NBA Season Restart 2019-20

Disney World Diary: NBA referees have passion for Pickleball

ORLANDO, Fla. — Many years ago, I was a sportswriter based in New York, which is like being a political writer in Washington. It was so long ago that the Knicks were actually good. Yes, that long ago.

The All-Star Game was held in Cleveland, the hometown of Knicks tough guy Charles Oakley, who attended the festivities. This obviously put Oak in a good mood, and to show his appreciation, he sent a limo to the All-Star hotel of the New York writers and brought us to his childhood home, where his family treated us well and his mother made a great meal.

We arrived, marveling at our great fortune, because as you know the media is so low on the totem pole that we can do jumping jacks under a pregnant ant. We noticed Oakley had disappeared, so we went hunting for our new best friend.

We went down in the basement and there was Oak — sitting at a table with several of his pals, playing a high-stakes card game, all silent, all serious, some wearing wide-brim hats. One of us, I can’t remember who, said: “Hey, deal me in.”

Suddenly, time stood still. Oak’s pals stopped looking at their cards and turned their heads. And Oak shot us a stare that would kill. We quietly walked back upstairs and, just by chance, the limo was waiting outside.

That was a lesson: Know your audience and know your limits. Which brings me to Pickleball.

Every morning as I walk to get tested, I bypass a Pickleball game in progress. Pickleball is a mixture of tennis and table tennis, played on an outdoor court with a net and multiple players, who hit a ball that makes a distinctive “pocking” sound. Thankfully my room isn’t anywhere near the Pickleball court.

Sometimes I stare wishfully, wondering if I should get next game. But there isn’t any sign-up sheet and this isn’t just any Pickleball game. This involves the NBA referees, who are locked in and intense. They’re taking their Pickleball seriously and you can tell by the trash talking.

The ringleader is Scott Foster, who also happens to be one of the league’s finest referees. Foster is the LeBron James of referee Pickleball, clearly the face of the sport here at Disney, and Foster might be more focused on this championship than LeBron is on that other championship.

It goes unspoken that Pickleball here is reserved for the refs, and you can understand. As a group, they might be more universally despised than us media people, which says something. So there’s lots of referee-bonding at Disney — they jog together, eat together often and can be seen swimming in the pool together. It’s group therapy and the brotherhood is real.

Therefore, why would I interfere with that?

I know some of them. They all seem like nice men and women. If the average fan had the chance to speak with the refs, they’d be impressed. The players and coaches respect them more than you might imagine. Before tipoff, their conversations are always civil, engaging and often humorous. After tipoff, well, that’s another story.

So as I walk to get tested, and hear the noise and grunts and good-natured boasting and the “pocking” sound, there is a territorial line I refuse to cross. Just as the locker room belongs to the players and I’m only a visitor, Pickleball at Disney belongs to the refs and I’m only a bystander.

I do not want “the Oakley stare.” My feet keep moving.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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