Nearly 50 years ago this March, Jim Robinson made Minnesota boys’ basketball history. “I worked the [state] tournament three years in a row,” beginning in 1971 as a game official, Robinson proudly stated. The longtime referee, now a supervisor of officials for the Minnesota State High School League, reflected on his legendary career in a recent MSR phone interview.
Robinson for many years was among the few Black officials who regularly worked boys’ basketball games in the area. “There were a number of African American men who both had been coaches at some time and did some refereeing, but not like I was doing,” he remembered. “I was probably doing more games than most of the other Black officials. I was a seasoned referee [but] it took me 15 years to get to work or be [considered and selected] to work in the state tournament.”
Then sometime in February of 1971, he received a simply-worded letter inviting him to attend an officials’ meeting at the University of Minnesota. “It said, ‘Welcome, you have been selected to [work] the state tournament,” Robinson recalled of the history-making correspondence from the High School League. He would be a member of the eight officials who would work the annual tournament to decide the season’s state boys’ high school basketball champions.
Although it was historic, Robinson said the game wasn’t without twists and turns. “My first one in the state tournament was not the prettiest,” he noted.
First of all, he was assigned to work the game that featured then-Minneapolis Central, “who at the time was one of the few schools in the metro area that was primarily an all-Black team,” Robinson duly noted. And since he also was Black, as expected, some in the crowd hinted quietly or loudly that Robinson would be one-sided in his officiating. “Just about every call I made, whether it was [for] Central or against Central, I got heat from both coaches,” Robinson said.
Then late in the contest, “I called the foul but I didn’t know who the foul was on, the number of the player and more importantly…I didn’t know if the ball [went] into the basket or didn’t go in,” Robinson said. There wasn’t instant replay then but the scorers’ table helped him out, and the foul stood as called.
“I finally made the motion of a good basket. It appeared like five minutes when it was probably a couple of minutes,” Robinson remembered. In either case, the official became the most hated man in the place: “[Some might have thought] this African American referee doesn’t know what he’s doing,” he added as he survived and completed the game. “That was my first experience of refereeing in the tournament.”
And his place in history was recorded as well.
Working the state tournament “was a great challenge,” and it wasn’t about not being the same skin color of most officials that regularly got such plum assignments, Robinson pointed out. That first year, he was one of only two non-school officials chosen — up to that point the referees were also school teachers or administrators. Robinson for many years was the director of the teen center at the Inner City Youth League in St. Paul.
Also, he later learned that his name came up after being “scouted” by a High School League official to determine whether or not “I was worthy of being a state tournament official,” Robinson said. “I had some mixed feelings against this guy who was selecting officials for the state tournament for years” and the official once “made some disparaging remarks” about him. “I jumped up and got in his face. My friend separated me from him,” Robinson recalled.
A high school athletic director also told Robinson that his name was being discussed in an athletic directors meeting after a St. Louis Park state legislator and the late James Griffin, one of the state’s first Black officials and Robinson’s mentor, “lobbied the legislators [who] wanted to know how come these many years that [the high school league] never had an official of color refereeing in the state tournament,” Robinson said.
He looks back with pride — Blacks today working state tournament games are commonplace. But he easily remembered the time when it wasn’t this way.
“I was the only Black official at the time that was of any noteworthy in the Twin Cities metropolitan area or the State of Minnesota,” Robinson concluded. “I could work every night if I wanted to.”
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Charles Hallman is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org