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Calling The Shots – Earl Strom – Book Review

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One of the unspoken secrets in the sports book world is that the referee / umpire books are usually really good.  My own theory, for which I have no basis other than the books themselves, is that the arbiters of the game weren’t coddled since childhood and thusly have to actually learn English and communication skills.  Earl Strom’s book Calling the Shots, My Five Decades in the NBA, is one of those hidden gems that has flown under the radar for 25 years.

Earl Strom, while he was active, was seen as the best referee in the NBA.  He was seen by players and coaches as the referee who would make the right call, no matter the venue.  This gave him the reputation as an ‘away’ ref because he wouldn’t cop out at the end of games and make the hometown call.

Calling the Shots give the reader a history lesson of the NBA that is unparalleled in its uniqueness.  Hearing about the St. Louis Hawks and the Buffalo Braves and the Syracuse Nats – what their fans were like and what the arenas were like – is something that you’ll not find through modern channels.  Strom gives you a walk through of the early days of the league, through the supernova growth of the 80’s.  Listening to the referee’s perspective is different enough, but Strom, who called his first NBA game in 1957, lets you visualize how different and third rate the early basketball was.  The arenas were small and smoky, the fans were on top of the players and refs, fights were everywhere, and you never knew what would happen on any given night.  There was no glitz, no agents, no marketing to speak of, and little money for anyone.

Strom took a detour in the ABA (American Basketball Association) in the 1970’s.  The red white and blue ball league was the wild west, but it also birthed Moses Malone, George Gervin and Julius Erving.  Strom was there.  He saw all of these guys play up close.  Because he was a chatty fellow, his dialogues with these people are were numerous and worth preserving.  Strom, who was all about honesty and making the correct call, was almost driven out of the NBA when he came back from the ABA and its dollars.  Because he was rabidly independent, and constantly spoke his mind about the game and the state of refereeing, he made enemies in the NBA and ref hierarchy.  It is these same qualities that make this book worthwhile, even after all of these years.  Strom ends the book with ways to improve the game and the refereeing systems.  Even after 25 years, they still ring true.  Perhaps the oddball loudmouth – which some would say is a kind way to describe Strom, should’ve been listened to back then because his reforms would work today.  This is a high level sports book, devoid of jargon and cliche.

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