Roughly midway through Emanuel “Manny Sokal” Sokolofsky’s 13-year career as an NBA referee, the now 88-year-old Oceanside newcomer made a bad call.
Anticipating a foul, Sokolofsky blew the whistle on then Philadephia 76ers forward Bobby Jones.
“Tell Bobby Jones I goofed on the call,” he recalled telling coach Larry Brown. “But I’ll tell you one thing,” he added with a chuckle. “I’m not going to even it up.”
Described at the time by Phil Elderkin — sports editor of the Christian Science Monitor from 1971 to 1975 — as “something of a folk hero in the National Basketball Association,” Sokolofsky was known for his flamboyant style.
“Manny’s calls probably produce the strongest fan-player reaction of any referee in pro basketball,” Elderkin wrote. “Not because they are bad, but because they are delivered with such dramatic flair and confidence.”
Now, after a career spanning more than 50 years of officiating basketball games, Sokolovsky has settled at an Oceanside long-term care center where, he said, “I’m here to stay.”
Born in 1929 to a family of European Jewish immigrants, Sokolovsky was the fourth-oldest of six children. He grew to love the sport while playing pick-up games on the streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn.
Sokolofsky played all four years while attending Thomas Jefferson High School in East New York, and made a name for himself with his accurate shooting. He received four scholarship offers to play in college, but his parents, who he said spoke nothing but Yiddish, told him, “You can’t go to college. You have to make a living.”
He got work as a bus boy at the cafeteria-style restaurant chain Dubrows on Utica Avenue while officiating games on the side, for $5 a game, for the Hebrew Basketball Society. He also worked games for the Jewish Center in Manhattan, as well as church league games and others around the city.
In 1952, after serving a two-year stint in the Army, Sokolofsky began working at a 7 Up bottling plant in Mineola, commuting via the Long Island Rail Road, and for years he continued to referee night and weekend games. “Anything I could get,” he recalled.
He caught a big break when he was asked to fill in for a no-show and call a scrimmage match between City College and Manhattan College at Madison Square Garden. There he caught the eye of City College coach Dave Polanksy. “Where have you been all my life?” Sokolofsky recalled being asked after Polanksy learned that he was calling his first college game.
Sokolofsky continued officiating college games, and while working a New York University scrimmage in 1964, he attracted the attention of a veteran NBA referee — and the newly appointed league supervisor of officials — Sid Borgia.
Sokolofsky got a call that week. “I’ve got some good news,” Borgia told him, and he was sent down to the New York Knicks training camp at the Philadelphia Military Academy. There Borgia instructed him to stand on the court. “Don’t blow the whistle,” he commanded.
This struck Sokolofsky as odd, he recounted, but shortly afterward, he received a letter saying the league was seeking to hire more West Coast-based referees for the season, but that it would continue to keep him in mind.
“Well, they never said they didn’t want you,” Sokolofsky remembered his wife, Frances, telling him.
“You think I’m giving up?” he shot back. Undeterred, the next season Sokolofsky called again. “We’re keeping you in mind, Manny,” Borgia told him, but offered no guarantees. At the time, the league had 10 teams and 10 referees.
Sokolofsky was still working at the 7 Up bottling plant, but before long he got a call while on the factory floor. “How would you like to be an NBA referee?” the voice on the line asked. It was then NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy.
“When do you need me?” Sokolofsky replied and quit the job with two years to go until he would receive his pension. From 1965 to 1977, he served as a full-time professional referee for the NBA, earning $65 a game.
He closed the old Madison Square Garden in 1968, refereed for the Knicks during their 1973 championship series — “That was some team,” he said — and called the shots for players such as Jerry “Mr. Clutch” West, Wilt “The Big Dipper” Chamberlain, Elgin “Tick Tock” Baylor and Dave “The Butcher” Debusschere, the last of whom he described as “one hell of a ball player.”
Sokolofsky, who Elderkin wrote, “twists his face into a Don Rickles caricature almost every time he makes a call,” brought a certain manic energy to the court, so much so that he once split his pants during a game. Afterwards, he was known to carry a sewing kit with him everywhere he went.
Sokolofsky confirmed the tale. “Oh yeah, of course it was true,” he said, eyes wide, still full of the energy he was known for. He described Connie “the Hawk” Hawkins, another player he refereed in the NBA, and later for the Harlem Wizards, with arms raised, curled around in bear-hug fashion. “One of the highlights of basketball in Brooklyn,” he said of Hawkins. “You ever see a pair of arms, a wing span of a plane?” he added. “He would never dunk. He would lay it right in nice and soft.”
Despite his admiration for the players, Sokolofsky said, he rarely knew them on a personal level. “I was the referee, you know?” he said of the separation between officials and players.
He traveled the country and the world, he said. During the summers, he would officiate for the NBA’s Puerto Rico affiliate, the Baloncesto Superior Nacional, or National Superior Basketball League.
Manny and Frances, who were married in 1955, after attending high school together, had two children. Francis died in 1997 at age 64.
The summer trips to Puerto Rico were one of the many perks of having a father work in the NBA, their daughter, Debbie, an Oceanside resident, recalled. Others included meeting Hollywood celebrities such as Fred Astaire and Shelley Berman. But there were drawbacks as well.
“He’d be gone for weeks at a time,” Debbie recounted. “For 13 years I barely saw him.” She described how she and her brother, Glenn, would wait, staring out the window of their Brooklyn apartment, for him to return. Eventually he would come, bearing gifts and souvenirs in a big duffel bag in which he would store his laundry.
After leaving the NBA, Sokolofsky moved on to officiate for the U.S. Basketball League and later the Harlem Wizards traveling team before he retired in 2000. In 2013 he was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame.
He still watches the game today, filtered through the lens of his own experience. Watching players such as Steph Curry and Kobe Bryant, Sokolofsky recalls refereeing their fathers, Dell Curry and Joe Bryant. The game is different now, he said: The players are faster and stronger, and 3-point shots, he said, give “the little guys a chance to score.”
“It’s a challenge — you go out there with 7-footers, and me throwing the ball up at 5 feet 8 inches,” he said of his career as a referee, stopping suddenly with a toothy, mischievous grin before adding, “I was the boss. I had the whistle.”