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Basketball referee John Shoppe feels ‘lucky’ after surviving tournament heart attack

Kevin Bennett | BDN
Kevin Bennett | BDN
Veteran high school basketball referee John Shoppe of Lamoine participates in pregame ceremonies at the Bangor Auditorium on Thursday, Feb.7, 2013. Shoppe has returned to his home in Lamoine, a week after he suffered a serious heart attack while refereeing the Camden Hills-Oceanside girls Class B Eastern Maine quarterfinal on Feb. 15 at the Bangor Auditorium.
By Pete Warner, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — As a basketball official, John Shoppe is hard to miss when he’s on the court, as he often blows his whistle during a game.

Eight days ago, on Friday, Feb. 8, Shoppe endured a few extra minutes of pain amidst a heart attack because he didn’t want to disrupt the flow of the game he was working at the Bangor Auditorium.

“I figured I could last long enough so that I could get off the court without anyone knowing,” Shoppe said Friday from his home in Lamoine, a week after he suffered a serious heart attack while refereeing the Camden Hills-Oceanside girls Class B Eastern Maine quarterfinal.

Despite having chest pains, the 60-year-old Shoppe continued to work the game while site supervisor Dave Ames went to find a replacement. He didn’t want to be a distraction.

“I didn’t want to step off the court without a whistle, because then they’d be looking at me, so I waited two or three minutes,” he explained. “I could run as far as I could hold my breath. I couldn’t run and breathe at the same time.”

He admitted the decision to prolong his departure “wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve done in my life, but it ended up alright.”

Even so, it was effective. Among the many people who never noticed he had left the game was one of the officials with whom he was working, he said.

Shoppe spent four days at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, where he suffered a second, less severe heart attack on Sunday, Feb. 17.

On Sunday, he had a procedure to insert a stent in an artery on the right side of his heart that was 90 percent blocked. He has seven other blockages that must be remedied.

Amazingly, Shoppe had not experienced any prior heart issues. Doctors told him his fitness level from officiating helped him make it through the two episodes.

He said between high school, college, YBOA, AAU and travel leagues, he averages more than 200 basketball games every year.

“They said the [smaller] veins that come into the heart were in such good shape that even after two attacks, there was no damage to the heart,” Shoppe said. “I was lucky.”

Shoppe is grateful for the outstanding care he received at EMMC and from the Bangor Fire Department EMTs who treated him at the Auditorium.

“They’re exceptional,” he said of the doctors and nurses at EMMC and praised the EMTs for their quick response to his crisis.

While at EMMC, Shoppe received an outpouring of support from his fellow officials, coaches, team members and others. That included cards from both Camden Hills teams and the Oceanside girls.

“It’s overwhelming,” he said. “Everyone that’s called, I appreciate that, too. You find out you’ve got a few friends.”

Shoppe said he is scheduled to have more procedures performed on March 8 to alleviate the blockages. It is his hope that he can return to officiating next season.

“I plan on refereeing next year, if they’ll have me back,” he said. “If I can stay in shape, I think I’ve got another year or two left in me.”

In the meantime, he has been watching the Eastern Maine tournament action on TV.

Shoppe has been a member of the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials for 30 years, but has refereed since his freshman year in high school, when he worked girls games.

“Hopefully, I’ll be around so that they’ll [the fans] love me or hate me next year, too,” Shoppe said with a chuckle.

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