He’s officiated basketball games in Kentucky's Rupp Arena, New York's Madison Square Garden and UCLA's Pauley Pavilion, but for Bobby Olah, it all comes back home.
“I learned how to referee in Livingston Parish,” said Olah, who was inducted into the Louisiana High School Sports Hall of Fame in the spring.
As much as Olah is known for his exploits as a referee, he started out as an athlete, playing basketball and baseball while growing up in Albany.
Olah began playing junior varsity basketball at Albany as a fifth-grader and sometimes got the opportunity to play with the varsity squad when players were unable to make it to games.
It also helped that he lived next door to the school’s gym, and his older brother, Andy, also played basketball. Olah said that only helped expand the pool for potential playing partners.
“I couldn’t wait for the bell to ring so we could go to the gym and play two-on-two or one-on-one,” Olah said. “I just had a great growing up being next door to the gym and having an older brother. Daddy wouldn’t let him (Andy) go unless he took me, so I got to go.”
The school year ended in early March to coincide with strawberry season and picked back up in July. By August, teams were playing basketball at a marathon pace, sometimes participating in six games a week.
“We had a big advantage, but the disadvantage (was that) we never practiced because we were playing,” Olah said.
“Every school in Livingston Parish had a tournament. That’s the only way they could make money, so all schools went to all the tournaments so they could make money.”
In Olah’s junior season, Albany rattled off 42 straight wins at one point, and as a senior, he averaged 24.5 points per game in helping the Hornets advance to the Class B semifinals – the deepest playoff run for any boys team in school history. He was a first-team All-State selection and played in the All-Star game but said playing in the prestigious Wedge Keyes tournament was also a highlight.
“Winning the Wedge Kyes was like winning the state championship,” he said. “The crowds were just tremendous.”
Olah signed to play baseball and basketball at McNeese State, but Andy was killed in a car accident, forcing a change in plans.
“My parents wanted me home, so I came back and I played at Southeastern,” he said.
That change in plans eventually changed Olah’s career path as well.
“The coach would let us referee scrimmages when we weren’t playing, and I just had a little knack for it, and I said, that’s what I wanted to do,” Olah said.
But becoming a referee came at a cost to both his basketball and baseball careers.
“I was a starter in baseball as a freshman in eligibility,” Olah said. “I hit .305, and I could either graduate in a year and two summers, or I could stay three years, and I fell in love with refereeing.”
It’s a decision Olah doesn’t regret.
“I don’t think I made a mistake because I wasn’t going to play pro baseball,” he said. “I was a better baseball player than I was basketball, but I wanted to hear that ball bounce.”
Olah registered as an official with the Hammond Basketball Association in 1959, where Roomie Wilson, the namesake for Southeastern Louisiana’s lion mascot, was supervisor of officials.
Olah said Wilson was the best in the country.
“He stressed rules, and he wanted everything perfect,” Olah said. “He was a former wrestler in college, and we were all scared of him that he might choke us if we screwed a game up.
“Roomie would recruit athletes when they signed up for his biology class,” Olah continued. “We had all kinds of athletes refereeing, and Hammond had some great referees then. I saw an opportunity, and I fell in love with it, and I wanted to be the best referee in the state of Louisiana. That’s what my goal was. I wanted to have the loudest whistle, the best signals – anything that I could control, I tried to have the best.”
In order to get there, Olah said he had to learn the ropes of refereeing, which sometimes meant officiating games involving players he had taken the court against just a few years before.
“It was hard for me to referee against some of those schools that I beat (as a player),” Olah said.
He went to work honing his skills in those same tournaments he participated in as a player, sometimes working eight games in a day at $3 a game.
Along the way, he befriended Livingston Parish coaching legends Alton Leggette, whom he called his best friend, and French Settlement coach Gerald Keller.
Olah recalled late-night conversations with Leggette centered on basketball rules that would bleed into the early-morning hours.
“He was the greatest competitor I ever met,” Olah said of Leggette. “He was a basketball genius for players, for coaches and for referees. I had a big advantage that a Hall of Fame coach like that just stressed rules.
“Alton and Gerald were perfectionists,” Olah continued. “Those guys made me a better official because they wanted perfection. If there was one call that was questionable and I would see them (away from the court), they’d bring that call up. They wanted me to referee perfectly.”
Olah advanced to the point where he worked boys and girls playoff games, eventually getting the chance to officiate a championship game between Ebarb and Pleasant Hill in front of a crowd of 12,000 at Alexandria's Rapides Coliseum. He was then asked to work a game between Captain Shreve and Brother Martin in front of 16,000 fans.
“I have refereed in front of 25,000 in Rupp Arena and (Louisville's) Freedom Hall, and that was a bigger thrill to referee because that’s what I wanted to do,” Olah said. “I felt like I was being paid to referee in college. They paid us pretty good. For high school, they didn’t.”
After working those championship games, Olah’s path turned once again after speaking with then-LHSAA commissioner T.H. ‘Muddy’ Waters.
“He told me that I was the best official to ever work a state tournament,” Olah said.
Based on that, Waters recommended Olah as an official to the Southeastern Conference.
“A week later, I was invited into the SEC, and within a year or so, I was working in five or six major college conferences,” Olah said. “I was still able to work high school (games) because they’d start in September. I was in great shape when college (season) started.”
Olah, who coached at Albany Middle and Albany/Springfield Junior High before eventually moving on to the Department of Education, also worked games in the Southwest Conference, Big East, Big 12, Southland and Gulf States Conferences.
“The Gulf States Conference, to me, was kind of like Livingston Parish,” he said. “I learned how to referee college in the Gulf States Conference.”
Along the way, Olah got to meet the likes of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Chris Jackson, Rudy Macklin, John Wooden, John Havlichek, Jerry West and Ted Williams.
Olah retired in 2001, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Longtime friends Willie Bader and Johnny Robinson attended Olah’s induction into the Hall of Fame, but his thoughts weren’t far from Leggette and Keller, who went to college games with Olah after retiring from coaching.
“I miss both of those guys,” Olah said. “I wish they’d have both been sitting in the front the night of the (induction).”
For Olah, his Hall of Fame induction was like coming full circle.
“I have nothing but praise for Livingston Parish because I learned how to play, I got a college education, and I learned how to referee,” he said. "I started off to be the best, and then I was honored as one of the best.”