Ted Valentine gleefully recalls the first NCAA tournament championship game he worked, an Arkansas win over Duke in 1994 at the Charlotte Coliseum. He lost track of his official pass and almost didn’t get in.
“I’m a ref,” Valentine told a suspicious security guard.
Fortunately, someone vouched for one of college basketball’s most recognized referees.
“President Clinton was just walking up with his Secret Service guys,” said Valentine, a West Ashley resident. “He said, ‘Let him in.’ Then President Clinton looked at me and said, ‘I want to let you know I’m here to root for the Hogs. If something happens, I might have to get somebody to investigate your taxes.’”
Valentine, 56, has worked six Final Fours, four national championship games and 26 consecutive NCAA tournaments. He’s known as “TV Teddy” for an attention-grabbing style, and is the subject of mock Twitter accounts. He loves the reputation.
“It’s like ‘Cheers’ at every arena I go into: Everybody knows my name,” Valentine said, recalling the sitcom mantra.
But March Madness takes a back seat to brotherly love. Except for working Alabama’s NIT victory over Illinois on Tuesday night, Valentine will sit this postseason out. He will spend the next few weeks in Perry, Ohio, with his ailing brother, 55-year-old Henry Harris.
“He’s been fighting cancer since 2005, and now he’s in hospice,” Valentine said. “I spent time with him at Christmas but I want to see him again. Family is the most important thing right now. Sometimes things happen and you have to put things in proper perspective.”
Ted Valentine grew up with his brother and late mother in Moundsville, a small West Virginia town just down the Ohio River from Wheeling.
“We didn’t have much,” Valentine said. “My mom couldn’t afford to buy new shoes, so she would put cardboard in her shoes to save money to take care of us.”
Valentine’s mom worked at the Marx Toy Factory, where a popular 1970s product was The Big Wheel plastic tricycle. With his mother gone, Valentine is needed in Ohio to comfort nephews and nieces.
Eventually, he will return to the hardwood, though not necessarily as flamboyant as ever. Valentine says he has matured.
The former baseball player who learned to officiate basketball games while attending Glenville State College in West Virginia, worked his first Division I game in 1981 at Baptist College, now known as Charleston Southern.
A younger Valentine was looking for verbal spats. The middle-aged man who works part-time for the North Charleston Recreation Department gradually became “more philosophical.”
The process has unfolded on big stages, and there are YouTube highlights:
Valentine called three technical fouls on Bob Knight and ejected the Indiana icon from a loss to Illinois in 1998. Knight made a point to nearly bump into Valentine on his way to the locker room for the second half. Knight later dubbed Valentine’s work “the greatest travesty I’ve ever seen in basketball in 33 years as a college head coach.”
Valentine huddled up with Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Minnesota’s Tubby Smith, putting an arm around each coach during a 2012 shot clock dispute.
“I ended up putting my arms around both of them, to give them a little bit of warmth,” Valentine said. “I have that way with people. Refereeing is more than just calling fouls; it’s people skills. I diffuse a lot of situations.”
But Valentine admits he went too far when he charged to the sideline and got in the face of Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin last season during a game against UConn.
“I’ve known Mick Cronin for 27 years, and we’ve had a relationship,” Valentine said. “But I didn’t like that I let him upset me and I turned to him. I said what I said, and he said what he said. There should have been a technical foul called on him but once I stepped toward him, I couldn’t call it. And we moved on as men.”
The fan ejected from South Carolina’s game at Auburn last season wasn’t the first for Valentine. It won’t be the last.
“People sitting on the sideline have the same rules as coaches do,” Valentine said. “There was a guy wearing orange and blue that I thought took it too far. The game-management person that game was female and I didn’t want her to have to deal with it, so I just removed him.”
Total number of fans ejected by Valentine?
“Oh, my goodness,” he said. “Almost 50. At least.”
Fortunately, Valentine’s wife Linda Sue is shielded from the steady fan blasts. She has attended only one game featuring Valentine in black and white stripes, Duke’s 2010 national championship victory over Butler.
“She doesn’t know anything about basketball,” Valentine said, “which is good.”
She does know Ted Valentine is all about family. That includes his daughter Joneesha, a New York City diamond broker, a 5-year-old granddaughter, his brother Henry and memories of devotion.
Basketball fans don’t know “TV Teddy” still has an old pair of shoes he received as a teenager.
“There are big holes in the soles but I wear them occasionally,” Valentine said, “to remind me of what my mother went through.”
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff