By Earl Heath, Contributing Sports Writer
“Booker Turner was the Jackie Robinson of college basketball officials ”said George Raveling. “He opened the doors for black Basketball officials everywhere.”
The Hall of Fame coach made the statement in front of nearly a thousand friends, family members and fellow officials who gathered at the Faithful Central Bible Church-Tabernacle in Inglewood, California.
The legendary Turner was born on November 24th 1931 in Hope Arkansas to Jessie Mae Wright and Freddie Turner. Raised by a single mother, with the help of a strong group of “Wright” women (His grandmother and Aunt), his mother married Ross James Woodard (“Doc”). At the age of 10, the family headed west, and settled in East Los Angeles, CA.
He was a standout in track, football and baseball athlete at Roosevelt High.
After graduating he enlisted in the Army and traveled the world that included a lengthy stay in Germany where he continued his participation in sports.
He was fortunate to marry the love of his life wife Betty Jean and have two beautiful children daughter Danette “ Dani” and son Ronald who they called “Ronnie T”.
The two were Jazz lovers and were regulars at the Gardena festival annually. He was called “Pop”by those who knew him close.
When he returned home a severe knee injury force him to change-instead playing basketball he became an official.
It was his close friend Lo Clark who steered him in that direction in the early sixties. The two had met trying out for a softball team.
It turned out they both made the team Turner played centerfield and Clark was the first baseman for Broadway Federal Bank.
After years of success on the softball field it was Clark who told him, “Its time to get away from sliding in the dust and make some money”
In 1963 Turner became an official. He moved up the ranks rapidly from high school to Community Colleges and then the PAC-8 Conference.
In 1977 he worked an NCAA game that featured North Carolina vs. Notre Dame. The head coaches were
Dean Smith (NC) and Digger Phelps (Notre Dame).
His reputation grew as a no -nonsense but professional official.
He was part of six final fours and did the National Championship games in 1981 with HOF coaches. Indiana and Bobby Night defeated Smith and North Carolina.
He followed that in 1984 title game where Georgetown led by John Thompson defeated Guy Lewis and Houston.
The NBA came calling several times but he couldn’t leave his family and be on the road for days at a time.
Turner became the first African America Supervisor of officials in a major Conference.
He was the first to lead an All-Black crew in a PAC10 game.
He put on Clinics and had Seminars to develop officials. He gave them an opportunity to show what they grow their craft.
Michael Jordan and Raveling handpicked Turner to get all the officials for Jordans Hoop Camps because they thought he won special.
I would not have gotten to where I did without the help of Booker Turner,” said Violet Palmer from the podium. “I received a call one day and it was “Pop” He said you are the only women in America that can do this.”
“This” was the NBA. With help from Turner, Palmer and Dee Kantner went on to become the first women to officiate in the league. Her career lasted 19 years in the league.
She now is the Supervisors of Women Basketball Officials in the PAC-12 Conference.
“I owe it all to him. There’s no way I could have gotten to the NBA without him. We had our shoes shined uniform pressed and always on time. He was a man of character, and you could feel it every time you were around him.”
Turner was known to be dapper dresser going to and from games. He passed it on to his Ronnie and Dani. While traveling to games whether it be a local park, Pauley Pavilion or the Sports Arena. Lil Ronnie would be in a suit with shoes shined and manicured nails. That was something he passed on. The junior Turner carries that on to this day as a professional himself.
No matter where he traveled in the country Booker stood out with his dress. People of his era called it ”Sharper than a Gillette Blue Blade”
“It was just a year ago he was at a park working with young people teaching them officiating mechanics,” added Raveling. “I do believe this with all my heart he was the very beat of the best.”