The sight sent the Palestra crowd into stitches: a bald, portly referee performing a shimmy to signal a first-quarter travel call on the NBA’s “Chosen One,” LeBron James.
Back and forth, he wobbled, bumbling over to the scorer’s table with 8,722 pairs of eyes agape. To most, the act came as a shock — an official not only standing up to but stealing the thunder from James, playing court jester to LeBron’s king.
But to “Battle for I-95” architect Rahim Thompson, it was just Keith “Showtime” Saunders flashing the crowd-pleasing persona that made him a no-brainer choice as the game’s referee.
“That’s just a part of his makeup,” Thompson said. “No matter if it’s the championship game … or 1-on-1, he always brings entertainment.”
Though just as colorful off the court — Thompson’s “very boisterous” label only begins to describe his personality — Showtime does not view his own animated refereeing as a show at all. It’s just a second job.
For over 30 years, the former Philadelphia Naval Hospital and Pathmark employee has officiated basketball games on the side, touring his home city from the Sonny Hill League on 50th Street to Thompson’s “Chosen League” at 10th and Olney. He recently finished a stint with (surprise) the Harlem Globetrotters.
Along the way, he’s brought his unmatched flair, which sometimes confuses fellow officials, but always sends crowds into hysterics.
“Basketball today — it’s taken too seriously,” Saunders said. “Nobody has fun anymore.”
The limitless experience has in turn made him a Philly hoops encyclopedia. Sunday night, he galloped, shook, flailed and whistled with a fatherly pride. After all, the entire Team Philly roster “developed under my whistle,” Saunders boasted, including leading scorer Kyle Lowry “since he was a baby.” From Friends’ Central standout-turned-NBA journeyman Hakim Warrick to Chester-born star Tyreke Evans, they returned to the Palestra all grown up.
“To see them in high school with their mothers and fathers … and to be as successful and educated as they are [now], it makes me feel good,” Saunders said.
All of the local pros greeted Showtime with hugs, handshakes and rubs of his shiny dome. But the first person to embrace him pregame? That would be Penn coach Jerome Allen or, as Showtime knows him, “Pooh,” from the Jerry Richardson League on 25th and Diamond Streets.
“I love Pooh!” Saunders said with a chuckle. “He’s been a great inspiration to the children and a lot of the referees.”
After sharing the court with local legends over a long career, Saunders’ Sunday night gig pitted him against global icons in James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul. But at no point was the referee starstruck.
“When I get on the court, I block out who it is,” he said. “I just see colors.”
So the show went on and Showtime stuck to his four tenets: stay in your area, call it how you see it, don’t take any nonsense and, above all, entertain. His performance added an extra sizzle to a night which proved that, even during an NBA lockout, basketball never stops.
“When they get on my floor, I want them to feel free,” said Saunders, who lamented the business his beloved game has become. “Just enjoy the game and don’t worry about what’s going on outside.”
That outlook led to the uproarious scenes that played out at the Palestra. Tops among them for Thompson was a “hilarious” charge call on Anthony that Showtime indicated with a series of hip thrusts and fist pumps.
Even LeBron shared plenty of locker-room laughs with his superstar teammates, Thompson said. NBA refs routinely award James an extra step on drives. Not Showtime.
Showtime put his stamp on the Palestra and left a mark on the night’s main attraction. According to Thompson, LeBron gave Saunders the ultimate tip-of-the-cap after the game:
“Rahim,” James reportedly said. “I couldn’t intimidate him!”
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