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They're Taking Shots While Calling the Shots

June 06, 2004|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

The guy wouldn't shut up.

He had a floor seat under one of the baskets at a Portland Trail Blazer game, and he berated the officials whenever they were within earshot.

After a while, he was really getting on the nerves of referee Mike Mathis, so Mathis had to laugh when a loose ball knocked a trashcan-sized tub of popcorn out of the loudmouth's lap.

"The whole tub just explodes," Mathis said. "It goes up in the air and it goes over everybody within five rows of him."

The ball wound up between the blowhard's legs, and Mathis walked over to retrieve it.

"Everybody thinks this guy's a hero because he's chewing the referee out the whole game," Mathis said. "I love to have fun out there, so I thought, 'Here's my chance.' Nobody knew where the ball was except me. So it got real quiet. I reach down and grab the basketball. I say, 'Nice hands, ... ' "

The fans nearby erupted in laughter.

"I was so proud of myself because I finally got a shot at this guy," Mathis said. "I'm just proud as a peacock, until the next morning when I get on the plane. I pick up the Oregonian and I start reading the paper.

"The article says, 'Last night's game was very uneventful. Not much basketball played. In fact, the most eventful occurrence was early in the third quarter when an errant shot went over the backboard and exploded a tub of popcorn in Portland owner Paul Allen's lap.'

"My heart is in my mouth," Mathis said. "I got up to Seattle and I got off the plane. I went to the first payphone and called my wife. 'Honey,' I said, 'check the classifieds because I just called the Portland owner an ... ' "

Allen was good humored about the incident, and he and Mathis would forever greet each other with the epithet after that.

Mathis, 61, who retired two years ago after 26 seasons as an NBA referee, now can tell some of the best stories that he gathered during his distinguished career. He seldom spoke to reporters when he was in the NBA.

Mathis, who runs his family's foster-care and adoption agency in Cincinnati, has fond memories of his years in the NBA, although he had his ups and downs. He worked about 2,340 games, including 12 in the Finals and three All-Star games. But he also had to resign briefly after being indicted for filing a false federal tax return.

He failed to pay taxes on the money he pocketed after downgrading his first-class airline tickets provided by the league. He pleaded guilty in 1998, was sentenced to 120 hours of home confinement and 200 hours of community service, and -- along with six other NBA officials who had made the same mistake -- was out of the league for almost two years.

Players and coaches knew Mathis to be a tough character, a man of convictions on the court who was never afraid to make the unpopular call in high-pressure situations. He had his share of run-ins with detractors.

One of the more public of those occurred in December 1999, after he'd worked a Houston-Phoenix game won by the Suns in double overtime. Rocket forward Charles Barkley, called for an offensive foul with 3.5 seconds to play in the first overtime, blamed the longtime referee for the loss.

"We lost the game because of one reason -- Mike Mathis," said Barkley, later slapped with a $20,000 fine for those words. "I ain't going to say nothing else. He's a bad official."

But Mathis takes pride in his reputation for being a guy who called fouls -- particularly offensive fouls -- when he saw them. He loves that once, after being whistled for a blatant carry-over, an incredulous Michael Jordan said, "Nobody calls that on me."

Being consistent should be the No. 1 goal of every official, he said.

"Here's what happens most of the time: You'll come out and set a tone, but then the longer the game goes, especially if it's close at the end, you get further and further away from that tone," he said. "The worst thing you can do as an official for players is to give them one tone now, another tone later, a third.... Try to give them the same tone."

And, if the home crowd doesn't like it, so be it. Even if one in that crowd is a team owner.

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