STURTEVANT — At the age of 75, Mark Mano has a rule from which he never deviates. And that is his TV stays off every day until 6 p.m.
Even in his golden years, he’s going to live his life to the fullest rather than settle for Gunsmoke and Bonanza reruns. That’s the only way Mano has ever known to live.
In the 1960s, he was driving drag racers at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour as part of the Mano Brothers Racing Team (his younger brother, Barry, served as his mechanic). And in the 1970s, he overcame considerable odds to become an NBA official long before the arrival of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird elevated the league to a new level of popularity.
The 1959 St. Catherine’s High School graduate was working high schools and small colleges when he was invited to participate in an NBA officials tryout camp in 1970 at DePaul University in Chicago. Three officials would be accepted from the 100 or so who attended the camp and Mano made the cut.
“Mendy Rudolph was the chief of staff for officials and he came to me afterward and said, ‘I like the way you move on the court, I like your presence, you have a strong voice and you’re whistle sharp,’ “ said Mano, who moved back to the Racine area last fall after living in Florida and Alabama since 2000.
It was a different world in the NBA back in those days, long before player salaries skyrocketed with the spiraling revenues of TV contracts. While there was plenty of star power in the league with the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West and Willis Reed, Mano recalls working in primitive venues, especially compared to today’s glittering palaces.
“I remember working a game between the Cavaliers and Lakers when the Lakers were on that 33-game winning streak (in 1972),” Mano said. “That game was played at the Cleveland Armory in downtown Cleveland.
“When we ejected a player back then, we filled out a form, sent it into the office and the player got fined $50. That was big money back then.”
Mano’s first season was 1970-71, when Abdul-Jabbar led the Milwaukee Bucks to the NBA championship in just their third season. But even though Mano said “his intensity was unreal,” when asked about Abdul-Jabbar, he doesn’t consider him the greatest player he ever saw.
That distinction goes to the 7-foot Chamberlain, who was in the twilight of his career when Mano entered the league. Chamberlain was 34 during Mano’s first season, but he remained a force who led the Lakers to the NBA championship in 1972, Chamberlain’s second-to-last season.
“This guy just used every talent that he had,’ Mano said. “He could rebound, he stuffed, he played great defense, he was an intimidator and, to me, he was the best player I saw.”
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Chamberlain was a major figure in Mano’s most memorable night in officiating. That was Dec. 13, 1972, when the Bulls were hosting the Lakers at the old Chicago Stadium.
Two seconds remained in the game, the Lakers led 106-104 and the Bulls’ Chet Walker was on the free-throw line. Walker made the first free throw, but the second bounced off the rim. After a scramble for the ball, Walker put up a shot that went in.
“As the shot is going up, I’m actually putting my fingers up that it’s going in,” Mano said. “But I looked up at the clock and it was still two seconds. The guy didn’t turn the clock on in time. The ball goes through the hole and 18,000 people erupt.
“I went over the the scorer’s table and everyone is jumping up and cheering. I didn’t have replay or anything, so I just went by my gut reaction and I said, ‘I’m not going to count that basket.’ So he announces, ‘Your attention, please. Mark Mano has decided that basket is not going to count. The Bulls are going to lose this game 106-105.’ “
Chaos erupted. And Mano was fearing for his life along with fellow official Paul Mihalik.
“I went out to center court and I motioned to 20 cops at the end of Chicago Stadium,” Mano said. “They wouldn’t move. Just then, Wilt and Jerry West and all the rest of the Lakers came out by us and said, ‘We’re going to get you out of here, Mark and Paul. Just get in the center of us.’ “
A beer shower ensued, but Mano and Mihalik escaped without further incident. And Mano was later vindicated by league officials who reviewed film and determined the sequence of events after Walker’s missed free throw took 2.9 seconds.
But Mano was fired by the league following the 1974-75 season along with two other officials.
“They told us that the general manager ratings were low,” Mano said. “We didn’t even know the general managers had anything to say about it. Why would you let the general managers rate referees? That’s asinine.”
Still, it wasn’t a sad ending. Barry Mano, Mark’s younger brother, was so inspired to give officials a voice in the aftermath of that firing that in 1976 he started Referee Magazine, a Racine-based publication that just celebrated its 40th anniversary.
“He was upset that I had no voice,” Mark said.
And Mark Mano returned to officiating at the college level before retiring in 1994. He also headed his family’s business, Mano Fencing, has become a dedicated platelet donor, works with the homeless, is a cribbage champion and still does odds and ends to this day.
“I haven’t stood around,” Mano said. “I’ve been retired since 2000 and I’ve still crammed a lot in. I don’t want to be sitting around watching stuff during the day.”