For the Love of the Game

Feb. 19, 2011

Big Ten Black History Month Website

By Larry Watts

Whether it’s officiating, her work in the University of Minnesota’s Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence or even her sixth grade boys travel basketball team, recruiting never seems to stop for Crystal Flint.

One of only two black women officials in the Division III Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, the women’s basketball standout sees a big demand for more women of her race to put on the striped shirts as referees on the basketball courts.

“My charge will be to get something going in that area,’’ Flint says. “There are less than five of us officiating high school games in Minnesota.

“I know there’s a stigma attached to officiating because many people don’t like to get yelled at, but it’s all part of the game and you have to have a certain level of tough skin. The fans aren’t necessarily yelling at you, and it takes a different person to filter that because you’re not going to be perfect all the time. These tough economic times should sway some people to check it (officiating) out.’’

The officiating bug bit Flint shortly after her three-year tenure as head basketball coach at Concordia University in St. Paul ended in 2000. She helped transition the team from the NAIA to Division II status in her final season, when the school’s administration decided it was time to place the program under new leadership.

“It was a hard transition for me, going from a player and then assistant coach (two years) at a Division I school to an NAIA school,’’ she says. “I really couldn’t relate to the demands the players had on their lives. These players were not scholarship athletes; many of them had to work in addition to trying to balance their schedule with classes and basketball. At Minnesota, we didn’t have to worry about going to work.

“The recruiting was starting to come along in the final year because partial scholarships were now available and this was the only Division II school in the city. It was probably all more than I was ready for and I was just starting a family, so I was OK with leaving.’’

After Concordia, Flint became an education assistant at an elementary charter school. While at the charter school, she saw a note seeking officials.

“It was volleyball, but I still checked it out,’’ she says. “It turned out that they were also looking for basketball officials. I tried it and immediately fell in love with it.’’
Flint began working at the lowest level in 2002, handling grade school and recreation leagues. From there, she moved up the ladder to high school games and now has worked the Minnesota state finals for three straight years.

“You have to apply to work the state finals,’’ she says. “Then you put your schedule on line, the coaches rank you and people come out to evaluate you.’’

But Flint wanted more than just high school. Her husband, who has been umpiring Division I and II baseball games for 22 years, encouraged her to attend camps and clinics.

“A couple of years ago, I went out to hear (former NBA referee and current supervisor of officials in the WNBA) Dee Kantner speak at a clinic,’’ she says. “After I heard her, I started getting Division III assignments and next year, I hope to start doing Division II and Division I games.

“I think I bring a different aspect to officiating because I have both played and coached the game. I can better filter what a coach or player is really saying instead of taking it personally. Officiating is all about being in the right position and I’m usually in the right position because I have played the game. It all comes down to managing people, having fun and communicating.’’

The 1995 University of Minnesota graduate returned to her alma mater in 2002 with hopes of earning a teaching certificate. However, upon acquiring a job in the school’s admissions department she was soon headed in a different direction.

“My job was to travel around the state and recruit students to the university,’’ she says. “As much as I enjoyed recruiting student-athletes during my two years as an assistant coach, I really loved this because it was much easier to recruit the mainstream student. With the student-athlete, there are only a small number interested, but now I had thousands of students who were interested.

“My target area was Minneapolis-St. Paul, so I was able to stay close to home and didn’t have to live out of a suitcase. It was a lot of fun visiting schools and going to college fairs.’’

But after two years, Flint again wanted more. She moved over to the Multicultural Center, where she became an academic progress associate, specifically working with students on Multicultural Excellence Program scholarships.

“I was building relationships with students I was recruiting, but once they got here I moved on to the next class,’’ she says. “I was meeting some nice, intelligent students who I wanted to still assist and see graduate by navigating them through the university. Now I’m available to lend support through work study, tutoring, workshops and even working through problems with a professor.’’

The Roxbury, Mass., native readily admits her own transition to college life was not an easy one. Had it not been for the fact she blew out both of her knees during her first two seasons and unable to play, she would have been academically ineligible.

“I had always been able to multitask very well,’’ says Flint, who was senior class president, student council president and secretary of the National Honor Society in addition to playing basketball four years at South Boston High School. “But now I had all this freedom and had a tough time dealing with time management. I had never had as much as a sprained ankle before I blew out my knee. I started feeling sorry for myself, stopped going to all my classes and I wasn’t getting work done on time.

“I originally came in as a journalism major, but because of my rough start I knew I wasn’t going to get into the school of journalism. It took two years for me to get the wakeup call. After I tore the ACL in my other knee three games into my second season, I did some real soul-searching. I had to figure out if I was only here for basketball and how important education was for me. Going home without a degree was not an option.’’

It was going to take some time to get out of the hole she dug for herself, but Flint eventually earned a bachelor of arts degree with an emphasis on African-American studies, sociology and women’s studies.

On the court, Flint started earning valuable playing time as a substitute in the 1991-92 season and was named the team’s most improved player. The following year, she moved into the starting lineup and coach Linda Hill-MacDonald’s club posted a 14-12 record, its first winning record since the 1984-85 season. Then as a fifth-year senior in 1993-94, Flint averaged 15 points and seven rebounds per game as the Gophers went 18-11, qualifying for the NCAA Championship for the first time in school history.

“I was a forward in a guard’s body,’’ says the 5-foot-9 Flint. “I didn’t have an outside shot, but I was a slasher and I could jump and run. My athletic ability allowed me to play inside, but I should have been a guard.

“The thing about our team that year was we had experience and everyone knew their roles. Carol Ann Shudlick was our money player, Shannon Loebein was our three-point shooter, Nikki Coates was our point guard and Cara Pearson was our banger. My niche was to play defense consistently and get us some rebounds.’’

Flint spent the following year completing her degree while working as an office assistant in a research department on campus and playing with the semi-pro Minnesota Stars. She also kept in touch with Minnesota basketball by doing radio commentary.

“I was making 50 bucks a game playing with the Stars and I was offered the opportunity to play basketball in Sweden, but I was a little burned out and I didn’t want to go to another country by myself,’’ she says. “Knowing what I know now, I wish I had done it because the WNBA was coming along.’’

With a degree in hand and one year away from any close relationships on the team, Hill-MacDonald asked Flint to come back as an assistant coach.

“I had to change my mind-set from wanting to participate in all the drills to helping in a different way,’’ she says. “It opened my eyes a lot to being organized and I had a lot of fun.

“Recruiting and watching game film were my favorite parts of the job. My forte was not gameday X’s and O’s; I was more into preparation.’’

After two seasons, Cheryl Littlejohn, who brought in her own staff, replaced Hill-MacDonald. Littlejohn did offer Flint another position.

“The workload on the job Littlejohn offered me would have kept me from pursuing my master’s degree (in public administration) and I had also applied for the head coaching position at Concordia,’’ she says. “I took the job at Concordia and still have not earned my master’s degree, which is something I plan to do in the near future.’’

After three seasons at Concordia, Flint, who has two sons (ages 11 and 7), has found success coaching her oldest son’s traveling team. She coached the fifth graders to three state titles.

“You see, I wasn’t all that bad and I can coach,’’ Flint says with a laugh. “And I even got a championship ring, the first ring I have ever received from basketball!

“Basketball has always been such a big part of life and I enjoy sharing it with others. I just decided I have spent so much time helping other people’s children play basketball that it was time to help my own.’’