4000 and Counting: The Oregon Basketball Officiating Life of Dale Danner

My Uncle, Dale Danner, died from cancer this week. It is a tremendous blow to his family. Back in the summer of 2019, I had a chance to interview him about his extraordinary career in refereeing high school and college basketball in Oregon. He refereed for 47 years and was all set to officiate another state tournament when the Pandemic struck in the spring of 2020 and terminated the season.

What follows is the interview in the form of an oral history. I urge anyone with an interest in Oregon basketball or cultural history to read Uncle Dale’s journey to become one of the most respected basketball officials in the state and referee some of the greatest hoops players in Oregon history.

Becoming a Referee

I’ve been officiating Oregon high school basketball for 47 years. I’ve officiated close to 2500 high school games and 1500 college games in Oregon. I kept a yearly pocket calendar listing my games for most all these years. One for each season. I did it to for my own credentials, I suppose. I have a bank of memories about certain games but this lets me see them all and compare one season to the next. I’ve officiated 14 highest level state tournaments for boys and was selected to work six state finals. I have also refereed state tournaments for girls and worked two finals. I’ve also refereed all 20 Les Schwab holiday high school tournaments. As far as I know, I’m currently the 2nd longest serving high school basketball official in Oregon. I’ve been voted by the Oregon Officials Association as official of the year and received the same award from the Oregon Coaches Association. I also was awarded the Portland Basketball Officials Association official of the year.

I’m 69 years old. I started officiating in Portland in the 1972-73 season, I got into officiating while attending Abilene Christian College in Texas. As part of the degree for physical education, I had to referee a small number of intramural basketball games. I had played in high school and my goal in life was to be a high school Phys Ed teacher and basketball coach. I officiated three or four games and the professor told me I’d make a good referee. He said, “You look like you know what you are doing. You look like you belong out there.”

Funny thing is that I didn’t even like referees. I was always so hard on them as a high school player and a fan at the college games at Abilene.

The PE teacher/basketball coach thing didn’t work out because my father suffered a heart attack before I graduated from college and I felt like I should not return to Abilene for my senior year and stay home to help out. Returning to Texas to compete the degree wasn’t feasible. I tried to finish my degree at PSU but half the credits didn’t transfer so it disillusioned me and finishing college here didn’t work out.

I was in Portland working at Sears and I read a notice in the Oregonian informing anyone who was interested in refereeing high school basketball should come to an introductory meeting at the Cleveland High School cafeteria. I said to myself, “I think I might try that. See what was going on.”

I got to the Cleveland cafeteria and there must be 40 or so guys there of all age groups, But you could easily tell which ones were the old guard because they were smoking cigars. I started attending the classes and clinics, and lo and behold, I got my first assignment in December of ’72, at Bolton Junior High in West Linn. I think it was a seventh grade game. That was how it all started.

I started doing freshmen and junior varsity games because that’s how it worked to qualify for the varsity games. I put in for as many games as possible, including CYO and rec league games. Two years later, after being evaluated and approved by varsity officials, I became a varsity referee.

My first varsity game was at Reynolds High School in 1975. I’d done the JV game prior but one of the varsity officials didn’t show up and since I had varsity status, the other official told me to “strap it on.”

I said “okay” but admittedly was a little nervous. I remember one call in that game. I blew my whistle as the ball was loose somewhere in the key and I realized I didn’t know why. I had nothing. Then, I had the idea of three seconds in the key, and I did the three seconds signal and we’re going the other way. Surprisingly they must have bought it because I didn’t get any grief from it. I got paid $22 for that game plus mileage. Today you get paid $56 for a three-person game and $64 or $65 for a two-person game. It obviously hasn’t adjusted well for inflation. But I never got into it for the money. I will say however that when the economy’s in a downturn you will see people come into the association and try to make a few extra bucks. I’ve seen that pattern every time a downturn occurs.

Changes in the Game

The boys’ game has changed since I got into officiating. If you follow the NBA game, then you’ve most likely have noticed the trickle down. This took some time but it arrived. The days of pure team-oriented players went away and it became more about individual players. I remember there were some great teams that weren’t based so much on one great individual player. The David Douglas championship team from the late ’70s was one I remember. They had a very good player, Doug Skille, but that team wasn’t built around him.

What’s gone away in recent years is the mid range game—the ten or 15-foot jumper. Today’s game is slash, drive, and if you get covered, kick it out for a three. It’s now either a three or something at the basket. That’s changed the way I have had to referee. The player going to the basket hard is driving from the three-point line all the way to the hole and I have to referee that play the entire way. There may or may not be help from my partner(s). There’s a bunch of refereeing dynamics on the slasher. It used to be more about ball movement and set plays. Not just a pick and roll or high ball screen. The old days of running a pattern offense are long gone.

