In the mid-1980s, high school basketball coaches and players were literally told they couldn’t stand up for themselves.

Known as the “seatbelt” rule, it was one of many unusual or obscure rules that have been the bane of coaches, players and even officials’ existence in Maine high school basketball. Most were so unpopular that they only existed for a short time, but some still can still be found in the rule book to this day.

Under the seatbelt rule, coaches and players were not allowed to stand during the game, except during timeouts, to make substitutions or conduct “spontaneous” cheering after a good play. 

“The object was to keep coaches from making spectacles of themselves,” Oxford Hills coach Scott Graffam said. 

“It was awful,” said Doug Lisherness, who retired as Mt. Abram’s girls’ basketball coach in 2013, “especially in really close games.”

The rule was imposed at the college and high school levels around the same time. Some coaches actually restrained themselves from getting too caught up in the moment by adding seat belts to their bench and strapping themselves in.

Graffam recalls legendary Colby College coach Dick Whitmore buckling up during a game.

“They had those old benches where you could seat about four players, and he had them put a seat belt on the bench because he knew he wasn’t going to be able to sit down,” Graffam said. “The first bad call, he leaped up and pulled the bench up with him, which, of course, sent the coaches and players with him on the bench flying.”

The rule was short-lived, although a similar rule still exists that requires coaches who have received a technical foul to remain seated.

Coaches hated the rule because it affected their ability to communicate with players, because it led fans who were unfamiliar with the new restriction to believe they were being too passive on the bench, and because it muffled their and their players’ enthusiasm.

“I had a technical called on me during the second half of a tournament game against Traip Academy at the Augusta Civic Center, and not for anything I said, but because I jumped up to applaud a play and stayed up too long,” Lisherness said. “It was a close game and not a good time to get a technical.”

“The next week, we’re playing  in the state game against Calais,” he added, “and a girl hit some free throws to put us up by seven or eight late. I got up to give a high-five to my players and I remember, I have the tape of the game and you can see it, I remember snapping around and getting right back down on the bench so I wouldn’t get another technical. It was hard for me, and I think for most coaches.”

While the seatbelt rule was unpopular and short-lived, some of the most enduring obscure rules involve uniforms. For example, teams aren’t allowed to issue jerseys with numerals above 5 to make it easier for officials to signal the number of a player who is whistled for a foul. Players are also required to keep their jerseys tucked in while on the court. 

Many high school rules, like the seatbelt rule, were inspired by college basketball. From 1967 to 1976, the NCAA banned dunking with a rule that may have been inspired by the dominance of Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). High school basketball followed suit.

Yet even when both college and high school lifted the ban, dunking was still not allowed during pregame warm-ups.

Last year, the NCAA reversed course and started allowing players to dunk in warm-ups. Yet it remains a no-no in high school basketball. Violators are still assessed a technical foul.

“It’s a really poor rule,” said Bob Cimbollek, a former basketball official and coach who now lives in Bangor and writes a regular blog on basketball for the Bangor Daily News. “There is no other rule that I can think of that allows you to do something in a game but doesn’t allow you to do the same thing in pregame.”

Cimbollek, who officiated high school and college games for nearly 25 years, said the inconsistency in the rule is baffling, particularly at the high school level, where players stand a greater risk of injury for attempting a dunk. 

“If you weren’t allowed to use it during warm-ups and then use it in a game and suffer an injury, it seems like an injury lawyer would have a really good case,” he said.

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