Before Mark Shannon became an educator, teaching speech communication at several local colleges, he spent 30 years as a comic referee for the Harlem Globetrotters and their offshoots, traveling the world with such legends as Meadowlark Lemon, “Pistol” Pete Maravich and Curly Neal. He was the one they threw buckets of water at after the game.
“I was the foil; I was the idiot out there,” Shannon recalled in his office at Marymount California University recently.
The games were rigged, the “reems” or comical tricks were scripted, and if the Globetrotters didn’t win, Shannon didn’t get paid. In fact, the other team didn’t get paid either.
It was no easy gig. The first few years, they were traveling 320 days of the year, living out of a suitcase for over 10 months at a time. But they didn’t have much time to play tourist.
“We flew into Oslo one time,” he said. “It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon. We got on a bus that took us to the arena. We played the game, signed autographs, got on another bus and went right back to the airport and flew to Stockholm. So, all I saw of some cities was the airport, the arena and the hotel.”
Busy schedule on the road
The daily routine was hectic. “An advance man would pick me up at 5 a.m.,” Shannon said, “and from 5:30 to 7:30 we’d do phone interviews at the local radio station, where we would tell everybody, ‘Hey, the Globetrotters are in town. Come on out.’ We’d give out free tickets to the callers. Then at about 8:30, we’d do the local TV stations in whatever town we were in.
“From 10:30 till about 2 p.m., we’d do school visits and tell the kids, ‘Be good at school, get good grades, listen to your mom and dad, listen to your teacher, and whatever you want to be in life, you’ll be a success.’ ”
At 3 p.m. they went to the car dealers, or whoever would buy a block of tickets, and participated in meet-and-greets and signed autographs and posters, he said.
“Then, about 4:30 we’d go to hospitals and visit the sick children, and we’d bring film crews and TV crews with us, and we would make the news that night,” Shannon continued. “At 5:30, we’d get our ride back to the hotel, grab our bags and gear, get on the team bus and go to the arena. We didn’t have time to eat during the day, so we’d end up eating hotdogs, burgers, pretzels and peanuts at the arena. The easiest part of the day was doing the show.”
After the show, there were more autographs and more folks to meet and greet, and then it was back to the bus and on to the next town.
Colorful stories to tell
Stories from those days are now part of Shannon’s teaching. “To get the point of an assignment across I draw on past experiences. When I teach global communication, I’ll talk about some things that go on in some countries.”
For example, in Saudi Arabia, even today, women aren’t allowed to drive or go out in public without a male escort, their father, brother or husband. Many students are shocked: “Really? This is 2017.”
Saudi Arabia is the most unique place Shannon ever visited. Once, the team played for an exclusive audience of six people: King Fahad, a couple of princes and a couple of other dignitaries at one of the king’s palaces.
“It was strange. We were used to playing in front of thousands of people.”
During another visit over there, he refereed a game between the national teams of Iraq and Iran, when the two countries were at war with each other.
“The referee that was scheduled was a no-show, and the promoter came up to Meadowlark and me and asked, ‘Can you referee the game?’ I agreed, but when I saw all the press, I thought, ‘Uh, oh, what have I gotten myself into now?’ But the game was very smooth, the players very polite. They shook hands after the game, they bowed to each other, and that was it.”
Shannon is also the faculty-athletic representative at Marymount.
“I am the liaison between the two. If there’s an issue, I help get it resolved. I am an extra set of eyes to make sure the athletes are doing what they’re supposed to be doing when it comes to the academics, and that they are on compliance, eligible to compete for the university.”
And whatever country the athletes come from, Shannon has been there, making them feel right at home.
Shannon, who also teaches at Harbor College, is a Southern California native and received a master’s degree in speech communication from California State University, Long Beach, while also working as a disc jockey and sports announcer at KOCM radio station in Newport Beach. In addition, he refereed school basketball games, and in 1985 he got his lucky break, when a referee scout saw him work a game and asked him to try out as a referee for the NBA.
During a pre-season exhibition game, Meadowlark saw him and offered him a job with the Globetrotters, and the two soon developed a strong bond.
“A funny story about Meadowlark and me is that I officiated his games, and he officiated my wedding. He was an ordained minister and the greatest star the Globetrotters ever had.” Meadowlark died in 2015.
And so, after spreading laughter and joy to millions of people worldwide, Shannon, 56, intersperses his lectures with humor and storytelling.
“Students want to get their money’s worth and learn something to prepare them for the ‘real world,’” Shannon said. “But they want to learn it in an amusing way without realizing that they’re learning.”
They get their money’s worth in Shannon’s classes.