There have been a lot of changes with the players over the decades. When I first started officiating a player had to raise his arm if he got called for a foul. That sometimes led to confrontation, because you had to wait for him to raise his hand before you reported the foul to the table, and he had to raise his hand in the right manner or draw a technical foul. There wasn’t much dialogue between referees and players back then, but now there’s dialogue.

The relationship between players and officials has changed to where now there is conversation between the two. Today you talk to players to try and control their emotions so they don’t demean the game and hopefully develop some respect for one another. That’s evolved over time. I have had a few experiences of having said the wrong thing and now know what not to say. I’ve also come to the point where I don’t take anything. I used to tolerate a little but not anymore. The automatic technical foul is the “F word.” Not just directed at me but in general. However if it’s under his breath and about his own screw up and not a lot of people hear it, I may let it go.

One of the biggest changes I’ve seen is when coaches were no longer school teachers. This started in the early 90s. When that dynamic shift occurred the players became a bit more demonstrative, a little less disciplined. Winning became more important. With a teacher, it was more about education. They were educators. With the non teachers it was more about winning, they had more at stake and something to prove. The parents also began to change a bit at this time. They changed along with the coaches who no longer taught at the school. The parents seemed to have more impact on decisions regarding coaches. Plus they started communicating with the coaches about their child’s playing time.

Female Officials

The first year I started refereeing girls was a couple of seasons after the Title IX year in the late ’70s. I didn’t work many girls’ games early on. In that era they were refereed by newer varsity officials and less established ones. I wasn’t really too involved in the girls’ game until the OSAA changed the rules so that you couldn’t referee state tournaments unless you had officiated games of both genders.

There are too few female officials. In our association of around 300 officials, there are less than 20 females. It’s not easy being a female official in the boys’ game. I remember the first time I officiated a boys’ game with a female referee. I admit I was a little apprehensive. I didn’t know what it would be like. It was a two-person crew. She was an experienced girls’ official and as it turned out we did fine. The game I remember the most was my first state tournament game with a female official. It was a boys’ game. She was quite a bit younger and I had several more years of experience. I was the established guy. She was a female up and comer. We did fine. She wasn’t as vocal as I was, so it might have appeared I was trying to dominate, but I wasn’t. It’s not easy for a woman to referee males and interact with male coaches. They sometimes are challenged in a way that men aren’t and they certainly would get challenged more in the boys’ games than they would in the girls’ games. Refereeing the girls’ games when there are female coaches also presented a new dynamic for me as an official. It’s always a learning curve with officiating because players and coaches and the game is always changing. I do like that aspect of it.

Best Players

One of the best male players I ever refereed was Damon Stoudamire. He was pretty amazing. His range was incredible. Kevin Love was right up there. His play around the basket was unmatched, and the fastest outlet pass I have ever seen and later in high school he developed an outside game. Mike Dunleavy was a great shooter. There was Ray Blume and Mark Radford, Jeff Stout, AC Green. Tyrone Manlove. I thought Manlove was a sure bet in the NBA. He was a man among boys but some poor decisions kept him from having any success in college. There was also Freddie Jones, Kyle Singler and Charlie Sitton. I worked my very first playoff game on Charlie’s McMinnville team. The one difficulty I ever really had with a player was Terrence Jones. I couldn’t communicate with him because he would never look you in the eyes.

Before officiating basketball, I had very little experience engaging with African Americans, especially youth. I had attended a small Christian high school in Portland and small college in West Texas. There were no black people. In reality I met them on the basketball court for the first time. I thank officiating for this opportunity. It made me grow as a human being. I evolved as an official in those years in my relationship to black players. I learned how I could best engage so there would be an opportunity for easy communication. It was something that was necessary if I was going to advance as an official.

The very first talented female player I saw was from Tigard, Laura Mulligan. She was incredibly skilled, could really handle the ball well and her play was so much better than all the other girls.

Memorable Games and Moments

One tournament final I really remember was at Mac Court in Eugene, my favorite venue of all time. Jesuit versus Lake Oswego, one of Kevin Love’s teams. LO jumped out to a 17-point lead at halftime. Then Jesuit started to come back. With their press and ballhawking, they managed to cut the lead to under ten. Mac Court was packed and going wild. I had a few calls late that impacted the game, an out of bounds call, a traveling call, and a LO breakaway on a 2 on 1 fastbreak. On the play I was the underneath official. The Jesuit player made what I considered to be a great block on the driving LO player so there was no call. At the end I had these three calls that all went against LO and Jesuit won. The out of bounds call and the block were correct, but the traveling call may not have been. I’d love to have

that one back.

