When home is a prison

Deposed ref stays busy with charities

By Sean Keeler, Post staff reporter

The prison has a pool. And a whirlpool. And a woodsy view beyond a backyard so well-manicured Martha Stewart could be warden.

Inside, on a big-screen TV, Tiger Woods is putting. There are portraits, wooden end pieces, a couch perfect for pouncing by young boys and giddy pets, and warmth.

It feels like home. Because it is.

The ball is small, unassuming. Looks like a cable box. It rests in Mike Mathis' office, yards from the den, below a wall of trophies and memorabilia, just right of a ray of sunlight cracking in from a window pane.

The shackle is a beeper. A square lump, no bigger than a box of Tic-Tacs, is tied around Mathis' right ankle, the outlined lump clear underneath his white socks. The chain is invisible, a beam from shackle to black box. It stretches unseen from room to room, always bent but never broken.

As of last Friday, the shackle had been worn for 87 days straight.

Mathis looks at his ankle, a squint twisting to scowl of indignance.

''It's something that you're aware of at all times,'' Mathis said. ''You take a shower, it's there. When you go to bed, it's there. When you put your socks on, it's there.

''I've never had anything on my body in my life I couldn't take off. I do now.''

The former NBA referee, a veteran of the Vietnam War, 12 NBA Finals and almost 1,600 regular-season games, must wear the ankle bracelet until Oct. 12.

That is when home is home again. When warm is not so cold.

Mathis, 55, in May was sentenced to 120 days of home confinement, three years of probation, 200 hours of community service and a $2,000 fine for filing false tax returns. He has since resigned from the league.

It could have been worse, up to five years in prison - the one without a pool - and a $250,000 fine.

The 21-year NBA veteran was one of five league officials who pleaded guilty to charges stemming from downgrading first-class airline tickets and pocketing the difference without reporting it as income. A civil suit is pending.

In addition to wearing the bracelet to monitor his movements, Mathis, who is not allowed to leave his Anderson Township home between 10 p.m. and 11 a.m., cannot leave the state.

''I don't have a lot of time to feel sorry for myself, or worry about an ankle bracelet,'' he said.

The Cincinnati native is free to leave the house on business all other times. And the days are constantly occupied - mostly at 1191 W. Galbraith St., the offices of his new company, Pro Hoop Sports Inc., and his passion, Mathis Care, a therapeutic foster care and adoption agency.

With the former, he helps install NBA-spec backboards and rims. With the latter, he helps install families.

''I've been able to devote so much time and effort to this, I say to people, "I don't know where I'd find the time to referee,' '' said Mathis, who served on the executive committee of the NBA referees union from 1990 to 1997.

Mathis Care, and its fund-raising arm, the Mathis Foundation for Children, were founded in 1996, about the same time Mathis became one of the targets of an investigation by the IRS. Mathis Care has placed 20 children in new homes since its inception.

Mathis' son, Marty, is Mathis Care's executive director. Mathis said the agency was a logical extension of one of the family's fondest, foster son Brian O'Neal. O'Neal was a friend and classmate of Marty's whom the Mathises had helped raise since junior high. Marty and Brian are now 27.

''I guess I was hit in my head twice in my life; I responded to the second one,'' Mathis said. ''Marty hit me the first time when he said, "Hey, could we take Brian in as a foster child?' The second time was when Marty said, "Hey, I'd like to come home and start my own agency.' I feel that, now, I've responded to the second hit - that this is what I want to do with the rest of my life.''

Mathis and wife Sherrie, the board chair of Mathis Care, received the 1998 Unsung Hero Award from the Southwest Ohio chapter of the March of Dimes. The family recently has taken in two more foster children through Mathis Care and served as a temporary home for dozens of others.

The inaugural MFC Celebrity Golf Classic and Auction, held last July at the Golf Center at Kings Island, brought NBA legend and current Indiana Pacers coach Larry Bird. This year's classic netted 300 golfers, including former Miami University star Ron Harper (Chicago Bulls) and former University of Kentucky star Rex Chapman (Phoenix Suns), and more than $50,000 for the Mathis Foundation for Children.

''To me, he's an inspiration,'' said NBA referee Bill Spooner, one of the MFC Classic participants. ''He's one of those guys who'll work 10 hours a day for kids he doesn't even know. I joke to him all the time, "When I grow up, I want to be just like Mike Mathis.' It's not a bad thing to say.''

Mathis is on the phone regularly to friends and former peers in the league. He wants back in, but is realistic.

As part of his plea bargain, Mathis may be asked to give testimony against other NBA referees. As many as 20 active officials are believed to be under investigation for tax fraud.

''I think until it's determined how far the investigation is going to go, no decision is going to be made on who, if anybody, comes back,'' Mathis said.

That could take a year, at least. More likely, several.

''He's been tough. I'm so proud of him,'' Marty said. ''You'll get into a silly (father- son) argument here and there and you're like, "Man, why are we griping at each other?' And then you go, "Oh, you're still trying to get through this IRS (situation).' But he's shaking it off. He really has.''

Publication date: 07-21-98

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