On court, in office, The Mayor always makes the right call
Dec 11, 2014
By Larry Kelly
Special to The News
“You have to have enough courage to make the tough call and enough confidence in your ability to do it.”
Whether he is officiating the PIAA basketball final or serving as Mayor of Ellwood City Borough, that is the mindset that has distinguished Tony Court as a basketball official and a politician.
Court, 57, is a lifelong resident of Ellwood City. He earned induction in the Lawrence County Historical Society Sports Hall of fame in 2008 for his excellence as a baseball and softball player. In 2012, he was inducted into the Pittsburgh Roundball Club Hall of Fame as an official. In 2014, the Pennsylvania State Borough Association named him Mayor of the Year.
I’ve been coaching basketball at all levels for almost 20 years and I don’t know any other official who serves as the Mayor of his community. It seems like it would make for odd bedfellows — but Court says no.
“Being an official has actually prepared me for being Mayor,” said Court, who also served four years on Ellwood City Borough Council and as Council President for three years.
“As an official and as Mayor you are called upon to deal with different kinds of people on a daily basis. Whether it’s officiating or politics, if you work hard to make the proper call, then most people will respect your decision.
“I have a great relationship with most people that I work with whether they are coaches or council members. It is a mutual respect built over years of working together that gives me the latitude to miss a call on occasion. I don’t get them all right, but it’s not for a lack of effort.”
Court gets most of the calls right. That’s why he has been selected to officiate 10 WPIAL finals; 12 PIAA Western finals and two PIAA finals. He also has been named 2009 Man of the Year by the Pa. State Borough Association and received the 2010 District Service Award by the Ellwood City Chamber of Commerce.
Court’s officiating career started when his friend Ed Yerage thought he had the “tools” to be a good basketball official. “Ed and I worked together as a two-man crew for three years and I learned a lot from him, “ Court said.
Former WPIAL executive director Charles “Ace” Heberling also was instrumental in Court’s assent to the top of his profession as an official.
“Ace took an interest in me,” Court said. “He always told me that you need to look the part before you can be the part. He had confidence in my ability and was the first to assign me to big games.”
When asked what makes a good official, Court was quick to respond. “Every official knows the rules of the game. The good official knows how to apply the rules. You don’t need to blow the whistle every time there is contact. Make the call only when the contact gives an advantage to one team or the other.”
Court said that the toughest call he has had to make in his 30-year career as an official came in a WPIAL semifinal game a few years back between Center and New Brighton. It was a charge/block call in overtime that he had to make. “It was a tough call,” he said. New Brighton ended up winning by two points in overtime. But the good officials can’t disappear in the last five minutes of the game.”
As Mayor of Ellwood City, his toughest call involved a request to remove the nativity scene from City Hall that was made by the Wisconsin group Freedom from Religion. Just as he has done as an official, he stood his ground and made the call to keep the nativity scene on the premises in the face of the threat of legal action and a national protest.
His advice to a young official is simple: “Use your common sense. Make the obvious calls. Don’t go looking for things. Don’t let the power of the whistle go to your head.”
His advice to a young politician is similar: “Keep personal agendas out of the job. Always put the community first.”
In addition to his high school schedule, Court also works college games at the Division II and Division III levels. Notwithstanding his success, he does not have any interest in officiating at the Division I level. “I had a chance several years ago to show my stuff at some D-I camps,” he said. “But my flight got cancelled and I couldn’t get to the camp. In retrospect, it was a blessing in disguise. All the travel and that lifestyle are not who I am. I like being Mayor. It gives me the opportunity to help the people in my community. In fact, the only thing that I don’t like about the job is that sometimes I can’t help the people that I represent because the problem is out of my hands.”
Court said that whether it’s politics or officiating, “I don’t care who wins as long as I work hard and get in position to make the right call.
“I’ve made calls against Farrell on their home court with 1,500 people in the stands yelling at me. So I can take it when a few people in the political arena think that I didn’t make the right decision.”
That’s why Tony Court is Mayor and gets assigned to the biggest games.
(Larry Kelly is a former sportswriter at The News and a partner in the law firm of Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly and George. He is an occasional contributor to The News sports pages).