Today’s basketball stars grace the pages of newsstand tabloids and make headlines on cheesy entertainment television. Tony Holmes comes from an era when the game was all that mattered.
"When I played, the [recreation] league was not comparable in other cities. You had to come to Philadelphia to play and one of the top areas was South Philadelphia," the 22nd-and-Cross-streets resident said. "There were only a handful, so you had to be good to play — maybe six or seven leagues in the whole city. Now you have a lot of weak players."
Holmes recalls running the courts at Sixth and Lombard streets in the late 1960s to early ’70s — which he remembers as the top rec league at the time — with future NBA players Billy Ray Bates and Isaiah "Bunny" Wilson.
"Nowadays, anywhere there is a milk bucket or a peach basket there is a league. You had to be good back then to play," the 53-year-old Holmes said.
Despite numerous league records and distinctions, Holmes’ impact on Philadelphia basketball has been much greater since he switched out of his jersey. After attending a clinic at age 22, Holmes slipped on a referee’s uniform and has been blowing his whistle for more than 30 years and counting.
"I always liked being around the sports game. We would go to the Philadelphia Spectrum in ’69, ’70; it was $2 a ticket," the president and founder of the Philadelphia Referees Group said. "I had a knack for calling out the game. When I was a little kid, I knew it was a walk or a travel before the ref called anything.
"I was like, ‘Hey, I’m really good at this stuff!’ I had eyes for the stuff."
His boyhood talent was honed and Holmes is currently responsible for assigning referees to leagues at most of the major parks in South Philly as well as numerous annual tournaments and events outside of the area.
Holmes still sports his uniform to officiate games four days a week, as well as additional spots when they arise. And he keeps things old school.
"I’m one of the few guys left. I refereed today with a shirt that has a collar on it," Holmes, who grew up with seven siblings at 11th and Fitzwater streets, said. "Today’s refs wear V-necks. I still have my collar, so take that!"
Holmes’ exposure to the game came early on, when one of his sisters taught him the ropes.
"I was maybe 10 or 12, maybe 12. My sister, Betty Holmes, she was ahead of her time. She was in the ’64 Olympic Trials but tore her ankle up," Holmes said of his sibling’s go at competing for a Track and Field medal on the world stage. "She took me everywhere with her, ‘Tomboy Betty.’ She could play basketball."
As he moved through his childhood starting at Academy at Palumbo, 11th and Catharine streets, Holmes eventually found his own game as a shooting guard for South Philadelphia High School.
However, his senior year was a rocky one.
"At Southern, I played basketball, but I tore my knee up. It just blew out one day," Holmes said of what was diagnosed as an ACL tear, which he let heal without surgery. "I finished South Philly High in ’73. And that year, my senior year, the teachers went on strike for 80 days, so we had no sports that year."
Following graduation, Holmes took up work at a local bank, which he kept for about a decade, continuing his education with night classes in finance at Temple University.
Time spent at Villanova’s Northeastern Christian Junior College and his three years of credits from Temple granted him a move to the team at Winston-Salem State in North Carolina. But he soon found things were not so sunny down South.
"I got homesick and had to come back. Nobody leaves South Philadelphia, I’m telling you the truth, nobody," Holmes said.
After a brief stint with the team at Lehigh University, politics and personal problems sidelined the remainder of his competitive basketball career. Holmes finished out credits for a degree in personnel and labor relations and settled back into the only place that felt like home.
"It’s a big city, Philly. It’s a real diverse city and it has its upsides and downsides," Holmes, who had nicknames like "The Franchise" in his rec league days and "Hollywood" during college, said. "I’m known [here]. I’m familiar with my surroundings.
"It used to be a pride thing with South Philly — always prideful. I just like the pride involved. And everyone lives cohesively within their own neighborhood."
Back in his comfort zone, Holmes picked up where he left off: Working in finance with a 9-to-5 grind and calling the shots on the courts in his free time.
But things were not the same as the heyday of his youth.
"I can really tell you why [the rec leagues died out]. The reason they did is the same reason people can’t play basketball anymore," Holmes, who started the first 35-and-older men’s rec league in South Philly, said. "When I came along, everybody could play basketball. Now, they don’t have the teachers who would be your coach. They just have parents trying to help out. There is no one there to teach you.
"I’m a throwback to the time when the people involved in this game actually played this game."
After working his way up the ranks, Holmes started the Philadelphia Referees Group in ’94, which currently consists of about 40 members Holmes keeps on-call and currently assigns to leagues at Marian Anderson Rec Center, 17th and Fitzwater streets, and Amateur Athletic Union tournaments in the tri-state area as requests come in.
"I teach them the mechanics of refereeing, the division of the positions," Holmes, who holds his clinics at Marian Anderson Recreation Center, said. "Each state has a government body to oversee the officiating. Here, the PIAA [Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association], you need to do that to do high school games. I teach them where to get the forms, things like that."
His organization and his 12-year tenured men’s league, which also run out of Anderson Rec, are what keeps him going.
"I love doing it. I don’t do finance anymore," Holmes, who retired from his staff accountant position eight years ago, said. "It’s a big congregation of people out there that played with my era that are still representing in sports management.
"I still see Isaiah ‘Bunny’ Wilson. At first I played with him, then I refed his game. Then I refed his son. And then his grandson, Tony ‘Scoop’ Jardine," Holmes said.
After 30 years of calling games on the hardwood, he rewarded himself with a golden whistle that he proudly displays around his neck.
Holmes took his last game-time shot 15 years ago and currently only officiates. But his legacy shows up daily on blacktops across the Delaware Valley, where referees under his tutelage provide the safe and structured environment kids of all ages need to play.
"I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t officiate Monday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday ’cause I get to be around the game that I still love at my age," Holmes, who has a son, Tony the 2nd, and a daughter, Tiana, said. "I can’t play. I got arthritic shoulders, an arthritic back, bad heels.
"I tell these guys, ‘One day you are gonna fall to the ground and just not be able to get up. And you’re gonna wish you could play.
"I wish I could play one more game. Just one more."