UK Alum Only Sees Black & White In Role As NCAA Basketball Referee

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John Hampton is a former UK Baseball player.  He graduated with a business degree from the Gatton College of Business and Economics.  He lives minutes away from campus.  He serves as vice president of an insurance agency in Lexington.  He even hails from Harrison County, home of famed former UK Basketball Coach Joe B. Hall.

On paper, you would think his college basketball allegiances would be squarely with his alma mater.

They aren’t.  They simply can’t be.   You see John Hampton is a referee for NCAA Men’s Basketball.

“When you wear this uniform, it takes the fan out of you,” said Hampton.

In fact, when the 20-year veteran of the basketball referee world watches games on television, he doesn’t pay attention to the dunks, three-point swishes or ball movement.  He focuses on officials in black and white. 

“I watch the guys working the game,“ Hampton said.  “Even with NBA games, you find yourself watching the referees.”

Hampton calls refereeing a part-time job.  His “real” job started immediately after graduation from UK in 1991 when he entered the insurance world.  As he began his professional career, he also started his career as a referee.

“My dad was a referee for many, many years, so I grew up going all over Central and Eastern Kentucky watching him referee,” Hampton said.  “So when I graduated from UK I immediately got into the referee business, started going to camps, refereeing locally at high schools and then moved on up.”

These days, Hampton warms up for the season by refereeing University of Kentucky scrimmages and exhibition games before hitting the road (and sky) to call games mostly in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), along with the Big 12, Conference USA, Sunbelt and Ohio Valley conferences. 

“Being a graduate of UK and a Lexington resident, I never call UK games,” Hampton said.  “The only games I do are the exhibition games, and it’s a great feeling to referee in Rupp Arena in front of family and friends.” 

He is an independent contractor who spends most weeks in the winter taking the first flight out of Lexington on game days to ensure that he makes it to the games with plenty of time to spare.

“We are required to be on the 6 a.m. flight every day we work a game,” Hampton said. 

After a quick rest in a hotel, he and his fellow officials meet at the arena and warm up, just like the teams do.  During the game, he definitely works up a sweat.

“They estimate you run a total of six miles per game, Hampton said. 

He says the hardest call to make is when the ball goes out-of-bounds, followed closely by trying to differentiate between a blocked shot and goal tending.   Hampton admits all of these calls are even more challenging today than they were when he first began officiating two decades ago.

“When you look at the players when I started 20 years ago and you compare their size, height and skill level to today’s players, the difference is amazing,” said Hampton.  “There’s a lot of energy, strength and talent and they’re going against each other, which creates some matchups and subsequently tough plays for us to referee.” 

Fortunately, he says technological advances such as television monitors are helping.

“Being able to go to the monitor, especially in late-game situations is great,”  He said.  “If you miss a call early in the game, the teams have a chance to recover, but it it’s late, they don’t.”

Hampton explains that the fact nearly every game is televised or recorded helps officials strive for perfection. 

“Our goal is to beat the tape; you’ve got to be right on film, and then your work is defended,” Hampton said. 

Each season, Hampton hopes to foster an atmosphere where two teams can come together to play without having to worry about the quality of the officiating.

“Coaches quite frankly are paranoid a lot of times when they go on the road, so when they see guys in the stripes that they trust and know, they relax and focus on coaching their game,” he said.  “So that is one thing as a referee we really strive for — we want the coach to have faith and confidence in us, so when he sees you walk on the floor and his team is on the road, he feels good.”

In the end, it’s less about being a thorn in the fans’ side and more about communication. 

“The more mature and experienced I have become as a referee, I do more talking to kids, trying to tell them to stop something rather than just assess a technical foul, especially early in the game,” said Hampton.  “I try to talk to players, and even coaches.  Largely that is what the coaches want, they want to know that they can communicate with you in a professional way.”

So even though his part-time profession doesn’t allow him to be a fan in the Big Blue Nation, he can share his admiration for his alma mater as a whole.  It’s a feeling that washed over him after walking on campus one late autumn day in 2014. 

“Seeing how much construction is going on, and all of the students and all of the activity, it’s just really growing and it’s really neat to see all of the energy on campus now,” Hampton said.  “I’m really proud of the University of Kentucky, and when I think of my success in the business and basketball worlds, it all started here in 1986, so it means a lot to me.”

See John Hampton's "see blue." story at #seebluestories

Watch other UK Alumni “see success.” stories at the playlist below: