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.