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Referee reflects on his first chance to finally work the Final Four

Mike Roberts called his first Final Four this year. Trevor Brown Jr. / NCAA Photos

After more than two decades refereeing Division I basketball games — and icing achy knees and hips, and bounding through a blur of airports, arenas and hotels — Mike Roberts finally earned his profession’s ultimate reward: the chance to call a Final Four.

Roberts, the subject of the Spring 2014 Champion feature, “Earning the Call,” worked the national semifinal game between Michigan and Loyola Chicago this spring in front of more than 68,000 fans in San Antonio (and 13 million more watching from home). It was the crowning achievement of the former Ohio detective’s second career. “It was everything I thought it would be,” Roberts says.

During the 2014 tournament, Roberts permitted a Champion reporter and cameraman to shadow him through three high-stakes NCAA tournament games as he survived and advanced through March alongside the teams. He performed well enough to be named the standby referee at the Final Four that year, happy to assume that role’s vital responsibilities on the sideline, but left yearning for a chance to step on the court.

This year, though, he finally garnered a place on the sport’s biggest stage, an honor that his peers told him was long overdue. He has worked a slew of important NCAA tournament, Atlantic Coast Conference and Big East Conference games, so no butterflies crept in before tipoff. Still, Roberts permitted himself a few moments to soak in his surroundings. “It really took your breath away,” he says.

The Final Four game proved to be more inspiration than culmination. He relished the experience and hopes to return as many times as he can, much like his close friend, Michael Stephens, who has now worked six Final Fours. To get there, the 54-year-old Roberts will cut back on his demanding slate of regular-season games (he plans to work no more than 65) to provide his body more time to recover, ensuring he’s fresh in March and April. He is even forgoing a usual summer vacation to work himself into game shape before the forthcoming season. 

Retirement may soon beckon, he admits, but not before he tries to climb the same mountain again, aspiring to be among the 10 from a pool of hundreds who earn that coveted call.

“Whenever you get the call, any of us will tell you, you’re just happy to have one more game,” he says. “I know at some point, I’m not going to be there … but I’m not there yet.”

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Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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