Peter Webb has been a caretaker of high school basketball in Maine for generations, from his playing days at Houlton High School and Ricker College to his 55 years as a certified official.
He also has been the state’s commissioner of basketball for the last quarter-century and his oversight of high school basketball officials often has made him a lightning rod for criticism whenever a particular ruling shapes the outcome of a certain game.
While Webb’s basketball attention has had a Maine focus, his influence on the rules of the game and their enforcement has been global and substantial.
When Webb retires on June 30 from a 17-year tenure as coordinator of rules interpreters for the world’s largest basketball officials organization, the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials, he will be replaced by four people.
“I was mildly interested in the opening, but when I saw the job description (for one person to replace Webb) I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’” said Jeff Jewett, a veteran high school and college official and former rules interpreter in central Maine who now lives near Tuscon, Arizona, where he has organized an IAABO chapter.
“People don’t understand what Peter has actually done. I don’t know all that Peter does as commissioner in Maine, but that job is big enough so when I saw that job description of the international interpreters’ coordinator position I couldn’t imagine one person doing that.”
Webb’s IAABO duties have included clarifying rules and game situations — Webb’s “Ask the Interpreter” icon may be found on the IAABO’s website home page — along with editing its officials manual and directing various officiating camps and seminars held around the U.S., Canada and Europe.
Webb also served two, four-year terms on the basketball rules committee of the National Federation of State High School Associations and remains a resource person/historian for that panel.
“I honestly believe Peter is the most knowledgeable person in the history of basketball officiating, as to what officials should do and as to the rules of the game,” said Ray McClure, a longtime official from Woodstock, Georgia.
McClure refereed NCAA Division I men’s basketball for 20 years, is the rules interpreter for the American Basketball Association and serves on IAABO executive committee.
The Webb, 79, plans to serve out at least the final two years of his three-year term as Maine basketball commissioner but sees retirement from his IAABO post as a chance to reduce his travel demands and job responsibilities.
“The more you do it and the more proficient you become at it the more you like to take on challenges,” Webb said.
“I still enjoy it and feel that I’m still up to it, but I guess I’m thinking it’s time.”
Webb has focused his energies on emphasizing the game and its rules above the individuals who play, coach and officiate it — particularly at the high school level.
“The high school rules today basically haven’t changed, other than the 3-point line, in the past 40 years,” he said. “The training of officials has truly advanced. The training, the officiating manual and more recently technology have helped as we’ve taught professionalism, and we’ve taught officials that high school sports truly are played with the prime purpose of teaching life lessons through participation in sports.
“The official is an extension of the school day. He or she is the expert in what they do and bringing that to the game.”
Those who have worked with Webb outside Maine acknowledge the consistency within his message. Fellow interpreters from throughout the 38 states and 11 other countries represented by IAABO recently recognized his contributions during the organization’s spring meeting in Connecticut.
“Peter has probably been the best friend basketball has ever had because he will not compromise,” McClure said. “He will not give in to some style or some substitute for rules enforcement. He just won’t do it and he’s taught me to do the same thing and honor the game by enforcing the rules and doing so with the same level of on-court performance.”
Webb said one challenge for how modern high school basketball officiating is perceived by players, coaches and fans involves the myriad levels of the game. They include college men’s and women’s basketball, the NBA, the WNBA and international basketball as governed by FIBA.
“Some levels of basketball are played for the prime purpose of entertainment and there’s nothing wrong with that,” he said.
Webb said disapproval with a call often may arise from confusion between different rules for different levels of the game.
“Most of us, whether we’re 3 years old or 92 years old, whether it’s in the back yard or in physical education class, have shot the ball,” he said. “Everybody’s been around basketball so we all know about basketball in a layperson’s way, but we don’t understand the intricacies of the rules.
“There are a lot of situations in basketball that look attractive and smooth and athletic that are illegal. Then there are some homely, ugly, strange happenings that to the layperson look wrong or not pretty or unattractive that are legal.”
Differentiating what’s legal or illegal is most important to Webb. That and the professionalism involved in applying basketball rules on the court.
“The thing with Peter is that he doesn’t care about the winning and losing and doing the popular thing,” Jewett said. “His whole thing is the game of high school basketball and its history. I know a lot of his biggest frustrations are with the NCAA and NBA and the other levels where it’s played more for entertainment.
“Peter keeps saying that high school basketball is an educational process. He has kept us as an organization on the straight and narrow with that purpose and he’s had to fight some pretty big battles to keep it in that perspective.”
Such battles are waged on a wide range of topics from the application of signals by officials to the language of the sport.
“He sometimes gets kidded because he’s such a stickler for the terminology,” Jewett said. “With Peter it’s the lane, it’s not the paint; it’s a backboard, it’s not the glass; it’s an end line, it’s not the baseline. People at meetings kid with him and say it’s not that big a deal, but he continues to fight that.”
Webb leaves his IAABO post with the belief that high school basketball officiating has remained true to the mission of the sport and that there are more high-quality practitioners of that profession than ever.
“I hope that the professionalism of officials and officiating has improved,” Webb said. “I believe the level of mastery of the rules and the mechanics and signals has extensively improved, especially when you think of the depth we have and not just the officials at the top of the heap.
“The thing we’ve done — and my role has been a part of it, although I don’t claim to be the answer to it all — is to spread the gospel of consistency so that it’s pretty much the same in Maine as it is in Pennsylvania or New Jersey or Colorado. That’s been a major accomplishment over the last three decades.”
Many within the IAABO hierarchy believe a rules stickler from the relative basketball outpost of Maine has had a lot to do with that progress.
“Peter’s the hardest-working guy I’ve ever been around when it comes to training basketball officials,” McClure said. “I’ve learned lessons from him that I can’t even put into words.
“He’s instilled in us to do things the right way.”