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PREP HOOPS: Season of moderate change
Elimination of jump ball, handshakes among state guidelines for 2020-21 basketball season
Jimmy Hughes referees basketball, football
Jimmy Hughes, head baseball coach at Alcovy High School, also works with the Northeast Georgia Official Association as a referee for football and basketball. (Special to The Covington News)

COVINGTON, Ga. — The 2020-2021 GHSA basketball season tipped off last Friday, ushering in a new era of high school hoops.

Seniors will aim to close out their prep careers on a high note. Underclassmen will strive to make their marks at the varsity level. Coaches will analyze and strategize in an effort to set their kids up for execution. But one of the biggest storylines followed on the court this year won’t have anything to do with the score. 

Players, coaches and spectators will be glued to the continued search for answers to the question that has been echoed in the months leading up to the season — how will this work?

While league officials are constantly adapting to the challenges presented by playing in the midst of a pandemic, fall sports have had moderate success. 

Last weekend also marked the end of the GHSA football regular season. According to Robin Hines, the GHSA’s executive director, hundreds of prep football teams were able to play their respective campaigns with only a moderate amount of cancellations sprinkled in. He attributed this success to the numerous COVID-19 measures the league put in place to preserve the health and safety of everyone involved.

But fall sports like football and softball have had the advantage of being played outdoors in open space. For winter sports, such as basketball, playing in closed gyms presents a new obstacle.

“We feel good about where things have gone so far, but as it gets colder and we move indoors, that’s certainly cause for concern and we’ll take a close look at things,” Hines said. “Everyone’s going to have to measure the risk-reward factor as they go.”

The GHSA has already taken measures to promote a successful basketball season. Earlier this fall, the league announced a series of rule modifications in response to the pandemic.

Most notably, the opening tip has been eliminated as all jump balls were scratched. Instead, the visiting team will start the game with the first alternating possession for the throw-in. In overtime, initial possession will now be determined by a coin toss.

This alteration will undoubtedly offer a different feel to the start of games. However, officials believe there’s no reason the integrity of the game can’t remain in tact while also promoting safety.

Jimmy Hughes, head baseball coach at Alcovy High School, works with the Northeast Georgia Official Association out of Athens. He recently spoke with The Covington News to offer his perspective on the rule changes as a basketball referee.

“For the most part, basketball is still basketball,” Hughes said. “You’ve still got 10 players on the floor. You’ve still got five people on offense and five people on defense at any given moment.”

Hughes, who had officiated two games under the new protocol at the time of his interview, pointed out other minor tweaks the GHSA set in place in direct response to COVID-19. A few of the most notable modifications are as follows:

• Suspension of pre- and post-game handshakes

• Limiting of bench personnel to observe physical distancing of at least six feet

• Limited seating at the official table

• Continuous sanitation and swapping of balls throughout the game

• Electronic whistles are permissible for officials.

According to the GHSA, these changes are “designed to help decrease potential exposure to respiratory droplets by encouraging physical distancing,” as well as limiting participation and allowing appropriate equipment.

But even to the trained eye, outside of the erasure of the jump ball, the sport isn’t expected to look too much different this winter.

“Other than the little nuances,” Hughes said, “if you were to go into a gym right now in Newton, Rockdale, Oconee or any number of Georgia counties, it still looks like basketball.”

Hughes noted that the flow of the game has appeared uninterrupted in the contests he’s officiated. 

At every timeout and at the end of each period, GHSA officials are instructed to swap the basketball out for a ball that’s been sanitized. Additionally, they must do so if the ball touches anybody not involved in the game — meaning a player, coach or official.

Consequently, one of Hughes’ main causes for concern would be that play would be interrupted to constantly keep a sanitized basketball in play.

But that hasn’t been the case early on.

“If the home team takes a 30-second timeout, what were you [as an official] doing otherwise? Standing there during a timeout?” Hughes said. “So now we get to use that time to change the ball out, and it doesn’t disrupt the flow at all.”

As for his day-to-day routine as an official, Hughes has begun using a whistle guard to protect against his spittle. Other officials have taken similar precautions, using whistle guards or bags or converting to an electronic device.

Additionally, he noted that there’s an increased likelihood officials will come to games this season already dressed in their gear to avoid cramped changing rooms.