Bobby Heebner

There may be a few old-timers from Reading/Berks who might not agree with me, but the 1970s were great years for basketball officiating in the area. We had Tom Kranis and George Zeppos (known as “The Greeks”), Mike Schorn, Tim Braun, Jack Slusser, my dad, John Carl, Barry Sherman, Ed Tobias, etc. Among them was Bobby Heebner.

Mr. Heebner and my dad were frequent officiating partners during the District 3 playoffs and Inter-district playoffs. They’d take refs from Berks County to referee in Harrisburg or Scranton … They’d send York officials to Reading and the Philly suburbs … Harrisburg refs did Lancaster games, and so on.

My dad would often carpool with Mr. Heebner for out-of-area games, and most of the time I was in the backseat, tagging along to a game. Mr. Heebner was strong, really tough, and quiet. He was known as a guy you didn’t want to mess with. Mr. Heebner was a good partner to have … most of the time.

There’s a rule among officials that after a game is over, you depart the court together. No exceptions. You walk onto the court as a team — you and your partner — and you left the court as a team. It didn’t matter how you departed. You could run, walk, scamper, strut, whatever. Just don’t leave without the other.

My dad and Mr. Heebner had a lot of big high school games over the years and there was a game I remember involving Harrisburg or Chambersburg, maybe Steelton, I can’t all the way remember. But it was packed house at Shippensburg, and it was a tight game and the crowd was getting into it. Of course, there’s a call at the end, leaving half the gym angry and pissed off.

As the game is coming to a close, more and more disgruntled fans are gathering nearer to the court. Emotions were running, high, but not Mr. Heebner’s. As the final buzzer sounds, pops finds himself at midcourt while Mr. Heebner is under one of the baskets — the far basket from the officials dressing room.

Some fans are kind-of storming the court and other fans are just plain hot because their team lost. My dad sees the situation and observes Mr. Heebner casually strolling through the mob gathering on the court. The throng was growing. Pops was ready to skedaddle. Not Mr. Heebner.

As Mr. Heebner approached my dad at halfcourt, my dad expected to break into a jog toward the locker room. Mr. Heebner didn’t break stride. “Bobby,” my dad said. “Let’s go! Let’s get out of here.”

“I will never run off of a basketball court,” Mr. Heebner replied. “Never.” Mr. Heebner left the court on his own terms. Like I said, I always remember him as being strong as an ox but understated and humble. I thought he was a damn good ref. He ran enough during a game, I guess. He wasn’t going to run after it.

There’s another story about Mr. Heebner that I’d only heard — never witnessed. It involves Cicero Lassiter, a Reading city league legend, who apparently challenged Mr. Heebner to a fight after a summer league game. When Mr. Heebner started taking Lassiter up on it, Lassiter said: “You’ve got that striped shirt on. If you didn’t have that shirt on, I’d take your head off.”

Mr. Heebner removed the whistle from around his neck and casually took off his refereeing jersey. “I don’t have my shirt on now,” Mr. Heebner said. The fight was cancelled.

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Sam Marrella

You guys know and remember Sam Marrella. Even if you don’t, no biggie. It’s why I write these. Sam Marrella was the point guard on some really good Wilson teams in the early 1980s. I mean, of course Buddy Kemp, Doug Ertz and Rick Ferry were more important, but Sam played his role getting them the ball. (JK, Sam … last shot I’ll take)

Those three other guys all were frontcourt players so I didn’t really care about them. I didn’t have to guard them. And apparently, according to my dad, I never guarded Sam Marrella, either, though he was always my defensive assignment every time I played against him.

Played with and against Sam Marella most of junior high through our early 20s. Even though we didn’t go the same school, we got friendly because of our dads. Both were basketball officials. So anytime my dad found himself reffing with Mr. Marrella, chances were Sam was tagging along with his pops like I was with mine.

And I’ll use this sentence to tell you that Sam’s dad, Paul Marrella Sr., was a wonderful and upbeat man. Great demeanor. Great disposition. I can’t remember Mr. Marrella not smiling. He would have turned 85 recently. RIP.

So Sam and I played with each other and against each other in countless games — maybe one-on-one after our dad’s reffed a city league game, maybe at West Reading summer league, Winter rec leagues, high school, all-star games, you name it.

One night I was playing against Sam in a game at West Reading. I can’t remember if I was on Osan’s, the Hofbrau, Brewery Inn … I’m getting them all mixed up now. But I’m playing against Sam and my dad is watching because he had reffed an earlier game and was going to give me a ride home.

Sam’s team beat us. Sam’s teams always beat my teams. I think I know why now. After the game, I get into the car, with my dad at the steering wheel. Before he hits the gas, there’s a pause, a moment of silence if you will. And when I sense the delay, I look at my dad. He was already looking at me.

“Son,” my dad said with emphasis. “You gotta guard that guy, I mean, Jesus Christ, he does whatever the fuck he wants against you.” Pops looked away, stepped on the gas, and we didn’t talk the rest of the way home.

My personal record against Sam Marrella has got to be something like 2-27. But you know what? I’m actually giving myself two. I swear to god I can never remember beating Sam Marrella ever in my life at anything! Best I could do was play on a couple of all-star teams with him. That’s a humble brag, people.

After all these years, I love Sam. But I’m pretty sure he’s the reason I hate Wilson.

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Greg Manning

If you were a white kid growing up on Reading High basketball in the 1970s, especially one growing up in the suburbs, one thing became apparent and it became apparent immediately: If you were white, and you ever wanted to be any good, you better be able to play against Reading High, and all black players. Period. End of story.

And Reading High had black players. But Reading High and its players defied the stereotypes that often cloak black teams: undisciplined, poorly coached, up-and-down style, athletic but not fundamentally sound.

But I was lucky! I saw Reading High play basketball before I even knew what a stereotype was. And as I’ve said before, at Reading High, basketball was beautiful. The legendary Pete Carril coached there early in his career, and then came the best coach you never heard of: Jim Gano.

Reading High was more athletic than most of its opponents, but the Red Knights were also smarter. Reading High was quicker than most of its opponents, but it out-executed you into oblivion. Reading High players could dunk better than most opponents, but they could also pass and cut better than opponents. Reading had it all: The best athletes, the best coach, the most discipline on a court I’ve ever seen.

Of course there were terrific white players who came through Reading High: Gary Walters, Stevie Hahn and Perry Wentzel, Steve Rossignoli, Neil Christel, Tony Bonanno, Pete Pasko, Pete Mullenberg and plenty of others. But those white guys WERE ON Reading High. I was never going to be ON Reading High.

Then I saw Greg Manning play. Greg Manning was Steelton-Highspire’s incredible point guard who ended up going to Maryland. He graduated from Steelton in 1977, which means I saw him as a junior at 11 or 12 years old. Greg Manning was the template for me, the first white guy I saw up close who knew how to play against black players. Greg Manning and Steelton gave the Red Knights fits. I don’t know what the head-to-head record was between Reading High and Steelton in the 1970s, but both teams and fans had their share of incredible highs and immense lows.

Manning was 6-foot-3 and quick, but there were still things any young player could take from him. And I did. … the shot fake, the leaning in to create contact, the best way to take advantage of getting a half-step on a defender, make your damn free throws, get rid of the ball sooner rather than later, use both hands, and on and on and on.

A few years later, I started watching Larry Bird and he became my guy for more than a decade. But before Bird, there was Greg Manning and he was a bad, bad boy.

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