A Ref’s Toughest Call

Good morning, it’s March 13, 2020. Eighty-five years ago today, Nicholas and Helen Oprian, first-generation Romanian immigrants living in San Francisco, welcomed their only child into the world. They named her Virginia, a nice American name. She was my mother.

Mom has been gone these past four years, and I’ve written about her before, so here we are at the beginning of the NCAA tournament known as “March Madness,” and along with millions of other Americans I’m dialed into college basketball. What, you ask, does that have to do with mothers? Bear with me a moment.

The advent of the NCAA tourney means, among other things, paying attention to Seth Davis, CBS Sports’ resident sage on college hoops (and the son of a friend). It also means drinking enough Red Bull to keep up with Dick Vitale, a man much older than me but of unlimited energy. March also means reading every word penned by Washington Post columnist and basketball aficionado John Feinstein.

It was a recent Feinstein column about a college basketball referee that evoked Ginny Cannon’s memory.

One month ago, on a snowy Pennsylvania night, the Lehigh University men’s basketball team played the West Point Black Knights on the Mountain Hawks’ home court in Bethlehem, Pa. The game, a one-sided Lehigh victory, was unremarkable in most ways. But not for one of the referees, a former U.S. Army helicopter pilot named Jeff Janosik.

As game time approached, Janosik kept checking the weather on his phone. His mother had gone into the hospital with flu symptoms, and Janosik was planning on making the 300-mile drive home to Pittsburgh after the game. The weather wasn’t cooperating. Snow was falling heavily, meaning the five-hour trip was going to take much longer. Then his phone rang. It was his sister-in-law, Barb.

“Jeff,” she said, “your mom passed away.”

This was the story John Feinstein told in his March 3, 2018 Washington Post column. But what he was relating was, ultimately, an uplifting tale.

“She was 93,” Jeff Janosik told Feinstein. “She lived an amazing life. But at that moment, I just lost it.”

Actually, Janosik kept it together. He asked one of the other refs to assume his duties as crew chief, but then took the floor and did his job. As he left the court that night, Janosik surprised Lehigh head coach Brett Reed with this question: “Is your mom still with us?”

When the coach replied that, yes, his mother was alive, the ref said without elaboration, “Do me a favor. Give her a call tonight and tell her you love her.”

This story has a touching ending, one you really should read in Feinstein’s own words.

I will add this, however: Jeff Janosik’s advice is good anytime. Not only on Mother’s Day, and not only on her birthday, and not only on a winter night far from home when you know you’ll never see your mom in this life again. Whenever you can.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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