KENWOOD — On the court, the president talks a good game, but his money isn’t always where his mouth is, according to the Kenwood referee who officiated his last Election Night game.
“He’s not a good ballplayer; he’s average, but he talks a good game,” said Reuben Norris, a basketball ref with 41 years behind the whistle, who got the call late last year to officiate Barack Obama’s Election Night game.
It should come as no surprise to the city's basketball insiders that Norris got the call to ref that game.
After more than four decades making calls at city, state, college and professional games, Norris has earned a reputation among the game's elite players and coaches as “the godfather of Chicago basketball officials,” as Sudie Davis, the former athletic director at Chicago State University, once put it.
Mau Cason, who officiated the Election Night game with Norris and came up as a young ref under Norris’ tutelage, said Norris has officiated the biggest games in the city.
“He’s reffed Michael Jordan, Kevin Garnett — the guys that have notoriety in basketball,” he said.
Jordan, who encountered Norris while playing in summer league games, gave Norris a nickname: “Midget,” a nod to how short Norris is compared to the basketball giants he refs. But Norris said that didn't bother him. As a ref, he has to take everything in stride, and he now quotes the nickname as a point of pride.
"Michael talks a lot of trash," he said.
While Norris — now the head of security at King College Prep — no longer refs full time, he has no plans to stop blowing the whistle, even at the age of 78. The Douglas neighborhood resident has been officiating high school games this month.
Many of the president’s teammates during the Election Day match in November of last year — played at Attack Athletics, 2641 W. Harrison Ave. — were familiar players to Norris. He had officiated games featuring Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Craig Robinson, Obama’s brother-in-law, when they were young and tough on the court.
“Arne is tough,” Norris said, adding that Duncan was the one who suggested Norris ref the game because of his reputation as a hard-nosed, but fair, official.
But Norris said his reputation didn’t stop Obama from challenging some of his calls last Election Night.
“He yelled at me,” Norris said about one play where Obama failed to score. “I told him, ‘It wasn’t a foul, you missed the shot.’”
Not getting intimidated is key to officiating, and both Norris and Cason said once Obama got on the court, they stopped treating him like the commander in chief.
“He didn’t get any preferential treatment. He’s a ballplayer now, he’s not the president,” Cason said. “Once we got in that game, we controlled the environment.”
Norris started his career coaching high school players, including a young Glenn "Doc" Rivers, now the head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, but who was then bound to play in an amateur tournament called the Boston Shootout.
Norris said he started coaching and officiating to make a little extra money as a side gig from his jobs at the U.S. Post Office and at a Chicago Park District field house. But in 1972, he realized he needed to make a choice, and he stopped coaching but continued refereeing, which earned him $400 at weekend games in the park. He kept his day jobs.
In 1978, he got his first big game officiated the matchup between city hoop powerhouses, King High School and Westinghouse High School, which boasted former DePaul standout and NBA All-Star Mark Aguirre at forward.
“I wasn’t afraid of the big crowd,” Norris said. “I was a military man; I couldn’t be afraid.”
Norris had served two years in the Army after finishing high school in Evansville, Ind., and was quickly hardened as a referee in Chicago, where it was not uncommon for drug dealers to have a bet on a local high school game. Cason said he witnessed cash bets of as much as $6,000 on high school games, but both men said they refused to compromise their integrity.
Cason said he's been threatened by coaches who didn't like his calls, including at a game between bitter rivals Marshall and Crane in the 1980s.
"The coach from Crane came in the locker room and threatened both of the officials ... with bodily harm because his team lost. Both of us had to be escorted out of the facilities," he recalled.
Norris was once lambasted after he called a last-minute foul in a 1990 game between King and Simeon high schools that Simeon lost by one point.
“Every time we play in a championship game against King, Reuben Norris is always on the game,” Simeon coach Bob Hambric told the Tribune after the 60-59 game. “He always does us in.”
Norris defended the bench technical on Simeon for delay of game the same way he defends all of his calls.
“I hate that it went that way, but I call it by the rules,” Norris told the Tribune.
The criticism, though, didn't slow him down. At his peak, Norris was officiating at least one game every weekday and six over the weekend while working two jobs and raising his kids while his wife finished her master's at Northeastern Illinois University.
The sheer volume of games put Norris face-to-face with nearly every major player to come out of Chicago in the last 40 years.
Those long nights chugging up and down the court after working two day jobs, only to go home for a quick four hours of sleep before starting the cycle over, paid off. In 1983, after earning the distinction as the first African-American to referee the Illinois State Finals, Norris got the call from the NBA.
Norris still has a photo of himself standing between a very youthful Isiah Thomas and Earvin “Magic” Johnson. In the photo, Norris’ head rises just high enough that it would have nestled in the 6-foot-9 Johnson’s armpit.
While many NBA refs can claim to have called fouls on some of basketball's greatest players, Norris has the distinction of having the opportunity to make a call against many of them in one single game.
Norris is one of the few referees to stride the boards with the “Dream Team.” In 1996, Norris was the referee for an Olympics exposition game in Chicago that featured John Stockton, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Shaquille O’Neal, Grant Hill and Hakeem Olajuwon.
Norris worked for the NBA for a quarter-century, at first from the floor, but for most of that time he enforced the league's arcane uniform rules with a clipboard from the stands.
Norris still officiates several high school games a week and still trains young officials. And despite all the heat he's taken, he doesn't discourage them.
“You can have the best game in the world and still be criticized,” Norris tells young refs.
But after four decades, that hasn't stopped Norris from making the calls as he sees them — even if it means blowing the whistle on the president.