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Steve Rushin
October 22, 1990
Profanity scuttled Tommy Lasorda's career as an NBA ref
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October 22, 1990

This Zebra Turned Dodger Blue

Profanity scuttled Tommy Lasorda's career as an NBA ref

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Mercifully, he was delivered from such indignity after three seasons. In 1963 the NBA was desperate for a few modest men. Officials were paid $50 a game and dispatched on endless road trips by train, and they lived for weeks out of suitcases. Recalls one referee, "We thanked god for the Ban-Lon shirt."

Strom, by then a five-year veteran of the NBA, lobbied the big league in behalf of his boyhood acquaintance. Lasorda had little to lose: He could keep pursuing his as yet unpromising dream of coaching one day in the Dodger organization or he could write to the NBA's supervisor of officials and seek to join the men in Ban-Lon. Lasorda requested a tryout.

The supervisor of officials studied the application. The supervisor sighed. "Now I've got him," said the supervisor, a former International League umpire named Sid Borgia. "Now he can take some of the abuse he gave me."

While Borgia claims that he held no grudge against "the s.o.b.," he did pair Lasorda with Jim (Jam-a-Day) Duffy—so nicknamed for the daily pickle he got in during his days as a baseball umpire with the American League—and sent them out to work a series of exhibition games through the Midwest. Duffy once hustled a heckler into the officials' dressing room after a game and dunked the man's head in a sinkful of water. Only later did Duffy learn that he had nearly drowned the team's majority stockholder.

Jam-a-Day and his rookie partner were assigned four preseason games between the Detroit Pistons and the Cincinnati Royals. Strom remembers Cincinnati coach Charlie Wolf as being "a straitlaced guy."

"He carried a halo on his head," says Borgia. "If you said so much as ' Jesus Christ' to the guy, he'd report you to the Pope."

As any Dodger will tell you, Lasorda is fond of peppering his discourse with colorful phrases. "Tommy likes to throw around a few F-notes," says Strom. "And Duffy had the mouth of a longshoreman." Wolfs notorious whining moved both partners to soliloquies unmentionable.

After two games as a coach having to endure profane attacks by the officials, Wolf had had enough. He reported the duo not to the Vatican but to the NBA office in New York City. "I can't take any more of those two foul-mouthed guys," Wolf told Borgia over the phone. "You've got to get 'em out of here." Today, Wolf remembers making the call, but through all these years he never knew who Duffy's partner was.

In any event, Wolf's review did in Lasorda, and he never worked another game. In a matter of months Campanis, who was the Dodgers' scouting director at the time, wooed Lasorda west to scout Southern California full-time for the team.

Twenty-seven years, and as many miles of linguine, later, Lasorda, who was promoted to manager in 1977, has led the Dodgers to 1,183 wins, four pennants and two world championships. He has forged close friendships with Frank Sinatra and most of the maitre d's in National League cities. He has grown with his own celebrity, peaking at 218 pounds in the summer of 1988 before settling on "a delicious thick shake for breakfast, another one at lunch, and a sensible dinner." Above all, Lasorda today seems a man who would have been incapable of laboring in the obscurity of zebra stripes all these years.

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