I was also selected to officiate the very next year’s state championship final at Mac Court between LO and South Medford. This was a Kevin Love and Kyle Singler match up and the place was rockin. One of the best games I was ever a part of, close all the way. LO had a one-point lead with under 15 seconds to play. South Medford had the ball for the last shot but they missed at the buzzer. One helluva game.

The one game that stands out in my career as a rarity was at Grant in the early ’90s. I was working with a good friend of mine who also happened to be a Portland Police Officer. It’s a PIL game. There’s a play…it’s deep in the game, fourth quarter. Something happened with two players on a breakaway drive to the basket and it triggered a response, and I mean a very quick response, between the two players, and we quickly had adults on the floor and we didn’t know which ones were administrators or ones that were potential problem causers. It took us a bit of time to get people off the floor and players to the benches. We got some help from administrators and were able to clear the floor. But it was chaotic for what seemed to be a longer amount of time than it really was. We were able to restore order and proceed by ejecting the two players involved and continuing on from that point. I had not ever had that kind of situation occur before nor since. I was startled at first but manage to gain my senses and do what needed to be done. It is a good thing my partner and friend had the training to deal with these kind of situations as the play that caused the eruption happened right in front of him.

About Refereeing

The key to becoming a great high school referee is patience. Letting the entire play take place before you make a decision. Just be patient and let it run out to see if there was an impact on the play or not. Even if the play is over. That’s the late call, but the right call. Managing a game is a true skill from beginning to end. The dynamics of coaches, players, fans, scorekeepers and time clock operators. It’s the administrative part of officiating that not many people truly understand and appreciate.

What I love about the craft of officiating is the adrenalin. The juices are running and it’s the ongoing and everlasting challenge of getting every single call correct. And with the right style. The perfectly called game doesn’t exist but the challenge of officiating one is the great love and ultimate goal of the job. I did it all for fun and the competition of it all. I would encourage young people to go into officiating today because it’s been so rewarding to me. I have a professional career in retail but the officiating has been sort of a second professional career to me and more rewarding. It’s given so much back to me. I’ve invested a lot into it but it’s given me more back. Officiating really teaches important social skills. You’re dealing with confrontations all the time. You have to make decisions. It’s good mentally for me and has given me a reason to keep myself in good shape all these years. There are many positives despite the heckling from the fans and the occasional grief from some of the coaches.

Higher Aspirations

For sure I had higher aspirations as an official. I wrote a letter to the NBA, way too early, like my fourth or fifth year. That was when I was going to a lot of Blazer games and thought I could do it better! What happened to me, I think, in my chance to get to Division 1, was that you had to go to summer camps, or a particular camp depending on who was running it. You had to have to a sponsor so to speak, someone already there to advocate for you. I recall when I was 29 or so and I was told I needed to attend a camp in Seattle. I was enjoying life back then. My priorities in life were different. Officiating was not number one. I was young, it’s the early ’80s. Life was fun. Things to do. The idea of going to Seattle for a weekend didn’t sound fun. I think now that was my really good shot to advance. I regret not taking advantage of that. I ended up wanting to work the next level, D-1, but never made it.

Here’s a funny story, I did officiate in the PAC 8, back in the days when they had freshmen teams because freshmen were not eligible to play on varsity. So I officiated some of those games and I guess you can say I made it to D-1. I did okay. But the problem was that the very next year freshmen were eligible and the conference didn’t need the extra officials. The commissioner of officials liked me and another year of freshmen officiating might have got me there, the big time. But it didn’t work out.

The Hair

I remember some heckles that made me laugh. The target was most often about my hair. I am well known for my perfect hair among other officials. Lots of stories about me getting ready before the games, well, getting the hair ready. One of my very best friends has a story about us, working a playoff game together. We were supposed to be on the floor 15 minutes prior to game time but I didn’t like the way my hair looked so I stopped and redid it, the gel and hairspray. I had to look good out there. I wanted perfect hair that never moved. I mean, c’mon, my first commissioner called me Sir Galahad or Lancelot because of my hair! We got up to the floor with just nine minutes before the tip off and it’s a playoff game! Well I had to have my hair right so we were late. That story has made the rounds.

The kids are the best hecklers, the funniest. Sometimes I’ll hear something and just start smiling, can’t help it. One time I was right in front of the student section on an inbounds play to start the second half and one young man said,“Is your hair always like that?”

“Yeah it pretty much is,” I said. “You seem to be having a little difficulty with yours tonight.”

The other students went wild on that.