NEWPORT — A basketball game may not sound like a recipe for tranquility to most people, but James O’Donnell relishes the blare of the buzzer, the pounding advance of players and the game-stopping screech of the whistle.
At 57, O’Donnell keeps pace with kids a fraction of his age as a referee with the Oregon State Athletic Association, the governing authority for all prep sports. During last week’s summer basketball camp at Newport High School, O’Donnell wrapped both knees for non-stop action as 23 teams battled it out with five minutes between games — 21 contests across three days, including 13 on the final day.
“It’s how I stay fit,” remarked a sweat-soaked O’Donnell, familiar to many sports fans as the owner of the Depoe Bay Liquor Store. “In the office season I get ready by hopping on a stationary bike and pumping hard during the plays, then backing off on timeouts.”
O’Donnell earned his stripes 25 years ago as a referee for the Portland Basketball Association. A general contractor until he took over the liquor agency from his late wife, Shellie, O’Donnell said officiating rekindled his passion for sports.
“I was an athlete in high school, just not a very good one,” he chuckled. “This is a way to stay in the game. It’s really a pleasure to help these young athletes, too.”
As a young official with a growing family, he welcomed the money, too. He’s a little flusher these days but still counts the rewards: $40 for summer league games, $100 for a regular season varsity match.
After Shellie passed away in 2010, O’Donnell found his safe haven back on the court. Last year, he traveled nearly 2,400 miles to officiate at 140 games during a season that run from November to the June camps.
“I’m ready for a break,” he said, recalling the knee he blew-out in the mid-90s during a high school game with future NBA player Kevin Love, and another knee at a Taft H.S. game in 2015. “Every part of my body said ‘let’s go this way,’ and my knees stayed there.”
Injuries aside, he finds satisfaction in nurturing young players, teaching them the rules, tolerating their mistakes and bringing the whistle to bear with a smile and a mild lecture.
“This started out as a way to earn beer money, but it’s become a lot more than that,” said O’Donnell. “The best part about this job is talking to these kids. I’m educating people about the game. In the end, I win no matter what.”