|Legendary CIAA basketball game official James Burch dies at age 91|
|Broke color barrier in the ACC, Southern conferences|
|Published Tuesday, May 21, 2019 6:43 am|
|PHOTO | CURTIS WILSON|
|James Burch, a longtime CIAA basketball game official and the ACC's first black referee, died Sunday in Apex at age 91. Mr. Burch in an inductee to eight halls of fame, including two in the CIAA.|
James Burch, a trailblazing basketball game official who broke color barriers in formerly all-white leagues, died at his home in Apex Sunday.
He was 91.
Mr. Burch retired last year as the CIAA’s supervisor of officials, broke into the ranks with the same league, is the Jackie Robinson of college referees who opened doors for African Americans who were previously limited to historically black leagues.
“I haven’t thought much about being quote, ‘the first,’” Mr. Burch told The Post in 2013. “I just wanted to referee.”
CIAA Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams said in a statement: “We have lost another CIAA angel! His contributions to the CIAA and across the country left a legacy and a mark on us all. My tears are tears of gratefulness that the CIAA family celebrated his life while he was here. He was an amazing storyteller, no nonsense, caring leader, with a great sense of humor and an infectious laugh. He was a mentor, confidant, and friend that can never be replaced.”
Mr. Burch, who worked 14 NCAA tournaments and was an alternate at the 1977 Final Four, and Charlotte were 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 School. Mr. Burch also served on numerous civic boards, including the first African American to serve on the Charlotte Housing Authority.
In 1969, Burch was hired to officiate varsity games in the Atlantic Coast and Southern conferences, a breakthrough moment for black referees who were barred from upper echelon white leagues. He went on to referee in multiple conferences, 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.
Upon Mr. Burch’s appointments by the ACC and Southern, legendary Baltimore Afro-American sports columnist Sam 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.”
Mr. 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 in 2013. “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.”
Mr. Burch moved to 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.”
Mr. Burch was undeterred. As he and the late John Russell, who was also black, walked onto the court before a game 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 had a serious side, said David Dodge, who worked ACC and Southern Conference games with Mr. 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.”
Mr. Burch, who was also the first African American game official in the N.C. High School Athletic Association before the state’s black and white sports federations merged, saw his share of great athletes and games, many of them from the black college ranks. He ranked Hall of Famer Earl Monroe, who led Winston-Salem State University to the 1967 Division II national championship, the best player he shared a floor with.
“He was doing things back then that no other basketball player was doing,” Mr. Burch said. “I worked games with [N.C. State legend David] Thompson and [UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus and Charlotte Hornets owner] Michael Jordan and all the others, but the best basketball player I ever officiated in college was Earl Monroe.”
Mr. 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,” Mr. Burch says. “Ran the court very well. Had good court presence and he and I hit it off.”
Another favorite 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 University and North Carolina A&T State University in the 1968 CIAA tournament final that Norfolk State won 134-132 – before implementation of a shot clock or three-point line in the college game.
“What’s ironic about that game is that I worked the high school 4A championship game that afternoon,” Mr. 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.”
Mr. Burch has been inducted into eight halls of fame, including the CIAA's Officials and John B. McLendon shrines, MEAC Officials, NCHSAA, Fayetteville State Athletic and South Atlantic Conference. An assignment to the Division I Final Four eluded him, but Dodge said Mr. Burch’s place in basketball’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,” Dodge said. “They were true pioneers. 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.”
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