MISSOULA, Mont. -- As a commercial airplane flew overhead on a recent Sunday afternoon, Byrne Haskins looked skyward from the golf course, and thought to himself, "That would've been me.''
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Haskins' 30-year career as a Big Sky Conference men's basketball official ended last month in Missoula, Mont.
He threw the ball in the air when the Montana Grizzlies battle dMontana Tech in a non-conference game. He ran up and down the court a couple of times, maybe called one last foul. There was a ceremony, and then he and his beloved wife Jill, who he affectionately refers to as "Queenie" hopped in the car and headed home to Kirkland.
"It's not the way I wanted to go out,'' Haskins said. "It's a proud way to go out. I just wanted to send an e-mail, say thank you, and that would have been it.''
But others felt differently. Those like long-time friend Jerry Streeter, Big Sky Conference coordinator of basketball officials Marla Denham and league Commissioner Doug Fullerton felt Haskins deserved more.
Especially after so many years of loyal service, and after watching the veteran referee battle through knee surgery, prostate cancer, double hernia surgery and two open-heart surgeries all in the last five years.
"Byrne has been a loyal and hard-working official for us for 30 years, which is amazing when you think about it,'' said Fullerton. "We just want to say thank you in some small way for Byrne's dedication to the conference.''
"Officiating 30 years at the Division I level is truly a milestone that most officials can only dream of,'' Denham said. "Byrne has made it a reality. His passion, loyalty and love for the game will be greatly missed, but Byrne's example both on an off the court will leave a long-lasting legacy for all of us to emulate.''
Officiating was never a goal for Haskins, who has spent the last 29 years working at the Hanford Nuclear Site on the banks of the Columbia River. An old friend, the late Orv Marcum, got the ball rolling when he "told" Haskins he was going to referee a summer tournament in Washington.
"I had always been interested in sports, but I had never thought of becoming an official,'' Haskins said. "I was very close to Orv, and he's the one who got me into it. It came easy for me, and one thing led to another. It's become a big part of our lives since 1974.''
Haskins worked his first Big Sky game in 1980. He also spent 24 seasons in the West Coast Conference, 10 in the Big West, six in the Mountain West and Western Athletic Conferences, and two in the Pac-10. His resume includes numerous conference tournament games, NCAA women's tournament contests, as well as men's NIT and NCAA Division II games.
"The Big Sky Conference enabled me to experience all of that,'' Haskins said. "It was a privilege the Big Sky afforded me. It's something I love doing.''
It was that love that motivated him when it would have been easy to quit.
First it was the knee surgery, followed by the diagnosis of cancer.
Then, there was that night in Missoula in February of 2009.
Haskins was working a key Big Sky game between Montana and Weber State. He said he didn't feel right before the game, but thought it might've been something he ate.
"I just felt really weird,'' he said. "I was dizzy and short of breath. I went up and down the court a few times and I knew something was wrong. I ended up on the floor and two doctors came over. They got me upstairs to the locker room and (Montana athletic trainer Dennis Murphy) convinced me to go to the hospital."
He didn't have a heart attack or stroke, but upon returning home to Richland underwent more tests. An aortic valve wasn't working. He was a ticking-time bomb. Twice in the hospital, his heart stopped. He ended up in and out of coma for 18 days.
The likes of former Idaho and Oregon coach Don Monson, and current Boise State coach and former Gonzaga assistant Leon Rice came to visit.
"The doctor told me that he had seen some determined people, and he'd done surgery all over the world,'' Haskins said. "But he thought I was one of the physically and mentally toughest individuals. I thought, to myself, 'This is a hell of a way to find that out.' "
Haskins returned to the floor the following season, but heart troubles landed him in the hospital again this past March. The replacement valve didn't fit. The doctors told him he had heart arrhythmia, inserted a pacemaker, and told him he'd be good to go.
"No, this has got to stop,'' he said. "I'm done paying for Cadillacs for doctors. I don't have what it takes any more. I can't give the kids what the kids put in the game. I can't give the coaches what they put in the game. If you can't do that, you don't belong. I don't belong out there. It's time.''
But what a ride it's been. There are millions of stories and memories: Like the time he inadvertently blurted out, 'our ball' in front of the opposing coach during a JC game. There was the incident at Pepperdine when he got knocked out after hitting his head on the floor as he tripped over coach Jan van Breda Kolff.
Haskins said he always prided himself on his ability to communicate with coaches, a quality that is a must for great officials.
"I want them to respect me the way I respect them,'' Haskins said. "Our job is to give them a fair game. I always told them, 'just don't ever accuse me of cheating'.''
"We always enjoyed having Byrne at home and not on the road -- he liked the cheering, too,'' said current New Mexico State assistant and long-time Montana State coach Mick Durham. "Seriously, he was a great communicator with the coaches and would admit if he missed a call. I always told him 'thanks but that doesn't do us any good since we can't reverse it.' I will miss not seeing him this year. I congratulate him and thank him for all the years.''
Haskins said he has spent several nights fretting about the calls he missed and was always very critical of his performance.
He estimates having officiated between 1,000 and 1,500 games, but admits he's never called a perfect game.
"I've walked off the court knowing I called a good game,'' he said. "The feeling you have walking off the floor after giving the kids a fair game, well you can't explain it. It's a feeling that's just unreal. It's like hitting that perfect tee shot.''