Saturday, January 05, 2002

NBA ref Mathis retires

26-year career sees highs, lows

By Bill Koch
Enquirer contributor

        After 26 years, two knee surgeries and about 2,340 games, Cincinnati's Mike Mathis has taken disability retirement from his job as an NBA official.

        The 59-year-old's last game was Dec.16 in Seattle. Early in the fourth quarter, Sonics officials shined a spotlight on Mathis as the fans gave him a standing ovation.

        After the game, Mathis called the league to make his retirement official, and a career that began in 1976 in Kalamazoo, Mich., was over. Over that span, Mathis saw the final days of Julius Erving, watched Larry Bird and Magic Johnson transform the league into a financial success and witnessed the exploits of Michael Jordan.

        He officiated 12 NBA Finals and three All-Star Games, but there were down times, too.

        In 1997, Mathis resigned after being indicted for filing a false federal income tax return. He failed to pay taxes on money he pocketed after downgrading his first-class airline tickets.

        In 1998, after pleading guilty, he was fined $2,000, sentenced to 120 days of home confinement and 200 hours of community service and placed on three years' probation.

        “We were allowed to downgrade tickets,” said Mathis, who was head of the referees' union from 1987-97. “Then, all of a sudden, it came out that all this was taxable. It was a farce that it turned into a criminal case.”

        Mathis, who now calls the experience “a bump in the road,” was out of the league almost two years before being reinstated in 1999.

        Now, he's leaving on his own terms.

        “After 26 years, when you look at what we do and the pain you go through and then also look at what's going on in the world today, being on a plane 12, 13 times a week, that part of it is not as much fun anymore,” he said. “The timing was right for me.”

        Mathis' first game was an exhibition between Chicago and Milwaukee at Western Michigan University. His partner and mentor, veteran official Joe Gushue, warned Mathis they could be in for a rough night.

        He was right. A player threw the ball at Gushue after being called for a foul, a fight broke out, and before the game was over, the two officials had called 15 technical fouls and ejected five players.

        “I go into the locker room after the game,” Mathis said, “put my head down in my hands and (Gushue) says, "Well, kid, welcome to the NBA.' I said, "Is it always this bad?' He said, "No, a lot of times it's worse than that.'”

        Mathis has known for some time his officiating career was ending. He has a meniscus tear in one knee and arthritis in both. Doctors have warned him for several years that soon he wouldn't be able to keep enduring the rigors of the job.

        “It got to the point where I just couldn't go,” he said.

        Mathis is prepared for retirement. He and his family run Mathis Care, a foster care and adoption agency. And his business, Prohoop Courts, Inc., installs NBA backboards and baskets nationwide.

        “I don't think that anyone who retires from anything after 26 years doesn't miss it somewhat,” Mathis said. “I miss it, but when you think of what I would have to do to continue to do it, I did the right thing.”

        And no, the games weren't all as bad as that night in Kalamazoo.

        “The biggest thing I had was the respect of the players,” Mathis said. “I'm not supposed to be the show. I'm supposed to make sure the show is the best it can be.”

        For 26 years, Mathis had the best view in the house.


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