Eckman: Bold but beautiful in original way

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Everything about Charley Eckman, never the quiet man or one to underestimate his own ability, had to do with taking on a challenge. He had an undeniable, unequivocal and unbounded belief in himself.

Bold, brash, blunt, boisterous, brassy.

He was all of those things. And he made no secret that if he didn't know what he was doing he could somehow out-talk anyone who did. With all the bravado and an inordinate measure of bluff, when the occasion called for it, there was a deep feeling for the underdog -- because he was one himself.

His father died before he really knew him and Charley's widowed mother had a tough time. Once Charley considered joining the Boy Scouts but thought a uniform cost 75 cents, not $10.75. There went his scouting career, although certainly not all of his good deeds.

He died at age 73 after a long illness and will be buried from the Presbyterian Church in Harundale tomorrow. If Charley thought it, he said it. No holds barred.

At various times in his life, among other things, he was part-owner of a liquor store, a judge in orphans court, radio announcer, television performer, a baseball scout for the Philadelphia Phillies, a basketball and baseball official and banquet speaker.

His most astonishing achievement, unprecedented, was switching from a referee in the National Basketball Association to a coach of one of its teams, the Fort Wayne, later Detroit, Pistons. That's not done every day. In fact, never before or since.

Again, it was Charley's ability to be a super-salesman that opened the door for one of the most incredulous transitions in all of sports.

The idea originated on a night in Milwaukee. The game was over and Charley went back to the Schrader Hotel.

Ted Lewis, the old song-and-dance man, headlined the show in the adjoining nightclub. Charley went in, took a seat and, by coincidence, looked up to see Fred Zollner, who owned the Fort Wayne franchise, seated nearby.

Charley told him all the things wrong with his team and Zollner was impressed. The next coach the owner hired, in a matter of months, was the referee, who stopped blowing his whistle, temporarily, and signed on to direct the Pistons in 1954. It was, to put it mildly, a startling development.

He had All-American players, one of the highest-paid rosters in the league and hadn't even played basketball in high school. But Charley wasn't overwhelmed by the task that confronted him.

"The only plays I know are South Pacific and put the ball in the basket," he told them. His entertaining touch was effective. He let the team play and didn't encumber the talent with strategic orders but sought an edge in matchups of personnel.

Charley had a successful ride, two Western Division titles and missed, in one of those years, by losing the seventh game of the championship series. He coached and won an All-Star Game, too.

But it was as a game official that he created an identity. He worked high school, college and the pros, using his flippant manner to amuse teams and also the spectators. Major tournaments wanted him because competing coaches knew he could maintain order in a high-charged atmosphere.

Jim Lacy, one of the most accomplished basketball players in the history of this state, said Charley might tell him when he handed him the ball at the foul line: "Relax. Don't worry. It'll go in."

And he also was known to walk down the court, after another official had called a foul, and whisper to the offending player, "That was a bad call my partner gave you. Don't get upset. I'll even it up later."

At Loyola College, when Lacy was winning the national scoring championship and the Evergreen gym was packed, the fans under the west basket would engage Charley in repartee -- while he was officiating, truly a running commentary.

The late Eddie Gilbert would holler, "Hey Charley, how about a beer after the game?" And Charley would answer over his shoulder, "Where you gonna be?" Before Gilbert could answer, the ball would be moving toward the other end of the floor. Charley, retreating in the opposite direction, would shout, "I'll be right back."

"See you at the Govans Grill," Gilbert would scream. And Charley, always offering the last word, would answer back: "Order me a National Premium beer; I don't want the Bohemian." All this while the game was in progress.

Yes, Charley, unorthodox and garrulous, was able to minimize yet focus on what was going on around him. Kenny Cooper, coach of what used to be the Baltimore Blast and now head of the new Tampa team, said he could never thank Charley enough for all the advice he gave him.

"This was a one-of-a-kind personality," said Cooper. "All the world was his stage. If you ever met him, it's guaranteed you can't forget him."

From Roswell, N. Mex., came a message last night from one Keith Shepherd, who called to inquire about Charley's funeral plans. "I was with him in 1943, '44 and '45 when he was stationed at the Yuma [Ariz.] Air Force base and officiated all the top service games.

"You couldn't help but love the guy. He was the greatest showman I ever saw. I'll tell you something else. Back then he was the best pool-shot in Yuma. I referee-ed with him a lot.

"Some player might be in a head-to-head shouting match about a call. Charley would look at him and say, 'Before I give you a technical, which I don't want to do, turn around and look up in the fourth row. Did you ever see a better looking blonde than that one?' "

A perfect illustration of Charley, quick on the comeback and able to defuse a situation. After the cancer hit him two years ago, he promised, with the usual bravado, "I'll kill it with Scotch whiskey."

He was to say later, "they don't give you a gold medal for getting cancer," a statement that was pure Eckman for its poignant validity. Joe De Francis, president of Laurel and Pimlico race courses, was paying respects at the funeral home and said, "You don't honestly know how difficult the disease is until you see what happened to Charley, who was one of the strongest-willed and toughest men I've ever known."

On the radio, Charley didn't need a microphone. He enhanced the wattage of every station where he worked since he came across loud and clear. His attitude toward high-profiled executives was simply put: "To me an expert is someone from out of town."

His recall of names and situations, of players and games of a half-century ago, created a reputation of having a memory that was rarely, if ever, questioned. He didn't have a degree, his only college was Baltimore City College, which was a high school, but lack of a more extensive education never deterred him.

His language might stun or shock an audience, but he was his own man, willing to be himself, blowing the horn and banging the drum, if he had to, in order to draw attention in what has become a conventional type of world.

He was a commentator with color, rarely working from a script, firing from the hip, taking his shots, creating controversy. The individuality of Charley Eckman is why he made an impression that set him apart from the rest of the crowd.

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