Walking around the track at Tom Drake Coliseum, Thomas Owens gets a handshake and hello from just about everyone he meets.
The players from every school seem to know him, and most of the fans and coaches do, too.
Owens, 51, of Hillsboro, is so well known because for more than 30 years, he has been a high school basketball official and a fixture at the Northwest Regional Tournament.
What many don’t know is that he also is a cancer survivor and one of the few officials to have blown the whistle at all four regional sites.
“What separates Thomas from most officials is his physical conditioning and hustle on the floor,” said Bob Harris, district director for the Alabama High School Athletic Association.
Harris, who evaluated and assigned officials for the regional, has called games with Owens at the high school and college levels.
“His communication skills surpass most officials,” Harris said. “What we look for is officials who are able to put out fires instead of pour gas on them. He doesn’t like to give technical fouls, but he manages the game.”
Owens’ career as a game official almost came to an end in 1991 when chronic back pain forced him to the sideline. Doctors found a tumor between his bladder and kidney, and a
test revealed that it was cancer.
Owens said he prepared to die “because at the time I didn’t know anything about cancer.”
“I’m a survivor, but it’s always in the back of your mind,” Owens said before working a game Thursday. “That’s why I never take any game for granted — because the one you are calling could be your last one.”
Following surgery to remove the tumor, Owens took several chemotherapy treatments.
He was told no cancer remained, but doctors since have required him to take an annual blood test.
Although he didn’t play in high school because of commitments to the family farm, he has always loved basketball. He played in junior high at Tennessee Valley in Hillsboro for legendary coach Walter Burns.
But after he enrolled at Courtland High as a freshman, he didn’t have time for home chores and basketball practice. Owens’ parents did grant him the time to keep the score book for Gary Johnson’s basketball teams, which led him toward the path of becoming a referee.
After graduating from Courtland in 1979, he joined the Quad City Association, where he stayed three years until an employment change forced him to quit.
For three years, he went to games when he could, always wishing he could put on the black and white stripes again.
Working swing shifts at International Paper made that move seem impossible until former Decatur Mayor Don Stanford, who was a booking agent for the Decatur Officials Association, agreed to work around Owens’ work schedule.
Stanford said Owens had too much to offer high school athletics.
“From the beginning, he wanted to be a good official, and you knew he was going to rise through the ranks,” Stanford said. “He worked harder than most officials, and he always accepted constructive criticism.”
When players and coaches called Stanford, it was usually to complain about
“It was different with Thomas because he always got along with coaches and players,” Stanford said. “He explained to them why he made certain calls, and they always commented in a positive way about that.”
Tina Jones, an all-state basketball player at Speake High early in Owens’ officiating career, befriended him when she worked at Phil Waldrep Ministries in Decatur.
“As a player, you always enjoyed him calling your game, because he was consistent and made calls with authority,” Jones said.
The ministries included Owens as a referee when it sent a team to the Dominican Republic on a basketball mission trip.
“Thomas is a godly man, and he was as animated in the games over there as he is here,” Jones said.
Immediately after joining the Decatur association in 1984, Owens was assigned to varsity games, something Stanford said is uncommon.
“You have to put in your time and learn, but Thomas was already good,” he said.
His animated way of calling came at a time when basketball was changing. High schools were playing with the 3-point line and attendance was on the rise because of players such as All-American Yolanda Watkins at Decatur and future Olympian Vicki Orr at Hartselle.
Like the game in Morgan County, Owens was a rising star. The cancer derailed his career momentarily.
Six years after the tumor was removed, Owens called his first state championship game — in 1997, between 6A West End and Grissom.
He also started calling games at the junior college level and in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, including Alabama A&M.
He left the SWAC after 16 seasons but continues to call women’s junior college games.
“I enjoy the college game, but I am a high school man,” Owens said.
Harris helped Owens get his SWAC assignments and called with him.
“This guy can call at any level,” Harris said.
Deangelo McDaniel can be reached at 256-340-2469 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Location: All Northwest Regional games are played at Tom Drake Coliseum in Hanceville.
Northwest Regional at Wallace State-Hanceville.
Girls Class 5A final: Wenonah (27-6) vs. Fairfield (22-8), 9 a.m.
Boys Class 5A final: Parker (18-7) vs. Wenonah (31-2), 10:40 a.m.
Girls Class 6A final: Hoover (25-4) vs. Sparkman (33-0), 12:20 p.m.
Boys Class 6A final: Hazel Green (24-8) vs. Sparkman (27-7), 2 p.m.
Girls Class 2A final: Cold Springs (21-9) vs. Tanner (14-16), 3:40 p.m.
Boys Class 2A final: Hatton (19-8) vs. Tanner (26-4), 5:30 p.m.
One of five children of the late Thomas Owens and Milene Owens.
Graduated from Courtland High School in 1979.
Parents were farmers and drove buses for the Lawrence County school system.
Owens and his wife Nell have two children, Jamel, 25, and Thomas, 31.
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