Love for game, kids keeps Cornbread in the referee game

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Trimble County man's heart has belonged to high school basketball for 52 years

By Special to The Banner

Lexington Herald-Leader

LEXINGTON, KY. – To appreciate how long James “Cornbread” Stethen has been a high school basketball referee, consider he started calling games the same season Jock Sutherland guided Gallatin County to its first and only Sweet Sixteen, and Al Prewitt made his head coaching debut at Henry Central.
That was 52 years ago.
Sutherland and Prewitt won state titles, became legends and retired long ago, but Cornbread — that’s how everybody knows him — is still proudly wearing a striped shirt and blowing a whistle.
Cornbread (he says he has no idea how he got his nickname) won’t divulge his age, only that he graduated from Trimble County High School in 1955. Simple arithmetic puts him in his early 70s.
How does he explain his longevity as a referee?
“You have to take care of yourself, you have to stay in shape, but most of all you have
to love the game,” he said. “I love the game of basketball, and I love the kids.”
Age may have slowed Stethen’s step, but it hasn’t affected his skills as a referee.
“I can’t believe the man still does the job he does,” said David Watkins, who called the Collins-Spencer County game with Stethen last week in Shelbyville. “He runs the floor better than a lot of our younger officials.”
Gary Teague, also part of the three-man crew at Collins, said there’s only one problem working with Stethen.
“Everybody knows him from here to the Tennessee line, so if you work with him, you’re the one that gets hollered at because they leave him alone,” Teague said with a laugh.
Stethen used to be well known north of the border, too. He called Indiana high school games for more than 30 years before giving it up a decade ago.
Besides his wife Mary, to whom he’s been married 54 years, Stethen’s heart has belonged to Kentucky high school hoops.
He’s worked nine boys’ and three girls’ state tournaments, and five All “A” Classics.
He called the Ashland Invitational Tournament 11 times, back when it was the most prestigious regular-season event in Kentucky.
Stethen has witnessed a cavalcade of shooting stars, from Mike Casey to Charles Hurt to John Pelphrey to Richie Farmer to Rex Chapman. He’s bantered with big-name coaches, including Prewitt, Bill Harrell, Tom Creamer, Bobby Keith, Bill Mike Runyon and, of course, Jock Sutherland.
Stethen remembers working a game when Jock was at Lafayette, and Jock was burning the refs’ ears with some salty words. Stethen finally told Jock he didn’t appreciate blue language because he was a minister.
“I wasn’t a minister,” Stethen said, “but Jock sat down the rest of the game.”
The crowd at the Collins-Spencer County game included Creamer, who coached Shelby County to the 1978 title. Stethen worked a lot of Rockets’ games when Creamer was on the bench.
When Creamer spotted Stethen at Collins, he approached him at halftime.
“I told him, ‘Cornbread, somebody up in the stands told me you were pretty old. I said you had to be older than me, and I’ll be 70 this summer.’ Cornbread said, ‘Oh no, I’m not as old as you.’
“He’s still a good referee. If you watch him, he covers the floor. He’s not lagging behind. I think it’s great he’s still out there working.”
So does Collins Coach Curtis Turley.
“It’s totally amazing he’s been doing it 50 years,” Turley said. “You can tell he’s a guy who loves the game.”
Stethen, who retired 10 years ago as a shift engineer at a Madison, Ind., power plant, describes himself as a “big sports fan” who once excelled as a participant.
As a high school kid he helped Trimble County win the 1954 state cross country title. For most of his adult life, Stethen was a star pitcher in fast-pitch softball. He played for a team out of Owen County that was a state power and competed nationally.
“He might be more famous for softball than he is for being a referee,” Teague said.
Stethen gave up softball a few years ago, but he still can’t get enough hoops. When one of his high school games was snowed out a couple weeks ago, he kept busy by calling middle-school girls’ games.
“He just keeps going,” said Burney Jenkins, a current college and former high school referee who assigns Stethen to games. “He can’t get enough of it.
“Cornbread’s an original, a unique one.”
How much longer will he stay at it?
“I don’t know,” he said. “This may be my last. I go year to year. It depends on how my legs hold up, and how my concentration holds up.”
Until then, Stethen will enjoy the players, the coaches and the atmosphere of high school basketball, and whistle while he works.

Mike Fields is a reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader, which gave permission to reprint this story.