Nykesha Thompson calls a foul during the Temple University women’s basketball game against Sacred Heart at McGonigle Hall in North Philadelphia Dec. 9. The Owls won 92-62.
Yvonne Dennis (246)
Growing up playing basketball–on her way to becoming one of Central High’s greatest ever–Nykesha Thompson (256) didn’t give much thought to the folks in the black and white stripes blowing the whistles and calling the fouls.
Her focus was on mastering her play–from Philadelphia rec center girls hoops all the way through to the University of Maryland Eastern Shore on a full scholarship.
But as the opportunities for on-the-court excitement dwindled as she got older, where did Miss Thompson find her biggest thrill of late? As an NCAA women’s basketball referee.
“It’s an adrenaline rush,” said Miss Thompson, whose day job is physical-education teacher at Central, as well as coach of the school’s girls volleyball and badminton teams. “You hear all these people yelling all types of stuff at you. Coaches yelling and fans yelling. Players cursing you out, especially when you’re new.”
Running back and forth on the court keeps the muscles in shape, and the job is a great way for her to travel and meet new people.
Refereeing was certainly not a career or even an avocation to which she aspired. Miss Thompson started off at UMES majoring in sports management. But the heavy demands of playing a Division I sport prompted her to simplify to a business-administration focus.
After graduation she got a job as an accountant–didn’t like it. So she got her certification as a physical-education teacher from Eastern University in St. David’s, Pa.
The decision to leave the security of accounting after six years “was very scary,” said Miss Thompson. But the move to teaching, she said, was one of the best decisions she ever made. Teaching at Central was certainly an aspiration and when an opportunity arose in 2011, Miss Thompson had another important decision to make.
“At Lincoln (High) I had started to build a rapport with my students and my colleagues. So it honestly was a hard decision.”
But in the end she said, “It’s Central.” Things that make it an ideal place to study, she and many others have said, are the same things that make it an ideal place to teach.
Central President Tim McKenna is thrilled to have the young teacher on his staff. “The kids love her,” he said.
She’s successful as a coach, too, having won two badminton Public League titles so far in her short tenure.
Meanwhile, Miss Thompson, Central’s highest basketball points scorer ever, boy or girl, who was crowned Public League player of the year her senior year at Central, continued post-college to feed the competitive beast inside her by playing in women’s basketball leagues around the city.
“Sure enough, one of my games, my former teammate was one of the referees.” Surprised, she asked her friend what was the deal. “We don’t ref. We play!” she teased.
Her former teammate replied: “If I tell you how much money I make, you’d be doing the same thing!”
Her friend was right and about 11 years ago Miss Thompson began the training to qualify as a Mid-Atlantic Division referee. Her first assignments were officiating kids leagues.
As she improved Miss Thompson made her way up through high-school officiating, then Division III college, eventually up to Division I. She now travels up and down the East Coast officiating about three games a week.
While Miss Thompson was assigned to co-ref Temple women’s basketball, another alum was working the game as well. Merv Jones is the home public-address announcer for Temple football, and men’s and women’s basketball. Seen at the table behind Miss Thompson in the blue vest, check him out here introducing the Owls.
The money may have been the lure but refereeing has to be done out of love to endure the stress of all the second-guessing, both internal and external.
“Every time I make a mistake I learn from it,” Miss Thompson said. “You learn from it and you hope that it’s not something that has anything to do with the outcome of a team winning or losing.”
Of course there are some mistakes that weigh heavier.
“There have been games where it’s like, ‘I know I kicked that call. I know I totally was wrong with that call’ but there’s nothing you can do about it…Once you blow that whistle you gotta stick with it and hope people get over it.”
Most times, coaches, players and fans do. Sometimes they don’t and someone will report a ref to a governing authority, Miss Thompson said. After a game a referee can get a call from a supervisor telling her to look at a play on tape and see if she sees things differently. Sometimes a boss will flat-out tell a referee that she got it wrong.
But on some calls, one’s own conscience might be the worst judge.
“There have been nights where I’m tossing and turning because I know I didn’t do something right,” Miss Thompson said. “We want to get ’em right. And it sticks with us when we mess ’em up, for sure.”