SIX DEGREES OF REFEREEING: The One Guy Who Ran With the Centaurs and Made it to the Big Time

Posted on Apr 08, 2013

To start this post we need first to go to Madison Square Garden. It is the mid-1980s. I am there watching a St. John’s basketball game. The whistle sounds, and I follow the ball as it gets thrown to the ref.

Wait! I know that guy! The referee! I mean, I know who he is. His name comes immediately.  Jody Silvester. He used to ref our Centaur games at Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales back when.

The game in the Garden from there on becomes mere backdrop. I spend the rest of my time watching Jody, this guy who used to ref our games in Billera Hall in Center Valley, Pennsylvania, our college of cornfields, and now here he is … at Madison Square Garden.

When I decided to do this post a few days ago, I sent an all-points email to members of these Centaur Seasons asking whether they too still remembered Jody Silvester.  P.J. Brennan, a well-coached CYO kid from Pottsville, Pa., got back to me right away. “Absolutely,” he wrote, and explained that for a while when he was still in  the Lehigh Valley area he became a high school ref to stay with the game.  He belonged to the Bethlehem. Pa., chapter of the PIAA.

“Every Chapter had a President and an Interpreter,” P.J. wrote in his email. “The Interpreter was the most knowledgeable ref, the best referee in the Chapter. Jody was the Interpreter. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the game, but more importantly he had a command of the game. His games were well and fairly called and orderly. No confusion, no questionable calls. Always confident. Coaches and players respected him.”

After my St. John’s game in the Garden, when watching college games on TV I’d always check to see who the referees were. Jody appeared regularly. He reffed until 2000, worked 22 NCAA tournaments, four Final Fours and two Championship Games – Indiana-Syracuse 1987, Duke-Arkansas 1994. All told he probably called well more than 2,000 games.

When Jody retired, Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated wrote a terrific valedictory: “…[T]here may be no greater testament to him than the fact that most coaches respect him, but fans have never heard of him.”

Yeah, well, we Centaurs sure have heard of him, this ref who used to blow the whistle on us back at Billera Hall.

“The guy to get info from is Maz,” Jerry Wilkinson wrote me, referring to his senior year roommate and co-captain, the fiery, tempestuous, give-no-quarter Tony Mazzeo.  “As P.J. said,” Wilk continued, “Jody controlled the games with his calm, knowledgeable demeanor. He reffed a lot of our games and we were happy to see him walk in the gym. But when you controlled our games that means you controlled Maz.”

Ironically, or perhaps not, Maz himself became a well-regarded soccer referee. So maybe he knew better than the rest of us when he said in his email: “In some small way, I am convinced that we helped him in his craft. You can’t get to the top without experiencing the bumps, bruises and ‘school of hard knocks’ referee knowledge that our scrappy, do-or-die-effort teams offered him.”

Maz claims Jody worked at least 25 of his games — nearly half the home-game schedule. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, Jody got one of his first big-time calls, working the hallowed Palestra of Philadelphia, the year after Maz graduated.

We need now to go to December 1992, to an alumni game at the college celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Centaurs’ first-ever collegiate game, in 1967, against King’s College. “The Quarter-Century Centaurs.” Of the 40 or so players from the Centaur Seasons era, nearly 30 show.

And they’re talking.

Hey, you ever see Jody Silvester on TV doing games?”

 Yeah! He cut his teeth on us!

Yeah! We got him to the Garden!

And now it is Sunday, yesterday, and I am on the phone telling these stories to Jody Silvester. He’s 76 now, retired nearly 20 years ago from his job as the postmaster of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, over the mountain from Center Valley., where he still lives with his wife, Helen. This being NCAA Final Four weekend, it seemed an appropriate moment to see if I could locate him and tell him that however silly it may sound, seeing him on TV, in the big-time, always a produced a thrill.

I don’t know if this will make any sense, I tell him, but it does to me, and I think it does, in a way, to all of us who played back then, were reffed by him, at tiny little Allentown College. It’s like Maz said. It was us who got him there — the Garden, the big time. He used to work our games and then he went Big East, Atlantic 10, eventually BIG 10.

At Billera Hall we got maybe 65 people at our games. He reffed a title game in the Superdome in front of 65,000. And still it’s like there is a part of us that was out there with him, running the floor with the most talented college ballplayers in the country.

I stop, the gushing over. Then: “I don’t know if you can understand that,” I say, “but there’s just no other way for me to say it.”

A silence on the phone. Finally, Jody says, quietly, “That’s really nice. I appreciate it.”

So of course, now I try to push the ball, force the action. “Do you remember working our games?” I ask. Do you remember the Centaurs?

“Wow,” he says, laughing “you’re really testing my memory!”

I recite the games with his name in the scorebook. Including this game from the recent diary-blog of the 1972-73 season, one of my more humiliating performances — though no, I did NOT get fouled out!

I also mention a few players. I say the name Tony Mazzeo. “That one rings a bell, yeah,” Jody says.

But mostly, no.  “It’s easier for you guys to remember me,” he says. As for him: “There’s been thousands of players.”

But here’s the thing, he says, perhaps sensing my disappointment. “My philosophy was this. No matter whether there were two people in the stands or 75 people in the stands or 25,000 people in the stands, my philosophy was that those kids had been practicing every day of the week and to go out there and lollygag around, that wasn’t my style. Every game to me was important — a 25,000 Division I big-time game, or DeSales – that’s the way I always refereed.  That’s the only way it can be, no matter who’s playing.”

Even when “just” the Centaurs?

“You gotta start somewhere,” he tells me. “And you never forget where you came from.”

Even when you can’t exactly remember.

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Welcome to CENTAUR SEASONS: A ‘memory blog’ of the basketball beginnings of a half-good, half-bad, all-new college team.

Once, I was a Centaur.

I played basketball for Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales in Center Valley, Pa. I was on four of the school’s first seven teams, was MVP senior year and in 1974 graduated in the fifth class.

My junior year I kept a diary: A History of the Events of the 1972-1973 Allentown College B-Ball Season, as Chronicled by, and With the Personal Memoirs + Occassional [sic] Philosophizing of the Author, One Stephen J. McKee.  One-hundred-forty-five hand-writ pages. (Yes, I was an English major.)

But it occurs to me now: Were I today a “Bulldog” playing for “DeSales University” (both mascot and name changed in 2000), my private “History” would be not a diary but a blog.

So starting November 30  “…Personal Memoirs…” will be re-imagined as CENTAUR SEASONS

A blog before its time, posted 40 years after in real time.

Meanwhile, beginning on September 24, here at CENTAUR SEASONS the preseason has already tipped off, with stories, interviews and reminiscences of the people, the place and the purpose of those early years of Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales.

Check back often. Sign up for CentaurSeasonAlerts. Email CENTAUR SEASONS to friends.

We were not a bad team, we Centaurs. We just weren’t very good. Winning was always the goal, if never exactly the point. How could it be, with victories so few?

Back then Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales was a couple of buildings in some cornfields.  Our commitment to the school’s basketball program was far greater than was the school’s commitment us. So what? We got to play college ball – and paid for the privilege! In return, we got to be part of a team, wear the red and blue, be Centaurs. And we got to create a place that was, right then, as much concept as it was college, making itself up as we went along.

What we got was a once-in-a-life-time chance.

All we had to do was keep showing up -- next practice, next game, next season. And so we did.