Joseph Slaski
Steve Goldberg's Wheel World
to read

When fans call this ref blind, it's a compliment

CHARLOTTE (Steve Goldberg's Wheel World) - I've never met a good official in any sport who wasn't as competitive as the athletes he or she was patrolling. Not in the same way though.

More like golfers, they compete not so much against each other as they do with themselves. Always striving to improve; always seeking that perfect game. Unlike the athlete however, their best work is done not to acclaim but in anonymity. The best compliment I can ever give a ref is that I never noticed them.

One man who has that fire is Joe Slaski, who calls basketball, baseball and softball games in and around Rochester, New York.

Basketball refs are often accused of having a disability, that being of the visual impairment variety. When coaches, players or fans chime out to impugn Slaski's eyesight during a game, he can only smile because it means the fact he uses a wheelchair to get up and down the court doesn't matter. Only the stripes on his shirt and perceived lack of ability to make the right call do.

The 47-year-old Slaski was profiled in a front page story by Todd Clausen in the Rochester (New York) Democrat & Chronicle last week. A referee himself for 15 years now, Clausen learned of Slaski through a video a friend had posted on Facebook.

Intrigued, he found that Slaski was the only person among about 300 referees in that part of New York who was reffing high school basketball from a wheelchair. No one he spoke to knew of any other.

"I have not seen or heard of anybody in that situation at the high school level," said Kim Henshaw, athletic director at Greece Olympia High School in Rochester and an executive board member for the New York State Public High School Athletic Association. 

"I don't even think I have heard it or seen it even on the national level ... it's quite unique."

Unique enough to where it's garnered attention from other newspapers and television news as well.

More important, Slaski has impressed the people who've hired him.

"He is an official, first and foremost," Mark Henderson, president of the Central Western Girls Basketball Organization told Clausen. "It's an awesome experience, but it was Joe who had to take that step to contact the board."

To be technical, Slaski hasn't taken many actual steps since a sledding accident in November 1989 left him paralyzed from the waist down. He was 22 and active, both as an athlete and an official who was calling youth soccer and baseball games. He told me that he was looking to see how far he could go with that, perhaps getting to the FIFA level and calling international games.

"To be informed by the doctors that my life would be dramatically changing certainly was a hard pill to swallow," he told Clausen. "But they say whatever doesn't break you makes you stronger, and there certainly has been a lot of good that has come about from a tragic situation."

Like so many others, Slaski learned to play wheelchair basketball while in rehab and joined the local Syracuse Flyers and later played with the more competitive EPVA Eagles and Rochester Wheels, all clubs in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. He also played sled hockey, rising up to the national team level in the late 1990s.

But he hadn't lost that love of officiating games. That's right, for all you ref baiters and hecklers out there (and yes, I've been one at times). The officials who whistle our games do it because they love it. Nobody puts themselves in the line of that abusive fire just for the money.

I could hear it in Clausen's voice too when I called him to talk about the article and Slaski. He understood why it was important to the hero of his story, because he understands the love of the game that brings officials to the courts day after day and night after night.

Slaski moved from player to official in wheelchair basketball working tournaments and games across the country. He's not the only one to do that but there are only a handful. When he moved to Rochester, he looked past what many would call a disability and got several of the organizations that approve and schedule officials to do so as well.

It wasn't just by asking. He had to do the same training, pass the same rules and fitness tests, and be evaluated on the same level as every other aspiring official.

As recounted by Clausen, one of Slaski's first high school games was a girl's varsity scrimmage Henderson was there to observe the ref using a wheelchair.

"This game had the flair," Henderson said. "Right off the bat, it is a fast break this way and a fast break that way. It was game on. We had bodies on the floor. We had intensity, and that's when he stepped into the game. He established he could officiate and he could keep up with the flow of game."

He also said no special accommodations have been made for Slaski. None were asked for.

"It's empowering," Slaski said of officiating. "I love it. I get a lot of joy and satisfaction out of it. I also think that it's good that the youth, the children, are seeing somebody with a significant disability in a leadership position."

It's not bad for their parents to see it either.

Slaski is never going to get that chance to call a world class soccer match but he’s still pushing forward. Along with calling more standing games, he is excited to get back to doing NWBA games and he's hoping to work the wheelchair basketball games at the Défi sportif AlterGo, a multi-adaptive sport event that begins the end of April in Montreal. 

He said that IWBF referees will be there and he wants to learn what it will take to join them on the international stage.

I queried IWBF Secretary General Maureen Orchard who told me that there are currently no IWBF accredited officials using a wheelchair and none that she could recall on that level. She also said that there was nothing precluding anyone from going through the process to see if they could make the grade.

That's what it's all about, right? You can't make the shot if you don't take it.

Steve Goldberg


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Steve Goldberg

Steve Goldberg

Eight years after first getting a glimpse of wheelchair basketball at the 1988 Paralympics in Seoul when covering the Olympics for UPI, Steve Goldberg got the chance to really understand the game as Chief Press Officer for the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta. He's been a follower of the sport ever since. Over the years, the North Carolina-born and bred Tar Heel fan - but University of Georgia grad - has written on business, the economy, sports, and people for media including Time, USA Today, New York magazine, Reuters, Universal Sports, TNT, ESPN, New York Daily News, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and The Olympian. Steve Goldberg's Wheel World will look at the past, present and future of wheelchair basketball.