MANSFIELD -- Russ Pitts got his first real taste of sports officiating when his older sister called him on the phone. He couldn't say no to his sister.
"When I was a freshman at Wheeling (W.Va.) High School, I played basketball and they used players during gym class to officiate intramural games. That way we didn't have to take gym because we had a game that night.
"The athletic director called the freshman coach and said, 'You should see this kid Pitts referee games. He referees better than some of the guys we have doing our ninth-grade games.'
"My older sister, Ruth, was playing for the Girls Athletic Club. They didn't have high school basketball. She called me one day and said they needed a referee. I said, 'I can't referee those games.' She said, 'You referee those intramural games, you need to get down here.' So I did," Pitts said.
Did he call any fouls on his sister? "I tried not to," he said with a smile.
Thus began a legendary career with a whistle.
HALL OF FAME: On June 10, the 69-year-old Mansfield man will be in a select group of 13 sports officials inducted into the Ohio High School Athletic Association Officials Hall of Fame.
"Surprised ... pleasantly surprised," the soft-spoken Pitts said during a recent interview. "I never dreamed I would be so fortunate to be nominated, much less selected, into such a place with a great group of officials."
Most local sports fans know Pitts from high school basketball courts since his arrival in Mansfield in 1972 to work for the United Telephone Company.
Interestingly, Pitts was nominated for the HOF for his work in volleyball, a sport he has officiated since the mid 1970s, though he is recognized in the honor for all of the sports he has done.
Why girls' volleyball instead of basketball, a sport he has done for a decade longer? And for a sport the 6-foot-2 former high school star football, basketball and baseball player only played in intramurals?
The truth may lie in his own easy-going personality.
"I really don't know. I can only assume volleyball is more of a friendly natured game," Pitts said, his soft eyes with a bit of a twinkle. "Basketball and football are mostly played by men and boys. Maybe (it's) the motherly touch of people involved in the selection and even the nomination. I thought about it and that must have something to do with it.
"When I first started doing volleyball, I wasn't very good at it. I think maybe the first few years I was hired for volleyball because of my basketball laurels. But I decided if I am going to do this volleyball, I am gonna try to really be the best at it.
"Because the two seasons don't run concurrently, they are both my favorite sports. What makes it great is I don't have to choose between them. I just love officiating."
Officiating basketball requires much more running than volleyball. But Pitts said officiating volleyball is more complex than some may imagine.
"The basic difference between basketball and volleyball is there is more mental stress applied in volleyball. Volleyball is one of the few sports where you have to make a decision on every contact with the ball.
"Not only do you have to make a decision on every contact with the ball, you have to be cognizant of the position of the player who contacted the ball .. at the point where they contacted the ball and then determine where the ball ended up. You have to calculate all of this while the ball is in play."
Regardless of the sport, confidence is one of the keys to success.
"You have to know the rules. You have to look the part. Some (older) officials have acquired the reputation that no one will say or respond (to a call). You let a young official do the same thing and they will bring down the house. I guess that just comes with experience."
HIGH PRAISE: Jill Potter of Shelby is the secretary of the local volleyball officials organization that nominated Pitts. She has known him for two decades and said he serves as a local rules interpreter.
"Russ is just one of those guys you can always go to and ask a question. He has been an official for a long time and is very knowledgeable about the rules," Potter said. "He is very personable, always willing to help anyone with anything, especially new officials. He is just the go-to guy."
Katie Roesch, the association's other rules interpreter, has worked countless volleyball matches with Pitts and has known him even longer than Potter. She said his people skills extend far beyond the confines of the court.
"Russ is just a great person. He is empathetic and a great role model for myself and the lives of the people he has touched," Roesch said. "He always looks at the positive and is always calm in situations related to athletics and life.
"He is not just an officiating colleague ... he is a friend. If you are an official, he is your friend, too. He supports you on and off the court whether it's volleyball, basketball or an issue in your life you're struggling with. The kids who he officiated years ago who are now adults ... they still come up to talk to him. He is respected by everyone."
Admiration for Pitts easily extends to the basketball court. Veteran soccer and basketball official Dave Hackedorn also praises his work.
