was awesome!”
Unfortunately, a photographer for the Anchorage Daily News was laughing so hard he forgot to take pictures.
By the time the final round of games that day had been completed Jerry was famous, and had earned a new nickname among the Band of Zebras present that soon spread statewide.