MANSFIELD – True to his nature, John Gurney heard a benefit high school basketball game was going to be played and volunteered his services as one of Ohio’s best officials.
Event organizers had to let him down easy. The preseason boys Foundation Game between Mansfield Christian and host Lexington on Monday night is being staged on Gurney’s behalf in his fight against cancer.
He’s wanted there as a guest of honor, not as a worker.
“I told him, ‘No, you’re just going to sit there and enjoy the game,” Mansfield Christian principal Mark DeLaney said.
Lexington athletic director Joe Roberts had the same response for Gurney after he was asked to get officiating crews together for both ends of the doubleheader. The junior varsity game will tip off at 6 p.m and the varsity contest at 7:30 p.m. In between games, there will be a tribute to Gurney.
Otherwise, his involvement is limited to throwing up the ceremonial jump ball to begin the varsity contest.
“He asked me if I needed him to work the game,” Roberts said, chuckling. “I said, ‘No, we need you to come.’ The officials association has a meeting that night and they’re going to hold it at Lexington so the local officials can be there.”
Gurney, inducted into the Ohio High School Athletic Association Officials Hall of Fame in June, was diagnosed in January with metastatic malignant melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer. He’s been officiating basketball games in north central Ohio for more than 40 years and has drawn 15 state tournament assignments. He’s the long-time director of officials for the News Journal All-Star Basketball Classic, a game he has worked several times.
“First and foremost this will help reflect and recognize what John has meant to the sport of basketball as an official and fan,” Roberts said. “Anybody who has been around the sport knows John and his passion. A lot of people don’t realize he’s also been a baseball umpire. And there’s a lot of good there, too.
“With what he’s gone through we decided it will be a great way for two teams to come together to help him as he continues to battle with his family. We’re excited about that and we’re excited about the basketball season to get underway, too.”
Lexington coach Scott Hamilton relayed a story about Gurney that you would probably hear from any coach whose path the popular official — how often have you seen that adjective applied to a ref? — has crossed.
“When I ran the youth leagues at Lexington, John would come in and officiate fourth, fifth and six grade leagues when we were in a pinch,” Hamilton said. “As high as people put him as an official, he’s an even better person.
“(Ontario coach) Joe Balogh and I were talking about it. Here’s a guy who does everything right and he’s put in a position to fight. Some of us have made poor decisions in our lives and we’re not dealing with something as terrible as he’s putting up with right now.”
At 5 p.m. on the night of the benefit doubleheader, a meet-and-greet will be held at Heartland Alliance Church, 2505 Lexington-Springmill Rd, where Gurney will give testimony about his faith.
“It will be a good time to show support and hug and love on the family because this is about more than the game,” DeLaney said. “Hopefully we can encourage him to continue to fight the good fight.”
Gurney, a Shelby native, was admitted into Hospice care in Ashland in September, but according to the most recent update on the family’s blog (jgurneyfamily.blogspot.com) his condition made a 180-degree turn for the better and he was able to return to his job as vice president, commercial lender at Mechanics Bank. Roberts said in recent conversations, Gurney said he was trying to put a schedule together this winter where he would officiate twice a week.
“John keeps going, taking it day by day and situation by situation,” Roberts said. “We’re here for him.”
DeLaney has known Gurney since the former was a basketball star at Clear Fork. They also had a working relationship when DeLaney was boys basketball coach at Fredericktown and Wynford.
“I can remember when I was playing; I always felt good when I saw him in the gym,” DeLaney said. “I always knew it would be a fair game. There was just something about him. He was so personable with the players. Then when I started coaching, I had the same feeling.”
Tickets for Monday’s Foundation event are $5 and will be available at the door. Mechanics Bank and Modern Woodsmen of America have been huge financial supporters since DeLaney got the ball rolling with a phone call to Gurney’s wife, Jill.
“I had no idea about his faith,” DeLaney said. “It really touched me and moved me reading his blog. We’ve been in contact more from a personal friend level the last couple of months. He doesn’t realize how many people he has impacted, not only (as a banker) but as an official.”
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