A Referee Blows the Whistle on Professional Basketball

CALLING THE SHOTS. By Earl Strom, New York: Simon and Schuster, 251 pp., $18.95 EARL Strom, even if half the world still doesn't know who he is, was for 32 years one of the finest professional basketball referees this country has ever produced.

When Strom retired from the National Basketball Association at the end of last season, it was inevitable that he write a tell-all book. With help from Tacoma, Wash., newspaper editor Blaine Johnson, Earl's ``Calling the Shots'' will put a few noses out of joint from the NBA's locker rooms to its executive suites. Total recall, which Earl seems to have, is poured into this book like syrup on pancakes. However, the four-letter words I can do without.

For those who didn't discover the pro game until the early 1970s, this is a chance to catch up on NBA history. This was the league's Fred Flintstone era when players taped each other's ankles, nobody had a trainer, and if fans didn't like a referee's call they showed their displeasure by throwing rotten eggs on the court. But they were also broadminded. If eggs weren't available, anything not nailed down would do.

Strom, who probably worked more playoff and title games than any referee in NBA history, was there to toss up the ball the first time all-world giants Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain battled. Years later, Earl performed that same ritual for the first meeting between Akeem Olajuwan and David Robinson, last season's NBA Rookie of the Year.

In between, Strom became known as a ``Road Official,'' meaning he never let the home crowd intimidate him into making clutch calls only in their favor, a rather neat compliment. I know from personal experience that when the Boston Celtics had a playoff or title game away from home during their glory years, they always hoped that Earl would be one of the two officials scheduled to referee.

Overall, Strom lasted more than five decades in a sport where you never go anywhere without an airline schedule, regularly run five tough miles a game, and make 200 instant judgment calls every 48 minutes. It is also possible to risk decapitation by stepping between two rival seven-footers who are about to commit mayhem on each other with their fists.

Even though Strom was continually warned and heavily fined by the league office to limit, if not completely curtail, any conversation with game fans, he never quite got that part of his job under control. If comments about his officiating got too personal, especially in the NBA's early days, he somehow felt he had to go into the stands to either prove a point or his manhood.

However, Strom admits that he often ignored ticky-tacky fouls if they didn't affect the flow of the game or prevent the completion of a basket. The wisdom of this, he says, he learned early in his career from the two veteran referees who broke him in - Mendy Rudolph and Sid Borgia.

Worth contemplating are some of the parting comments in Strom's book, where he offers a solution (let referees be themselves) for the kind of NBA officiating, he says, that has been going steadily downhill. He thinks three officials are too many and get in each other's way. He also believes that the league's new emphasis on rigidly dictated floor positions prevents young referees from developing good judgment and earning player respect.

Statements like this are sure to get Earl's book read from Bangor to Bangkok. Fellow referees who are often criticized in his candid writings, however, may prefer to go bowling!

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