A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in Frank's Den in Glen Burnie, Md. the other night when the door flew open and Charley Eckman bopped in. "Bo-de-bop-bop," and other things, Charley yelled to Corky behind the bar and to everyone in front of it. Charley knew everyone in the place. "Cholly," asked Dave Spangle, "do you always got to come on like Gangbusters?" "If I don't," Charley said, "people think I am sick. I walk into the bank or Robinson's Department Store, and if I ain't the boomer, people says, 'Cholly, what is wrong with you?' "
Making noise is just plain natural with Charley Eckman, and so is making friends. The latter is a little surprising, since Eckman is a basketball referee by trade and basketball referees are usually ranked as friendly types right up there with muggers. Eckman is the most colorful basketball official in the country, but the kicker is that he may also be the best. Acknowledgment of this has come in regular assignments to handle the finals of the NCAAs, the NIT and those of pro basketball's NBA.
Charley Eckman is so well-liked that in Anne Arundel County ("Innurunnle" to the natives), where Glen Burnie is situated, Charley is the second most popular man around. The most popular is State Senator Joe Alton, a Republican in what is strictly Democratic territory. Nobody can explain that one either. Alton used to be sheriff of Innurunnle, and Charley figured he was the logical successor. "It's a yo-yo job," says Charley. "The police do all the work. You just get some deputies and guard the jail." So Charley decided if he was elected sheriff he would leave the jail to the cops and get a white horse and ride up and down Ritchie Highway, the main drag, checking things out. He would have done it, too, but he ended up running for the House of Delegates instead. He was not on any ticket, and he ran out. In nearby Brooklyn Park, where Eckman is not quite so popular, the wise guys are still joking about how Cholly Eckman's lever on the voting machine was jammed. "A lotta things go on in Innurunnle," Charley says.
Glen Burnie is only Charley's adopted home; he comes from southwest Baltimore and an area affectionately known as Pig Town. Even today Innurunnle is really just a temporary home, for when winter arrives Eckman hits the road. One of the few remaining nomad referees, he seldom works a game anywhere near Glen Burnie. February has 29 days this year and even after turning down several engagements Eckman will still work 19 dates, only twice back-to-back in the same city. Because the pay is higher ($80 plus expenses), he works mostly in the South, getting to Philadelphia and New York occasionally. He drives, trains and even planes a Tobacco Road itinerary that gives him a day or a night in a town but seldom the luxury of a day and a night in the same place. Usually he arrives just long enough before a game to shave and nap.
Eckman has a thing about shaving. He sometimes will shave merely because he has nothing else to do. Naps are also essential. "Before that good shave, I get in my pajamas and stretch out," he says. "And after a little of that, then I'm ready for the snake pit and all the screaming yo-yos. Most towns are the same. Greenville, S.C. is the best place to ref in the world; they treat referees like human beings there. But everywhere, they all play that Dixie. "I wisht I was in Dixie," the one side will scream—and here they are, both sides from North Carolina or South Carolina—and they go crazy if the other bunch starts singing it, too, like they are from China or someplace."
Though he is only 5 feet 9, Eckman is not lost among the court giants. Waddling backward and forward with equal agility, his rump out, his arms at the ready for a call, he is notably visible. A whistle is tucked into the right side of his mouth—the place where a cigar nestles the rest of the time—and is held there firmly by what he calls his game teeth. Game teeth are to be distinguished from "loving teeth," which are larger. Somebody, sadly, stole Charley's loving teeth in Milwaukee.
Eckman looks like Jack Palance, the bad guy in the movies, only Charley has a high-pitched laugh and smiles most of the time when he is supposed to be tough, so there goes that image. He does not blow a long whistle, but drops it quickly from his mouth so he can shout and gesture with more facility. For a TV game he gives it "a little more of the old federal case," but he never becomes a complete ham, as so many officials do. Eckman calls one of his associates "Wagon Train," because when the camera is on "he is always trying to circle me."
What really distinguishes Eckman is his perspective: an operating theory that officiating is 90% guts and judgment and no more than 2% rule book. Moreover, he has the quaint notion that the game was meant to be pleasurable. On court, his good nature renders him impartial as he settles the players down, jokes with them ("you don't shoot well enough to argue with me," he will inform a protester, and what can the kid do but grin also and relax), tries to keep them from making unnecessary fouls ("watch the elbow...ease up...lemme see some daylight"). He treats players as equals, rather than intimidating them as so many tough-guy referees think they must do. Eckman goes by the precept that firmness and courtesy can work together. Recently a South Carolina player collapsed at Eckman's feet after a full-court play. "Tired?" asked Eckman. "Cholly, I'm beat," the kid said. "Well, just lay there awhile," Eckman said. "I got the ball, and you got to throw it in to start play, so ain't nobody going nowhere without us."
