SYCAMORE – Denny Heins’ knees were talking to him.
They told him it was time to quit officiating high school games after 50 years, even though he’s not ready to give up the only constant of his adult life. They told him that after pounding hard courts for most of his 76 years, they can’t take the constant bone-on-bone grinding, night after night, even though his mind still is sharp and the rest of his body is willing and able to keep going.
“I don’t like it,” the 76-year-old said shortly after he refereed his last high school game Thursday night, a sophomore girls basketball game at Sycamore. “But I know it’s time.”
In all other respect, Heins is in wonderful shape for a man in his mid-70s. His eyes still are able to see behind a pair of glasses that extend from his brow to his cheekbone, which spectators, no doubt, have told him to replace more than a few times. The legs and arms that carried him to fifth place in the decathlon in an Armed Services track meet in Los Angeles during his days in the Air Force still are able to carry him down the floor with a slight spring in his step.
The only visible evidence of his age are his wrinkled skin and his white hair, which forms a ring around his head and a small tuft in the middle.
But at night, when his knees ache so much that he tosses and turns throughout his four-or-so hours of sleep, he realizes his body never would forgive him if he continues to punish it.
“God has blessed me with no other physical defects other than my body is just wearing out,” said Heins, a Malta native and former point guard who only stopped playing recreational basketball three years ago.
Throughout his adult life, Heins has been in the Air Force, he’s been an inventory clerk, an RC Cola salesman, a part-time janitor and he’s been unemployed. He’s worked at campgrounds in Michigan and Illinois, a golf course, at Northern Illinois University and a mental health center. He’s been married twice and had two kids 20 years apart, both of whom are basketball referees.
Throughout that time, basketball officiating has been the only constant in the Heins’ life.
“You might have a rough day at work, but then you can go out and referee and you might have something exciting happen, and you can watch some good players play ball,” Heins said. “It takes your mind off of the troubles that you might have had at work. There’s always a constant that you love the game of basketball. You go out and do the best job you can do and it takes your mind off of any problems you might have.”
Friends have a hard time believing Heins really is retiring. His daughter, Molly, had always assumed he’d officiate until he died and was shocked when her brother, Jeff, who lives in Colorado, broke the news to her. Soon after they heard, Jeff and Molly began planning a surprise for their father.
Heins planned on the Sycamore-DeKalb girls game at the Convocation Center on Jan. 25 being his grand finale, with a few smaller games thereafter being afterthoughts. But Jeff and Molly had other ideas.
The day after the Sycamore-DeKalb game, Denny and Molly were to ref a girls varsity game at Streator. Molly had worked with the school, the state and the referee assigners to certify Jeff as a referee in Illinois, assign him to the game in Streator while keeping it a secret from Denny.
About 15 minutes before tip-off, Jeff, who had flown in from Colorado unbeknownst to Denny, walked into the locker room.
“Need a third?” Jeff said.
“I lost it,” Denny said almost a week later with tears in his eyes.
Officials rarely are the center of attention, especially in a positive light. But when Denny and his two children walked out onto the court, about 45 friends and family members stood up and cheered. As he stood at center court during a short announcement about his career, he began to cry, and he turned away from the crowd. Then Jeff began to cry. Then tears began forming in Molly’s eyes, and they all stood with their backs to the crowd.
Aside from a short ovation the night before, this was the first time Denny had been applauded in 50 years.
At the end of the game, he was so choked up, he couldn’t blow his whistle to end the game.
“Because it was the end of the game, he couldn’t do it,” Jeff said. “I could tell it was catching up with him. Our three-person game was done, and I think that hit him. He just realized that, ‘Oh, the game is done. No more blowing whistles.’ ”
After the game ended, his Facebook page read: “Dreams really do come true.”
Thursday’s game was more typical. Aside from an argument over a box-out-turned-foul, the game was bereft of controversy. No one stood and applauded him, although he did chat with a few old friends. There was no announcement before or after the contest about his career. He entered the court and left in relative anonymity.
The final game of Heins’ career was nothing special. But then again, he didn’t get into officiating for accolades or applause.
“It’s about helping the kids mature, learning how to win, learning how to lose,” Heins said. “Everything doesn’t go the exact way you want to go all the time. The kids learn, and you’re there to help them grow up. Sometimes you get penalized, even when you don’t think you deserve it. ... Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose because the referee didn’t see it the way you saw it. You learn to live with that.”