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Omaha Stripes

Sep 22, 2023 04:21PM ● By Greg Echlin
omaha stripes october 2023 sports

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

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A long way from their Nebraska roots, John Higgins and Kipp Kissinger found themselves in Houston last April among a pool of eleven basketball referees, chosen by merit to work the NCAA Men’s Final Four. It’s the dream of close to 900 Division I officials who literally log miles hustling up and down basketball courts through the course of a season.

They didn’t find out until the day of the Saturday doubleheader that they’d be working together in the first national semifinal between San Diego State University and Florida Atlantic University. Not since 2004 had two officials from the same city limits (Randy McCall and Verne Harris of Denver) teamed up as part of a three-ref crew in a Men’s Final Four contest.

Both Higgins and Kissinger had previous Men’s Final Four experience, but never in the same game.

“We had talked about it offline, ‘Hey, wouldn’t that be neat if we worked a game together?’” said Kissinger who lives in Gretna and works full-time with an insurance broker in LaVista. “Certainly we were both hoping for it, but until they actually read the assignments at our meeting that morning, we had no idea. It was an incredible feeling that we were going to take the court that night together.”

For John Higgins, teaming up with Kissinger for arguably the crowning event of college sports went beyond the pride of officiating in his ninth Final Four and the satisfaction of seeing Kissinger, whom he considers a good friend, work his second.

“That gave me goose bumps,” said Higgins, an Omaha resident who owns a local roofing company. “That was fun, especially when I helped Kipp get into high school [officiating] and then college.”

As a guard from 1994 to ’98 at Nebraska Wesleyan University, an NCAA Division III school, Kissinger first encountered Higgins during summer ball in Omaha 25 years ago when both kept themselves in shape. It was the first time Kissinger was put in his place by Higgins, whose assignments by then as a Division I ref had been well-established in the Missouri Valley and Big 12 conferences.

“If I didn’t feel like he called a foul, I let him know about it and he went right back at me,” said Kissinger with a laugh. “It was my first interaction with John’s personality, who he was, and I immediately gained a lot of respect because he did it the right way. In interacting with me, he let me know that there’s a definite line on how you interact with referees.”

Unbeknownst to Kissinger, Higgins was also sizing him up as a potential referee knowing that the former’s playing days at NWU were over. 

“I knew I wasn’t going to play professionally,” said Kissinger, a graduate of Sandy Creek High School in Fairfield. “I love the game of basketball. It’s been a huge part of my entire life.”

Through officiating, Kissinger remains connected to the game he loves. Still, he knew he also had to work at it and develop a thick skin to ignore the unprintables yelled from the stands. 

“Obviously I had to do my job of calling plays and getting plays right, but there’s so much more to it,” Kissinger noted. “John has helped me so much over the [last] 25 years.”

It’s now up to Kissinger, who earned his first Final Four assignment in 2018, to carry on the lessons learned from Higgins; the Final Four semi they worked last season ended up being their last time sharing floor space. 

Higgins had no idea at the time, but was later offered and accepted a job as a supervisor for college basketball officials on the West Coast. Though it might create the impression of constant late-night flights to Los Angeles or other coastal destinations, Higgins will actually be spending more nights this season at home in Omaha.

“I can travel when I need to travel. I can stay home when I need to stay home, so that’ll be fun and that’ll be good,” said Higgins who plans to have multiple games going simultaneously while watching at home.

In retrospect, the dramatic finish to the game they worked—a game-winning jumper by SDSU’s Lamont Butler before the final buzzer—will be etched in time as one of their most memorable. 

Besides the pandemonium that followed the game’s outcome, the best thing about it from the refs’ view? No one left griping about the officials. 

“That’s your ultimate goal: They’re not talking about you,” Higgins said.

From jumping on one plane to another, arriving at the next arena the following night, Higgins has missed plenty of family events over the years. But these days, he’s enjoying it more around Omaha, the city he loves. 

Still, Higgins professes his passion for the game and finds it strange not to be taking the floor. 

“It’ll be different, but I was getting close to the end anyway,” said Higgins, now 62.

At the same time, an opportunity awaits Kissinger—perhaps, to mentor the next Omaha native to partner up with at a future Men’s Final Four. 

This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, 
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