Veteran Referee Tells 'Em as He Sees Them : Basketball: Having worked with the Globetrotters, Cypress man has plenty of stories.


There is a book that may never be written but has what seems the perfect title. It's about life with the Harlem Globetrotters and other teams of that ilk. The title, says Cypress' Mark Shannon, is "The Road Scholars."

It may never come to fruition because the collaborators don't want to name names, and tell-all books are all the rage. Publishers want it, friendships be damned.

But the prospective storytellers--Meadowlark Lemon, Curly Neal, Shannon, Harlem Legends road manager Joe Albanese and director of marketing George Lemon (Meadowlark's oldest son)--are holding strong to their convictions.

So Shannon's stories come without names, gleaned from years of life on the road in cosmopolitan cities and hellholes, in front of rude fans in the South and Northeast, in front of thousands, and one time, in front of four--Saudi Arabia's King Fahd, two princes and a dignitary.

"There are a lot of stereotypes out there, and I saw a lot of stereotypes on the road," said Shannon, a traveling referee, "and the more I see it, the more I started to believe it. . . . There's a reason there are those stereotypes. It doesn't mean everyone in the South is a redneck or everyone in the North is rude, but they certainly exist."

His travels have taken him worldwide. He once officiated a game between national teams from Iran and Iraq while the two nations were at war.

And Americans repeatedly were threatened while in Sweden, after the U.S. attack on Libya. The team's tour was canceled for fear of retaliatory action and their hotel reservations were canceled.

"Everyone felt sorry for us," Shannon said, "but nobody wanted to take us in, either."

It provided a real education for Shannon, a Cypress resident who grew up in Huntington Beach and graduated from Marina High, Golden West College and Long Beach State.

"You've got to be your own man on the road," Shannon said. "At the time, I was 23 years old, still living at home, and I had to do my own laundry, make my own travel arrangements, everything. I really grew up and learned a whole lot. Now I do all our laundry and house cleaning. But I was really naive about the world."

Shannon, 33, who regularly officiates high school games in Orange County, began umpiring Little League when he was 11 in exchange for hot dogs and soda. Then came recreation departments and school districts. And when he finally got his big chance, he was practically an overnight sensation, running the gamut from Little League to high school to pro basketball in four years.

He was assigned to do a couple of NBA exhibition games in 1985. After his second game, he was approached by the Globetrotters, who offered to more than double what would have been his NBA salary had he been one of two new officials selected to do 40 NBA games and 40 Continental Basketball Assn. games. Shannon was among six officials being considered for the 40-40 contract, but he chose to go the Globetrotting route. Shannon was scheduled to go to Australia with the Globetrotters' international unit, but instead, one of the other two Globetrotter teams was sent.

"The next day, Meadowlark Lemon said, 'How'd you like to run with me?' " Shannon said.

So Shannon joined Meadowlark's Shooting Stars--which included Pete Maravich, Wilt Chamberlain and Neal--that served as a White House ambassadorial team to Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign against drugs until 1988.

With the Shooting Stars, Shannon saw the country and has developed a name for himself as one of the top comedic referees available to the myriad of comic teams, such as the Harlem Ambassadors, Harlem Clowns, Harlem All-Stars, Harlem Road Kings, etc.

Although he used to travel 10 months of the year, he now travels only three, working as an independent contractor and calling his own shots. The biggest reason is because he and his wife, Jami--the girls' softball coach at Los Alamitos--have a 1-year-old son, Austin.

But his love of officiating still keeps him hopping. For example, in mid-March, he officiated seven games in eight days for four comedic teams. After officiating girls' high school basketball Friday at Marina High, a boys' game Saturday afternoon at Artesia, he spent Saturday night and Sunday afternoon with the Harlem Ambassadors in Pleasanton. He topped off the weekend with a girls' game Sunday night at Century High. During that three-day span, his pay was between $15 and $1,500 per game. And when there is an A-list occasion--television or investor dates--Shannon can almost name his price--between $5,000 and $15,000.

While on the road, players often have turned to Shannon for levity. His role during much of his early years was that of prankster, as well as officiating and doing some marketing work. As such, he was privy to what happens off the court, which is much more interesting than what happens on it.

* Shannon and the team bus driver would take photos of women in the stands, then send photos and fake fan mail to the young, often gullible players on the team, who went to addresses that weren't inhabited by the person in the picture.

* A day manager once told the team it could use the hotel Jacuzzi after hours, but the night manager told them they couldn't. So players rebelled. They thought about putting goldfish in the spa, but decided against it when they considered the goldfish might die. They considered soap, but finally settled on Jell-O, which they managed to settle--it took all the boxes from the local store. Neither day nor night manager found that funny.

* Players were sent to press conferences and television interviews that didn't exist.

* Prospective players were told they needed to supply certain samples for their team physical. And when those players showed up with those samples in tow--urine, semen and fecal--everyone had a good laugh.

"Everyone who had a joke played on them was usually either naive, gullible or not very well liked," Shannon said. "And a lot of times, there would be six or seven paybacks before you found out who got you in the first place."

Shannon, himself, was the victim one time while ESPN was filming a segment in Alaska. The players were taken on dog sled rides, but Shannon was given a special lead dog--one in heat. He was led on a wild ride into the middle of nowhere, crashing into a snowbank and then watched the trail dogs have their way with the lead dog. Of course, players were watching--and laughing--back in the monitor room.

"It wouldn't have been so bad," Shannon said, "if the wind chill hadn't made it 20 below."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World