Pinstripes and Passion: Through the eyes of a referee

Morgan Hinds (left) and Jim O'Donnell (right) share a few words during a dead ball. O'Donnell enjoys chatting with the various players he officates. (Photo by Nugesse Ghebrendrias)

From Newport to Eddyville and from Taft to Waldport, you’ll probably catch Jim O'Donnell roaming the courts of high school basketball often.

OREGON COAST — We all know we could make the right call in a high school sporting event, or so we think. 

Traveling, double-dribble, a foul, the casual fan could get it right, but for one Depoe Bay resident, he actually could.

JimO'Donnell took matters into his own hands after one of his son’s games.

“I got started because I was coaching my son's game and complained about the lack of calls — after a win, mind you,” O'Donnell said.“The guy who ran the youth league listened, and then I said something about how when I reffed before ... next thing you know I had a shirt and whistle again.”

O'Donnell was a veteran in the officiating world. Having grown up in Portland, attending West Albany and then Western Oregon, he officiated various sporting events spanning 20 years, starting back in 1993.

O'Donnell,58, waspart of the Portland Basketball Officials Association.

“Soon I was on the board for the youth basketball league in Tualatin and training high school students to ref little kid’s games,” O'Donnell said.“I loved doing that.”

 But officiating as part of the Mid Valley Basketball Officials Association is only a fraction of O’Donnell’sweekly schedule. He’s been involved with construction on new homes and remodels, but not as much since he became the owner of Depoe Bay Liquor Store back in 2010. O'Donnell is also part owner of the NW Quilt Expo, a yearly trade show in Portland.

“Basically, I joke that I've been unemployed" for about 30 years,” he said.

But being on the court is a completely different animal.

Being on the court among the players is fun for O'Donnell, but uniquely, he’s got to stay out of the game. As an official, your presence in the game is important. You have to keep the game running smoothly but most of all, correctly.

“It's great, and I am in the game, but I don't want to be seen either. I really don't, but obviously I'm seen at times, but It's their game,” O'Donnell said.

And it’s not all business as usual. O’Donnell teaches, as well. He talks with the kids often on the court.

“Typical stuff like get out of the key, get your hands down or off the other kid. I compliment them on shots, passes, etc.,” O'Donnell said.“During free throws, I'll answer questions about why the foul was called. I'm teaching the kids.

“I like doing that. I try and get a few smiles or laughs from the kids during the game.”

Working with Mid Valley Basketball Officials Association,O'Donnell travels to Albany, Corvallis and the Oregon coast. He also officiated the adult recreational league in Newport.

Basketball is his sport of choice, but it wasn’t a decision he made on his own. He played the sport during his younger years, along with soccer.

“I used to do soccer, but the knees don't allow that anymore. I was in much better shape then. Strictly basketball now,” O'Donnell joked.“I only have to run half the court, right? The kids run the full-length.”

And while it’s a job, it sure doesn’t feel like it for the former New York City native. O'Donnell moved to Los Angeles before relocating to Oregon. He spent time in Montana during the ’70s before moving back to Oregon in 1975.

 It’s fun and therapeutic at times.

“Just being on the court is fun honestly,” he said. “I know it's a job, but if I'm having a bad day, I know that soon I'll be running with the kids on the court. They are quick, and I'm trying to stay with them. That's the challenge, to stay young.”

But in the high school sports world, running up and down the court isn’t the only challenge. Sometimes, it’s not even the players on the court itself, but their parents in the stands. Luckily though, O'Donnell is equipped with a thick skin and a sense of humor.

“I hear parents yell out three seconds, over the back, traveling, etc., kids do the same,” he said. “Most people don't know the rules, and obviously they are biased towards their team. 

“Many times, during a dead ball, I'll turn to the parents (or coaches) and try to explain the rule to them or say they count too fast regarding three seconds.”

And that in itself is part of the job. They are tasked with keeping the game civil and running according to the rulebook, but that rulebook will often need to be explained to some unruly fans and parents from time to time.

That doesn’t take the shine away from the sport as a whole. Competitiveness and basketball aren’t mutually exclusive, the sport is amplified by the spirit within the players and the fans.

However, that isn’t something new to O'Donnell. Basketball is important to him and his two boys. O'Donnell coached them in soccer and basketball, while even getting a chance to play with them on a co-ed soccer team when they turned 16.

“That was probably the most fun I had with them,” he said. “Running up and down the field was so much fun. We played nearly every weekend like that for about 10 years.”

The Portland Trailblazers, though, created a bond like no other for O’Donnelland his boys, Dustin and Brennen. The pair are both in their 30s and live in Portland. They talk almost every day, probably about the Blazers.

O'Donnell manages social media accounts dedicated to chronicling the team he loves. His late wife once said he could write a book, he was such a big fan.

“So in 2016, I started doing a day-by-day of the 40th anniversary of the championship season. Then I did the next season before I started doing a 50-year capsule,” O'Donnell said. “I probably spend too much time at it, but I love doing it.”

He has accounts on Twitter (@77Blazers) and on Facebook (1976/77_Blazers) for fellow Blazers fans and basketball fans alike.

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