To local basketball referee, the game is a labor of love

JOHN EISENBERG

February 10, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

The big blue Lincoln is rolling down the expressway, taking the referee back to his house in Timonium. It is dark outside. The referee's face is lit by the --board lights. It is time for dinner. The referee is hungry. The gym was hot and the game was not.

This has been the routine for 20 years now. Leave work in the middle of the afternoon. Change into the black-and-white shirt, the black pants, the black shoes, the whistle. Get in the car, find the gym. Work the game, work up a sweat, get called a few names. Get back in the car, go home and eat.

The referee is 53 years old, a father of three, a grandfather of two, a salesman, a graduate of Washington College. His name is Ron O'Leary and he is as Irish as Dublin. Blue eyes, red face, thinning silver hair. A fireman's son. Grew up near Patterson Park. Took three buses every morning to get to Loyola High.

He is a familiar face at all the local high school and Division III gyms. He probably could have moved on to bigger things, the college games on TV, but he wanted to see his kids grow up, so he didn't try. The money wasn't worth the aggravation, anyway. The money isn't great.

"Thirty-seven-and-a-half bucks for a high school game," he is saying as the big blue Lincoln takes him home. "You don't do it for that. Or for the appreciation, either. When fans look at the referee, they see 'the referee,' not a person. That isn't the way it should be. Referees are people, too."

He is talking rapid-fire, the words tumbling out. It is his speed. He spends his days on the street, hustling, selling janitorial supplies. He had been in an office for a decade, a sales manager, but the company was bought out and he went into the hospital with his gallbladder a mess, and when he came out he decided it was time to hit the streets again.

The pace suits him. It just feels right. It is the rhythm of his life. Mornings, afternoons, games, boom, do it again. "I referee because it's fun, it keeps you young and you meet a lot of good people," he is saying in the dark car. "It's a love, basically."

He started doing soccer games almost 30 years ago, then added lacrosse, then basketball. He doesn't need the extra cash anymore, but it's a love. "I like basketball the best these days," he says. "There is always something happening, boom, boom, you have to react, stay on your toes."

Tonight he is coming home from a Walbrook-Calvert Hall game. The hardest part had been finding a place to park the Lincoln beforehand. "You always see the team buses right outside the gym door, but no one thinks about the ref," he says with a smile. Such slights are part of the life. You get used to them.

Finally he'd had to park in a reserved spot, scribble an explanation on a manila envelope -- "officiating basketball game" -- and leave it in the windshield. "Done it a thousand times and never been towed," he says. "You have to have some luck in this business."

There is about him a confident, unflappable air, as if there isn't a call or situation that could surprise him. He knows every street and alley in the city, the back entrance to every gym, every player's trick. He can't estimate how many games he has worked. It is a lot. For a while he was big in lacrosse, did four NCAA championship games in the '70s. Now the seasons roll by.

Walbrook-Calvert Hall was a second-half blowout, nothing much. The referee did call a technical when Walbrook substituted a player who wasn't listed in the score book. "Hadn't seen that in years," he says. And there were these Calvert Hall fans chiding him the whole game.

"The mothers in the Catholic League gyms are the worst of all," he says. "They should hear themselves. It's such a terrible example. I had a friend whose son played for Calvert Hall a few years back. He wouldn't sit with his wife at games."

Not that the chiding bothers him. Not after 20 years. "Sometimes you just joke with them," he says. "This man once said to me, 'You should get out of this business.' I told him that if enough of us do get out, there won't be any more games."

He was on the court in 1971 when a riot at a game caused the Catholic teams to split from the MSA. He worked the NCAA soccer championships in 1975. The referee has stories, all right. There was this lacrosse game in New York that went from hot to cold to hot to blizzard. Basketball games in unheated gyms. Scrimmages at the Bullets' training camp. Bob Wade. Mark Amatucci. Stories, opinions, theories.

On being in charge on the court: "I tell the players, 'I'm too old to do what you do, so please don't try to do what I do.' All you have to do is establish yourself early, let them know you won't stand for something, or that you see them when they're trying to get away with something. They won't give you trouble."

On jump balls: "I was insulted when they took them out of the game. I prided myself on my jump balls. It's part of the game."

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