"It has been a privilege during my 28 years of officiating to have had an association with Russell," Hackedorn said. "An outstanding official, but even more of an outstanding person who truly cares about making a difference for the positive in people’s lives. He is very deserving of this honor."
RESPECT OF A LIFETIME: It's a respect Pitts has built over a lifetime of officiating basketball, volleyball, football and more. He has worked thousands of high school, college and military sporting events, always with a smile on his face and a love for the sports and athletes he serves.
His efforts earned him a spot in a NBA officiating audition camp in Chicago in 1980, a two-day affair when he was 33 years old. It didn't result in a job offer, but it's clear his work was highly regarded even then.
Pitts has learned all of the sports rules and officiating mechanics. In some respects, that's the easy part. But it's the love of people and the value he sees in sports that have drawn him in for five decades.
"It's the camaraderie you make with people ... the friends you make with families and kids. That's what I love about sports. It's just a great way of keeping in touch with a fine group of people," Pitts said. "Sports, to me, has the ability to remove all roadblocks and prejudices. It has the ability to transcend all of those things in life that we look at as problems.
"You can go to a sporting event and may not know anything about the person sitting behind you ... their character, what kind of job they have. But if your team scores a touchdown or a three-point shot or a goal or a basket, you might turn around and high-five person and not even know who they are.
"Any other time during that week, that same person may not even speak to you. Sports just transcends all the kinds of attitudes we have toward each other that makes it not so nice sometimes to be in certain places."
The first OHSAA sporting event Pitts did was a JV basketball game in 1966, one year after graduating from Wheeling High School. The game involved his alma mater playing against Zanesville.
Did Wheeling win the game?
"I don't recall," Pitts said with his trademark smile, "but I remember I got called a homer at halftime."
THE TRAVEL CALL: Anyone who has seen Pitts officiate a basketball game recognizes his trademark signal for a traveling violation. A sharp whistle, complete stop, a rapid rotation of his index fingers and then a sudden turn to go the other way on the court.
Most, however, don't know the roots of that movement.
"It came from a guy who did our high school games back in Wheeling. He made the traveling call, but he made it backwards (with his hands). I said, 'Wow, that's unique. I am going to do one. But I am going to do it the right way.' I always do the hesitation and then do it real fast (with my fingers).
"I have lost a few RPMs over the years, but it's still really fast," he said, laughing. "You know what's funny? Over the years I would make that travel call and start back the other way. I look up in the stands and people are making my travel call."
As one would expect, Pitts has a lifetime of stories from courts around Ohio, including state title events in both basketball and volleyball.
There was the night in Willard when a basketball player from Elyria with a prosthetic leg blocked a shot in the fourth quarter and was worried about a foul call when he heard Pitts blow his whistle.
"I called a jump ball. The young man smiled and said 'Jump ball, ref?' I said 'You were on top of that ball all the way, son.' He ran over to me and hugged me ... twice. Everyone in the stands was cracking up. He hugged me twice on one play," Pitts said, chuckling with the memory.
LOVE OF THE GAME AND FAMILY: A U.S. Air Force veteran who finished his military career with the 179th Airlift Wing in Mansfield, Pitts married his wife, Christine, in 1969. They have raised now four adult offspring -- Russ Jr., Rose Pitts Williams, Rahad and Runako.
His local career has taken him from United Telephone to Sears and Advance Auto Parts. He still works part-time as an inventory specialist at the Bill Harris auto dealership in Ashland.
Pitts officiated volleyball matches last fall, but it's his love for Christine that kept him off local basketball courts this season.
"My wife became extremely ill, so I didn't do basketball this year," he said. "That's the kind of thing that will change your priorities and help you realize what's really important."
Pitts plans to do volleyball another four or five years and maybe return to basketball next season if his wife's health continues to improve.
"The Lord has been very good to me in terms of officiating," he said. "I am proud to say that everything I have accomplished in the sporting arena are things I worked hard for. I never played the political game. I never sucked up to coaches or athletic directors. I have always maintained an amount of integrity."
Just like his older sister knew Pitts would when she called him in Wheeling so many years ago.