Eckman delighted to have NBA pay dribble in again

May 23, 1994|By John Steadman

At the time, Charley Eckman never regarded himself a pioneer. He was a referee before the National Basketball Association gained respect.

That it has become so affluent, with packed arenas and record salaries, is an upset in itself. The setting in the beginning was once so primitive players would slip and slide because, to save money, a portable floor was put on top of an ice rink and the court often became slick from the condensation.

Eckman's pay was $50 a game, $5 a day meal money on the road, second-rate hotels and a gypsy-like existence. "It seemed everywhere they sent me, I had to catch the Rock Island Rocket, a train out of Chicago," he said. "I spent so much time riding that railroad they should have given me stock in it."

But the NBA, and before that the Basketball Association of America, was like a poor relative of the professional sports world. It existed -- just barely. Now, four decades later, it's at the top of the economic ladder.

Eckman wondered why he wasn't included in a pension plan but efforts to do so never got anywhere. A check every month would have made some of the financial demands of life easier to handle, not to mention the feeling that the modern NBA leadership realized the contributions he and some of the dwindling list of his contemporaries had made.

He kept hearing something good was going to happen, but Charley stopped believing in Santa Claus a long time ago. Then a letter arrived from the NBA. He figured it was another rejection slip, perhaps explaining again that, no, the league didn't feel it had any obligation to compensate former officials for previous years of work.

But this was different. There was a check, with his name on it, for $19,348. It wasn't a retirement benefit but was being paid him "for past services rendered." And there was more good news. For the next three years, the same amount will be forthcoming on an annual basis.

The other veteran officials receiving similar letters, but with the value of the checks based on individual longevity, included Arnold Heft, Sid Borgia, Lou Eisenstein and Jim Duffy.

"I'm deeply pleased and thankful to the NBA and the NBA Referees Association for making it happen," Eckman said. "I know deep within my heart we old-timers deserved it. We didn't want charity; just the chance to be recognized and rewarded."

What recollections does he have of pounding the floors of smoke-filled gyms and auditoriums. "Well, I woke up more times in Moline, Ill., than I could ever count," Eckman said. "My first year, 1947, in the BAA, I worked 158 games for $50 a game, all over the place -- Waterloo, Sheboygan, Denver. You name it, I was there. We rode day coach, not sleeping cars."

He said his pay envelopes were always late, since the league wasn't in the best of shape financially. Thanks to the understanding of the neighborhood grocer who extended credit, his family was able to buy now and pay later.

Eckman has a distinction that is his alone. He was the only man in NBA history to go from referee to head coach, putting his whistle down to assume the coaching position of the Fort Wayne and then Detroit Pistons.

"I refereed the first NBA All-Star Game and then coached in two of them," he said. "I won two divisional titles at Fort Wayne as a coach. That will never happen again. There just won't be another referee-turned-coach. Being paid to coach was like stealing money. When I got fired the vacation was over."

Right now, Eckman, a graduate of Baltimore City College, is being considered for the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. He estimates the total number of games he worked, at every level of play, was in excess of 3,500, which counts for more mileage than any pair of knees was built to endure.

Last week, friends accompanied him to a dedication. Near Glen Burnie at the entrance to Sawmill Creek Park, officials of Anne Arundel County named a road in his honor. With wife Wilma and three daughters present (his son was away on government business), he found out how much others think of him.

He has had a bout with cancer but isn't about to surrender. That wouldn't be Eckman.

"Look, I'm not afraid of dying," he said. "I've had a terrific life. I can't do much more. How many non-Catholics have the top monsignor in the world, Marty Schwallenberg, praying for them? Now the check puts me in much better shape financially."

And, as a reminder, Eckman, at 72, the youngest of the five officials receiving the NBA payment, predicts he's going to be around for a while. "I got those checks for $19,348.00 coming for each of the next three years and I plan to cash 'em," he said.

What's important, too, is that Charley Eckman found out the NBA did care about a man who gave it his best years, when he was young and his legs were resilient, with enough bounce to carry him to Moline, Denver, Sheboygan, Waterloo and other points afar to do a lonesome job that brought neither gold nor glory.

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