Peter Webb’s connections with the high school basketball tournaments span more than six decades.
As a youngster, the Houlton native would go to the high school gym in his hometown known as “the Castle” or to Presque Isle to watch small-school teams from throughout Aroostook County battle through regional play to qualify for the Eastern Maine tournaments in Classes M and S.
“I’d be in Houlton and teams like Sherman, Island Falls, Bridgwater and Hodgdon would be playing, and two of them would go, and then up in Presque Isle there were the Mapletons and Eastons, and two of them would go,” said Webb, now 80 and in his final year as Maine’s basketball commissioner.
“It was fun to watch those games, and of course those teams had a lot of great players. That was back when [Boston Celtics legend] Bob Cousy came up to Bridgewater and spoke at their banquet.”
Webb’s own playing experience earned him and his team the chance to play in the first Eastern Maine Class L tournament to be played at the “new” Bangor Auditorium in 1956, his senior year at Houlton High School.
“Of course every game was always full,” Webb said of the sold-out crowds for those tournaments, which were contested on three consecutive days.
Sixth-seeded Houlton upended No. 3 Old Town 59-44 in the quarterfinals before bowing to No. 2 Stearns of Millinocket 67-45 in the semifinals.
Houlton went on to play Rockland in a consolation game that year in what likely was the first game ever played in Maine with a shot clock — just one year after the NBA had begun using a 24-second clock for its games.
“Why and how and what the connection was I don’t know, but they brought the 24-second clock from Boston Garden up for that game and we played with it,” Webb said.
“It didn’t go off once.”
Webb has only one regret about his own tournament playing experience.
“I was a good ballplayer, and I had red hair so I was noticed, and I’ll never forget after my game walking up the bleachers to watch the next game,” he said. “We had our letter jackets on, and this little fellow came up to me and wanted an autograph, and I ignored it.
“I’m sure he doesn’t lose sleep over it today, but it was one of the things I’ve regretted in my life.”
Webb went on to play sports at Ricker College in Houlton before embarking on a career in education, and he joined the officiating ranks during the 1961-62 season.
Three years later, he qualified to officiate his first high school tournament and worked his first game at the Brewer Auditorium where some of the small-school contests of the time were played.
“Becoming a official was like I had made the Red Sox,” Webb said. “It was a big, big thing to make the tournament.”
Not only was the tournament the place for officials to be rewarded for their work during the regular season, it often was where they would gain assignments for the following year in the days before there was an assigner.
“At tournament time back then, a lot of the athletic directors were in the back corridors trying to line up officials for the next season,” Webb said. “They’d ask you about the dates they had open and you’d take them if you could, but short of being sick upon sick, if you turned a date back that next season, you might not hear from that AD again.”
Webb went on to have a storied career as an umpire in softball and baseball — his favorite sport — and as a basketball official.
He worked more than 1,500 varsity basketball games over five decades and served as Maine’s assistant basketball commissioner for 13 years before being promoted to his current post, where he has served for more than a quarter century.
Webb also became a prominent contributor to the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials as a longtime member of that organization’s executive committee — a run highlighted by a term as IAABO president in 2002.
Webb has witnessed numerous changes in the game over the years, from the coaching box to the 3-point shot to the effect of the southward migration of the state’s population.
When Webb played there were seven Class L (now A or AA) schools in Aroostook County alone: Caribou, Fort Fairfield, Fort Kent, Houlton, Limestone, Madawaska and Presque Isle. Today there are none, with just two Class B schools left in The County in Caribou and Presque Isle.
But to Webb, the biggest change in the Maine high school basketball tournament scene was the addition of the girls tournament by Heal Points during the mid-1970s. The first Eastern Maine girls tourney was held at Husson University in Bangor and at the Brewer Auditorium in 1975, with the event joining the boys tourney at the Bangor Auditorium in 1980, Webb said.
“It wasn’t long after Title IX came along in 1972,” said Webb, a 2015 inductee into the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame. “Having the girls tournament was a giant thing, a big thing for basketball in the state.”
And while the new Bangor Auditorium was replaced by the Cross Insurance Center in 2013, the atmosphere within the “Mecca” remains one of Webb’s overriding memories at tournament time.
“For coaches who have been around, players who played there, officials who worked the games, the Bangor Auditorium was the place,” he said. “You hear people say that they’d walk in there and shivers would go up their spine whether you were playing or a fan.
“It was also the best-lighted place I’ve ever been in for basketball, and the sounds … it was made for that.”
While continued changes are inevitable — most recently the expansion from four to five classes — Webb says visits to observe games and tournaments in other states through his IAABO work have reinforced his belief that Maine high school basketball remains on solid footing.
“I was just down to Machias a week ago to watch Machias and Woodland play and it was packed,” Webb said. “In some ways their rivalry is as big as it is anywhere, but everyone was well behaved and it was a great atmosphere.
“Our high school boys and girls basketball doesn’t take a back seat to any of those other states, and neither does our officiating.”