Two weeks ago, on a typically grueling four-hours-and-back drive from Glen Burnie to Williamsburg, Va., Eckman handled the VPI-William & Mary game ("the VPIs vs. the Williams and Marys" in Eckman parlance). Early in the game Martin Morris of W&M faked his man out for a pretty basket. Eckman remembered, and much later, when Morris was at the foul line and looked tense, Eckman handed him the ball and said: "Martin, that was a beautiful move back there. Now you're playing good, so don't start fighting yourself again." Morris sank both fouls. Later Morris complained to Charley about a call, but after the game, which VPI won, he made a point of going to the referees' room to congratulate Eckman and Louis Bello, the other official, on a good job. This is routine for Eckman. Frank Alvis of VPI had already sought out Eckman to congratulate him.
"All my life," said Charley Eckman, on the long drive back to Glen Burnie, "I've been helping college men to develop. They come by to see me, years later, to see me as a man. So what! So because I don't have a diploma, because I just went through high school, I don't qualify for this job or that job. I got to ref. Some yo-yo comes bop-de-bop-bop out of college and right away he's making two bills a week, and he ain't about to break his neck driving all over icy roads for this. I got to have an operation on my leg after the season. Thrombosis. That's a clot in the vein. If it don't move I don't die. But if I have to stop officiating, where am I?—3.000 games and 25 years, and that's it. No pension, no nothing.
"Either I am a nut, or this is the greatest game in the world. It has to be to go on like this, all the things wrong with it." Most wrong, Eckman thinks, is the system of selecting referees, whereby a coach can blackball any referee assigned to his home game by the supervisor of officials. This is accepted in every section of the country and is based on approximately the same rationale that Al Capone used when he was sorting out the Cicero police department. It explains why so many officials, who only work close to home, become "homers"—subconsciously or otherwise.
Eckman started officiating at age 17 for $1.50 a game (and sometimes six games a day) at places like Cross Street Hall and Fourteen Holy Martyrs Church in Pig Town. Refereeing has never been his whole life, though, because it simply does not pay enough to sustain a man with a wife, three daughters and a son. (Barry, the oldest, will get his diploma this June from the University of Baltimore.) Eckman helps pay the bills with public relations work and as a much sought-after banquet speaker. In the past, his most famous other job came when NBA Referee Eckman was suddenly made NBA coach—of the Fort Wayne Pistons. During three full seasons he led the team to two divisional championships and was once named Coach of the Year. He has also played minor-league baseball, umpired minor-league baseball, scouted, dispatched buses, run a pool hall, been a recreation director, a tax investigator ("that's a beauty, ain't it?—referee, umpire and collect taxes in the same year?"), a columnist, a sports commentator, a deputy sheriff and a full-fledged judge of the Innurunnle Orphans' Court.
The last was a political plum from Maryland Governor Millard Tawes and was supposedly an interim appointment until Eckman would become Secretary of the Racing Commission—which he had been more or less supporting over the years, anyway, at the mutuel windows. When the commission job went to someone else, Eckman called the governor "a doublecrosser," and handed in his robes. As judge, though, Eckman had left his mark. He is, graciously by his own admission, "not a grammarian," but he was never at a loss when a lawyer was foolish enough to start using legal terminology that the Judge was not exactly up on. Judge Eckman simply recessed the court, retired to his chambers, called a lawyer friend who filled him in, and returned to his court. His most heralded verdict, in the tradition of Solomon, concerned a particular will ("Orphans' Court ain't orphans," explains Charley; "it is all about wills") being contested by three siblings: two sons who had done no more for their deceased father than take him for a drive occasionally, and one daughter, who had attended the old man faithfully. Arguments over, Judge Eckman banged his gavel. "You get it all," he told the daughter. "I object," screamed one of the sons. "The law says I should get one-third."
"All right," replied Judge Eckman coolly. "You will. You get one-third of what she don't want. Case closed."
Eckman's bluntness is no act. He is almost pathological on the subject of phonies. Most of them he lumps with the yo-yos. (A yo-yo is "a guy who goes up and down but don't go nowhere.") Eckman himself is honest, even when he knows his big mouth is going to get him into more trouble. For all his fame as an athletic celebrity—which most people in Innurunnle are hardly aware of—Eckman's closest friends remain old Pig Towners or Glen Burnie neighbors. But wherever it may be, he is either laughed at for all his brashness and noise or loved for it.
"Look, I'm in a liars' game," he says. "Ball goes out of bounds, you call blue or red and you can only be right or wrong. You make that decision, you bop it out so loud every yo-yo in the place can hear it, and if you do blow one—we all do sometimes—you grab that ball and you run down that court smiling, bop-de-bop-bop. And that just ain't in basketball. That's the way I am. I met my wife Wilma—Wilma, like in Buck Rogers—I met her on a Tuesday, married her on a Friday and had to borrow $7.50 from her to get her back to Baltimore, and we've been married 22 years. All my life people either loved me right away or they never did. All except the players. I don't b'lieve there is a player that don't like me."
Even the yo-yos know Cholly Eckman is a player's referee.