Call a cab, indeed: Charley Eckman is going home

February 01, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Charley Eckman, having endured five cancer operations in the past month, including two in one day, and being weak and (as everybody knows) naturally shy and soft-spoken to begin with, is sitting in his room at North Arundel Hospital with his voice turned all the way up.

"This ain't what I asked for, is it, hon?" he says, in tones like the tuba section of a marching band. Charley's the only one who ever spent a few decades in broadcasting and never particularly needed a microphone to be heard. Now he's talking about this quart of ice cream his daughter, Gail, has brought him, which he's devouring in its entirety despite it being not quite the right flavor.

Along with the ice cream, he's had company. His barber, Bobby MaGee from Dundalk, dropped in to do a little trim work. His wife, Wilma, is here, plus a stream of visitors that includes his four children, his grandchildren, some sports figures, some old friends. Everybody tiptoes in, looking worried, and then Charley proceeds to hold court for an hour at a clip.

The doctors told him he's got to take it easy. Charley's got needles and tubes attached to him, various electronic monitors here and there, and nurses checking every few minutes. An entire health industry seems to have been constructed around him.

"I thought I was gone the other night," he says now, "but then I thought, 'I don't know where it is I'm supposed to go.' "

He's laughing as he says this, but there's truth behind the bravado. It's been a rough time. The doctors fought the colon cancer, then sent him home for a few days last week, but a high fever brought him back for more tests.

"When can I go home again?" Eckman asks a doctor.

"We'll see," the doctor says.

"You gotta be more specific than that," Eckman, 72, barks at him. "I've lived my whole life by the clock."

That, he has. If he wasn't watching the basketball clock, he was racing to pay the bills. Everybody around here knows about the )) coaching and the refereeing, and the sports broadcasts, but over the years Charley's also been a bus dispatcher, a tax investigator, a used-car salesman, a pool hall operator, a deputy sheriff, an Orphans Court judge in Anne Arundel County.

There were the three seasons he coached the old Fort Wayne Pistons to titles in the National Basketball Association, then got fired when he failed to win in his fourth year.

There were the 29 seasons over which he refereed some 3,500 basketball games. He was beautiful to watch. He'd come roaring through forests of players, arms waving, body gyrating, whistle blaring, all action ceasing as Eckman bellowed to the rafters, "Nobody move, I got this man throwing a hip."

The night North Carolina's Dean Smith had his team freeze the ball, Charley responded in kind, dragging a folding chair onto the court and sitting himself down, saying, "If they ain't playing, I ain't reffing."

One time in Indianapolis, where Charley was officiating an NBA game, an angry fan grabbed the basketball and threw it in Eckman's face, knocking out his front teeth. The guy ran off. Charley ran after him, caught him, beat the hell out of him. The place erupted.

Maurice Podoloff, then NBA commissioner, told Eckman, "Charley, don't hurt the fans. We don't have enough of them."

When he finally retired, with his body aching in a dozen different areas, he declared, "I'm a walking medical kit. I feel like a cheap horse at Charles Town."

He found a softer gig. Did two decades of radio at a couple of local stations, swaggering his way through several broadcasts a day. Became a kind of cult figure. Invented his own jargon. ("Call a cab.")

Threw in some TV stuff, occasionally ad-libbing politics along with the sports. Everybody in modern TV history relies on TelePrompTers, but not Charlie. He'd scribble a few notes on a matchbook cover, and use them if he needed them.

"It's a very simple game," he's always said, and it never mattered which particular game he was talking about. Always, Charley's brought with him the street guy's disdain for pseudo-sophistication. He's got the subtlety of an uppercut.

That's why he told his doctors to give it to him straight: When could he go home? That's why everybody was delighted, yesterday morning, when they told him he could leave today.

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