They’re bouncing basketballs all over America right now, which means my thoughts automatically go to Charley Eckman.
Younger folks may ask, “Who’s he?” Older ones will reply, “Sit back, kids, there’s a thousand Eckman stories to tell, and many are printable.”
Charley, Charley, you wuz our brudda in street-corner Bawlamer English, which translated into decades of broadcasting sports on local radio and refereeing thousands of college basketball games before that.
Among the pleasures of my college years was sitting courtside at the old Cole Field House, where I covered University of Maryland basketball games for the school newspaper, The Diamondback. On nights when Eckman officiated, he was more fun to watch – and overhear — than some of those Terrapin teams.
I can hear him now, tooting his whistle over a foul, freezing all action, and Charley, charging through a forest of players, hollering as if he were taking hostages, “Don’t nobody move, I got you with a hip right here.”
One night, he called a foul on a kid from Clemson, who said, “What’d I do?” I was close enough at courtside to hear Eckman reply, “Just stand there a minute, I’ll think of something.”
Some Eckman stories have become national classics. Before college basketball installed the 30-second clock, North Carolina’s Dean Smith sometimes installed a four-corner stall. Nothing moved, except an occasional pass. Smith was killing the clock, but also killing all interest in the game.
He tried it one night when Eckman was referee. After 15 minutes, the score was 2-0. Charley marched to the scorer’s table, grabbed a chair, and dragged it out to the middle of the floor. Then, he hollered at Smith, “Hell, you ain’t doin’ nothing, I ain’t doin’ nothing.”
In his broadcasting days, Charley would sometimes join a group of us who met every Tuesday at Sabatino’s in Little Italy. “Hello, Leader,” he’d holler. “What’s the deal?”
That’s how he greeted everybody: Hello, Leader. Among the lunch group was a great guy, a roofer named John Vicchio who had cannonball muscles.
Vicchio remembered a recreation league game from decades earlier when Charley called a foul on him. Charley remembered, too.
“Sure, I remember,” Charley said. “Your man’s laying on the floor. You’re going, ‘I didn’t hit him.’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah? How’d he get down there, by bus? Ain’t nobody here but you and me.’”
At those Sabatino’s lunches, everybody wanted a seat at Charley’s table. “Bring on some ugly guys,” he’d shout. “It makes me look better.”
In the midst of the laughter, though, he showed some real sensitivity.
“My theory was, let the kids play the game,” he would say. “I’d talk to ‘em all the time. ‘Quit holding him,’ I’d say. Or, ‘Nice play.’ You know, let ‘em know I was giving ‘em some room. Believe me, there’s enough pressure on these kids.”
He remembered a particular game one night at Madison Square Garden where a hot-shot player named Dick McGuire missed one free throw after another. During a time-out, Charley stood nearby as a priest approached McGuire.
“Don’t cross yourself before your free throws,” the priest said.
“But Father,” McGuire said, “I’ve been doing it all my life.”
“Yeah,” the priest said, “but you missed eight in a row. You’re making the religion look bad.”
At Eckman’s funeral in July of 1995, the late, great sportscaster Chuck Thompson imagined Charley arriving in heaven, where a couple of saints volunteer to talk to him about his record down here.
“And God walks up and says, ‘I’ll handle this. This is a job for the varsity.’ And then Charley turns to God and says, ‘Hello, Leader. What’s the deal?’”
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been re-issued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.