I try very hard not to criticize sports officials, realizing how difficult it is to do their job. I'm not going to start now, although I am going to use the Casa Grande High School-Ukiah boys basketball game to illustrate just how tough a task officials, and especially basketball officials face, and to point out how their decisions can affect the outcome of the game.

Here are the facts, without making any judgments.

Ukiah won the game. 63-53, after overcoming a 14-point Casa Grande third-quarter lead in the Casa Grande gym. Ukiah shot 28 free throws, making 22, to five for the Gauchos, who made just three. The game was decided with just under four minutes to play when a Casa Grande player was called for a foul in a scramble for a loose ball. The game was tied at 49-49 when the decision was made. Ukiah, to its credit, converted all four of the offered free throws, was awarded the ball and promptly nailed a 3-pointer. It was a seven-point swing in less than 20 seconds and it decided the game.

I make no judgment on the correctness of any of the calls. My favorite spot in the Coach Ed Iacopi Gymnasium is high up in the right corner of the western bleachers. It gives me a good view of the overall court and usually allows me to stretch out a bit if the game goes long. From there, of course, I can't see what the officials see up close and personal on the court.

I will say this, when one team shoots 23 more free throws than the other and gets four free throws in a row followed by ball possession, it does affect the outcome of the game. In other sports, such as baseball, football or volleyball, one call can change a game, but only in basketball are officials such a major part of the game. In reality, there are always three teams on the court — the five-person home team, the five-person visiting team and the two, sometimes three-person, officials team. From what I can tell, the result of the game is often pretty much equal between the three.

The best officials are those who aren't afraid to make the right call, even if it is the unpopular call; aren't afraid to ask for help when they don't know and, perhaps most importantly, don't make themselves more important than the game.

In sports like football and baseball, the best officials (umpires in baseball and softball) are those you don't even notice until you shake their hands for a job well done at the end of the game. The best official in the world is John (or Jane) Doe.

Of course, that is impossible in basketball where every call can be controversial and every call is subjective. Officials have to decide how much contact to allow, whether or not to allow defenders to put their hands on ball handlers, whether a player is pushing or just jostling for position underneath a basket, whether to allow a little leeway on traveling calls or to use a strict interpretation of what it means to carry the ball. These and hundreds of other decisions have to be made while emotionally charged young men and women are racing full tilt from one end of the court to the other. It isn't an easy job.

And, officials are human. They make mistakes and they have off nights, but they do a tough job that must be done.

I admit I was perturbed (that is a very polite way of saying what I really felt) at the end of the Casa-Ukiah game, but after a little rational reflection, it seems to me that officials in any sport do the best they can under difficult circumstances.

Officials do a difficult and important job and while we may occasionally yelp or yell about a particular call or calls, at the end of the night, they deserve our sincere appreciation.

(Contact John Jackson at johnie.jackson@arguscourier.com)