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Canada basketball
Holly MacKenzie

Sébastien Gauthier's passion for rules leads to 30-year officiating career

Sébastien Gauthier has always been a leader. Whether he is officiating stand-up and wheelchair basketball games or he is holding officiating clinics to help younger officials learn the ropes, Gauthier has always wanted to give back. Though his own playing career ended after he turned down a basketball scholarship to go to firefighting school, Gauthier has spent the last 30 years giving back to the sport through officiating while giving back to his community through his career as a firefighter.

“I think [the two professions] complement each other,” Gauthier said. “Whenever we’re fighting fires, it’s a bit like being a referee. Keeping our cool, looking at stuff that’s happening real quick, and having to make a decision to be calm to save people. [In officiating], you’re keeping the game fair for everybody. It’s secure for everybody. I think they complement each other very well.”

Gauthier considers his decision to turn down that scholarship to be one of the best decisions he’s ever made because it’s led him to having two careers – firefighting and officiating – that he’s still equally passionate about all of these years later.

“I was a player that expected a lot from referees,” Gauthier said. “So I knew that going to referee I had an expectation for myself not to disappoint the players and whoever else was playing.”

After getting his start with stand-up basketball, Gauthier was invited to try officiating wheelchair basketball in 1989. At the time, Gauthier’s mother was living with MS and was in a wheelchair herself. He immediately said yes to the invitation and was working his first game a week later. Gauthier had always loved refereeing stand-up basketball, but said he fell in love with the wheelchair basketball community right away.

“Let’s put it this way; if it wasn’t for wheelchair basketball, I’d probably not be refereeing today,” Gauthier said. “I felt it kept the balance between officiating and how we were perceived in the sport. We do a difficult job as firefighters, when we go into fires and stuff like that, we’re well perceived as opposed to when we referee in stand-up basketball.”

As a lifelong firefighter, Gauthier enjoys the camaraderie he shares with his colleagues, as well as the rapport he has with those in his community. In officiating, the referee can often be seen as “the other.” Gauthier learned that in wheelchair basketball, there wasn’t as much of that feeling.

“When we get in the gym with wheelchair basketball, everybody is saying “hi” to you, it’s more of a family atmosphere,” he said. “And that’s why I'm still reffing. Otherwise, I’d probably be coaching, because I’ve spent the past 12 years coaching as well.”

The inclusiveness and diversity within wheelchair basketball appealed to Gauthier from day one. He recalls getting to work the Canada Games in 1995 in Jasper, Alberta where he refereed a 15-year-old Patrick Anderson, now considered one of the greatest wheelchair basketball players of all time. Two weeks ago, Gauthier officiated the final game of the National Club Championship for the Canadian Wheelchair Basketball League in Montreal, Quebec, where he officiated a now 42-year-old Anderson as he led the Scarborough Tigers to a Division 1 National Championship and was named Tournament MVP.

Because playing careers can often be longer in wheelchair basketball, stronger working relationships can be built between officials and players. Gauthier considers it a privilege to get to officiate a player’s entire career. It’s part of why he encourages young officials to get involved with the sport as soon as they can.

In addition to his own work helping to teach and train young officials, Gauthier also carves out the bulk of his August and September for the unenviable task of translating all officiating materials and manuals for referees in Quebec to have access to any rule changes or news as soon as possible.

Working as the interpreter for Quebec for the past 15 years has allowed Gauthier to marry his passion for the rulebook with his desire to give back to the profession.

“They knew I had a passion for rules and I really want all of my officials to get better,” he said. “I think that comes a bit with age. When I was a young official, I was very competitive, wanting to be better than others, and stuff like that. But as I got to 30, 35 years old, I started to shift my philosophy to try to be better as a team instead of alone. I didn’t mind so much if I didn’t get to the final, as long as we had a very good game for the 10 players on the court.”

Once that switch happened for Gauthier, he also took an active role in seeking out new officials. He has been involved with giving clinics in Quebec as well as internationally for over 20 years working as a referee coach. After the past two years of having to teach clinics online, Gauthier is patiently waiting to be able to return to in-person lessons.

In addition to officiating, teaching, firefighting and serving as interpreter, Gauthier is also a husband and father of three. He credits his family’s love of the game – his wife played professionally in Switzerland for seven years, and his children have played as well – with helping to make his busy schedule work. When a recent game was down an official, Gauthier gave his 15-year-old son a uniform and mini clinic on the way to the game. The duo worked their first game together officiating a bantam girls game.

“After the game, he told me that ‘he’ll] never, ever say something to a ref again,” Gauthier said laughing.

Though his playing career ended in 1989, the officiating world has given Gauthier that same sense of belonging.

“When I was at the Canada Games in Saskatoon in ‘89, I played there and when I went into the cafeteria, seeing all of the athletes there, it gave me a real feeling of that. I wanted that. I wanted to see that again. When I started officiating and went to the Canada Games in ‘95 as a referee for wheelchair basketball, I felt the same way. I think that’s what’s kept me in all those years, the feeling of being there at the main event.”

During a career that has seen basketball continue to grow in Canada, Gauthier has had many highlights. Because Canada’s wheelchair basketball team has been dominant for much of his career, Gauthier hasn’t been eligible to officiate in the finals when his home country is playing. In 2014, Canada didn’t qualify for the Men’s World Wheelchair Basketball Championship in Incheon, South Korea, and as a result, Gauthier was eligible to officiate in the final.

“It was my first final in a major event and it felt really good,” he said.

The same thing happened at the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, giving Gauthier his opportunity to work his first final at a Paralympic Games.

“When the national anthem plays at any international event, when I'm standing there and [the players’ hear their national anthem, it just gets me all pumped up,” Gauthier said. “I still get goosebumps every game.”