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The Referee
Jim Burch has seen basketball and the South evolve
Published Thursday, March 21, 2013 8:03 am
by Herbert L. White

March Madness is nothing new for Jim Burch.

Jim Burch, the CIAA’s supervisor of officials and first black game official in Atlantic Coast Conference history, has deep ties to Charlotte. A former teacher and adminstrator in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, he also served on numerous boards, including the Charlotte Housing Aurthority.

The retired college basketball official now watches as a supervisor and mentor of referees along the Eastern Seaboard. But Burch, who is 85 and lives in Apex, is more than that. He’s the Jackie Robinson of college refs, a trailblazer who opened doors for  African Americans who were previouslylimited to historically black leagues.

“I haven’t thought much about being quote, ‘the first,’” said Burch, who worked 14 NCAA tournaments and was an alternate at the 1977 Final Four. “I just wanted to referee.”

Burch, the CIAA’s supervisor of officials, and Charlotte are inextricably linked. He was a public school teacher and administrator who helped Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools usher in an era of desegregation as principal at Woodland Elementary School, teacher and baseball coach at York Road High School and director of the Title I  program at Plato Price High. Burch also served on numerous civic boards, including the first African American to serve on the Charlotte Housing Authority. But it’s basketball for which is best known as a game official, and later as supervisor for multiple collegiate leagues.

In 1969, Burch was hired to officiate varsity games in the Atlantic Coast and Southern conference, a breakthrough moment for black refs who could only dream of getting into the upper echelon. He went on to referee in multiple leagues, including the Mid-Eastern Athletic, Sun Belt, Southwest and Carolinas conferences.

“I was very confident in my ability to officiate at that level,” he said.
So was Sam Lacy, the legendary sports editor at the Baltimore Afro-American, a weekly newspaper with a national following. Upon Burch’s appointments by the ACC and Southern, Lacy, who is enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame for his efforts to break that sport’s color barrier, wrote in his May 29, 1969 column: “It came in the form of a revelation that both the Atlantic Coast Conference and Southern Conference have certified Jim Burch of Charlotte as a varsity basketball official for the 1969-70 season…Burch was singled out here five years ago as the most capable young official I’ve seen in the last 15 years of CIAA basketball.”

The accidental official
Burch, who was born in Raleigh, grew up in Larchmont, N.Y., a suburb of New York City. He was a two-sport athlete at Fayetteville Teachers College (now Fayetteville State University), where he would later serve on its board of trustees, including two years as chairman.

“I played football and baseball there and being on scholarship the coach always found something else for you to do there,” Burch said. “I ended up being the manager of the basketball team and I was given the opportunity to officiate some of the intra-squad scrimmages. I got a little taste of it and I really didn’t think much of it in college.”

After graduation, Burch became a teacher and basketball coach in Mount Olive, where hiring game officials – usually from Kinston – proved difficult because of the distance. A call to the N.C. High School Athletic Conference, the sanctioning body for black high school athletics before desegregation, resulted in a visit by future U.S. Olympic Committee president and N.C. Central University chancellor LeRoy Walker, to train and certify officials. Burch was among seven candidates to make the cut.

“I worked a few games in the Mount Olive area, then when I moved to Charlotte to begin a teaching career at York Road, that’s when I really got into officiating,” he said.

Making mark on campus
Burch moved up to the collegiate ranks and the CIAA  in 1959 but didn’t call games until two years later. That’s when his career took off.
“I got five games that year,” he said. “The next year I got 10 games and that same year I worked the tournament for the first time.”
Making the transition to the ACC and other previously all-white leagues provided on-court challenges, primarily racially insensitive remarks from fans. As black players and officials became common, the insults became game-related.

“I was accepted by all the officials, never had problems with players or coaches,” he said. “Most of the negative stuff came from fans, which you would expect because officials always get negative reaction from fans whether you’re black or white. Fans can be vicious at times.”

Or funny. As Burch and the late John Russell walked onto the court at Wake Forest University, an elderly white woman yelled out “My God, there’s two of them tonight!”

“John and I both laughed and kept on going,” Burch said.

Those early days weren’t always a laughing matter, says David Dodge, who worked ACC and Southern Confernece games with Burch. Black officials took as much, and perhaps more, abuse than the athletes who changed the sport’s complexion.

“Jimmy had a way of getting along with everybody, which was kind of difficult in those early days,” said Dodge, a Division I referee from 1972-2001. “Because he was changing the scenery, especially in the ACC, where it was pretty brutal for the African American officials that started the change process.

“What we would hear what he would hear from the stands was brutal. I don’t know how these guys withstood all of that. What the black referees endured back then was unimaginable.”

Best of the best
Burch has high praise for the officials and athletes he’s crossed paths with over the years. Hall of Famer Earl Monroe, who led Winston-Salem State University to the Division II national championship, the best player he’s ever been on the floor with.

“He was doing things back then that no other basketball player was doing,” he said. “I worked games with (N.C. State legend David) Thompson and Michael Jordan and all the others, but the best basketball player I ever officiated in college was Earl Monroe.”

Burch called Southern Conference and ACC peer Jimmy Howell, an African American who worked multiple Final Fours, the best referee he’s worked with.
“A no-nonsense guy,” Burch says. “Ran the court very well. Had good court presence and he and I hit it off.”

Another was Lenny Wirtz, a legend in the Atlantic Coast Conference who was instrumental in helping Burch make the transition to the Division I league.

“Lenny was one of the few officials I could look down to because he was shorter than I am,” the 5-foot, 8-inch-tall Burch said of the 5-foot-6 Wirtz. “He was a big help in my career.”

The best game he officiated? A triple-overtime thriller between Norfolk State and N.C. A&T State in the 1968 CIAA tournament final. Norfolk State won 134-132.

“What’s ironic about that game is that I worked the high school 4A championship game that afternoon,” Burch said. “That night I was the referee for the CIAA championship game. The captain at A&T said ‘Mr. Burch, didn’t I see you at the high school championship game today? We’re going to run your legs off.’ I didn’t know how much of a prophet he was.”

Secure in success
Burch was a trailblazer in the high school ranks as the first African American game official in the N.C. High School Athletic Association as well as the NCAA tournament up to the regional final. Today’s officials go to camps and are required to be in top physical condition. The goal for most is to move up the ladder where the prestige and pay reflect the status of competition.

“College officiating is a business and as a businessman, you want to go where you can make the most money,” he said. “The college ranks were paying more than the high school ranks.”

Burch’s accolades are numerous. He’s been inducted into seven halls of fame, including the CIAA Officials, MEAC Officials, NCHSAA, Fayetteville State Athletic and South Atlantic Conference. One on-court honor that eluded him is the Final Four, but his place in the sport’s history is secure.

“We know the story of Jackie Robinson, but not so many people knew what was happening with Jim Burch and Jim Howell,” said Dodge, who is retired and living in Carlsbad, Calif. “They were true pioneeers.

“For these referees who were always targets, especially in the ACC where it was very difficult to officiate in those days, it was a tribute to their personality, their integrity, everything about them.”

The article is updated to reflect Burch was principal at Woodland Elementary School and teacher and baseball coach at York Road High School.


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