For one last time on a Thursday night in Janaury, Nick Lave took the court to do what he has done for 41 years as a basketball official in Colorado. He wanted to make the playing field level and let the kids decide the outcome of the game.
Lave headed the crew that officiated a game between the top-ranked teams in Class 5A and 4A. Lewis-Palmer beat Chaparral 71-59 in the game, but each team will move on to play another day.
At the end of the night, Lave took off his officials shirt for the last time as he has decided to retire as a referee. And there's going to be plenty about the job that he'll miss.
“The excitement of going out and having to do your best and give 100 percent to what you do, be the best that you can be and let the players decide what’s going to happen," Lave said. "Not a call and not you.”
His résumé isn't short of accomplishments. On top of his work as a high school basketball official in Colorado, he has worked as a football official in the Big 12 conference. At times, he has even worked at the side of CHSAA associate commissioner Tom Robinson.
But he never big-timed his colleagues or the kids and that's what made him a special individual to his peers.
“He’s an official," fellow Colorado Springs official and Cheyenne Mountain golf coach John Carricato said. "Every game is important to him. He came back and worked last night’s game and that was just as important to him as that Peach Bowl game was in late December.”
Lave was on the field as Florida beat Michigan 41-15. He's also retiring from the college football ranks.
Prior to tip-off at Lewis-Palmer on Thursday he was acknowledged for his career which included eight state championship games that he worked. But it won't be his ability to get to the big games that will be missed the most. Carricato is among those that sees the loss of a mentor and a good man to have on the court.
“I worked a game with him in late December and we were with a young official who is trying to climb the officiating ranks here in Colorado," Carricato said. "Nick took the time to talk with him and give him ways to improve and grow. I learned a lot just from listening to him that night. We’re not just losing a great official, but we’re going to miss that leadership.”
For a man on his way out the door with his work, he treated that young official just as he would have several years ago. Lave knows the importance of raising up a new generation of referees and helping them understand the importance of his primary goal, making the game fair. He's always more than willing to pass on advice for those looking to not just get into officiating, but get better.
“Be patient and put your heart into it," Lave said. "The game has changed tremendously from when I started. It was a two-person game and there was more of a buy-in. You have to have thick skin. There are going to be some critical evaluations, but you have to understand how to take that and take the positives and better your game management and game performance.”
It's not just his fellow referees who will miss him on the floor. His time and effort within the sport gave him a level of respect among the high school basketball coaches. As a veteran official, he'd be the first to say he didn't get every call right, but it was his willingness to have a discussion with coaches that made him an ideal official to have for any game.
“When Nick walked into a gym, I knew that was one thing off my plate to worry about," Coronado coach David Thomas said. "He was so approachable and so willing to have a conversation with you. From a coach’s perspective you don’t always get that.”
Even the conversations weren't always calm, Lave was prepared to have them. Since 1978, he has listened to plenty of criticisms of his work, both from the sidelines and the bench. Some he ignored, some he dealt with and there were certainly times where he even had a little fun with it.
“There are a lot of things that would make me laugh," Lave said. "Years ago, Dan McKiernan would have one-liners that would just grab your attention and make you chuckle. He would say something to grab my attention away from what I was trying to focus on and turn to him.”
Those interactions are part of what Lave will miss about his time on the court. But he feels it's his time to move on.
Perhaps the biggest personal victory for him is that when he laced up his shoes for the final time on Thursday night, he was doing it for the same reason as he did when he laced up for his first game 41 years ago.
"It’s not to give a team a hometown advantage or a screw job," Lave said. "I’ve never been involved with stuff like that. When I first got into officiating it was for the love of the sport and the love of the game and to have that feeling that I can make it a fair situation.”
A Colorado native, Dan Mohrmann has been involved in the Colorado media scene since his early days as a writer for CU's The Campus Press. He spent time on staff at Mile High Sports and has made freelance stops at several other outlets along the way.