More than a decade ago, Greg Willard got the sort of attention NBA referees traditionally abhor — and he wasn’t even working the game.
The Minnesota Timberwolves were on their way to getting ousted from the first round of the playoffs for the sixth time in as many years. This was back in 2002, in the best-of-five days, and the Wolves’ lone home game in the series against Dallas wasn’t half over when Minnesota coach Flip Saunders erupted. He had to be physically restrained by a pair of assistants from closing the gap on ref Bill Spooner.
Turns out, Spooner had dropped a line on Saunders that demonstrated he had Willard’s back. It wasn’t the first time, either — Steve Javie had said something similar to the Wolves’ coach in the aftermath of a snit Saunders had with Willard more than a month earlier.
Here’s the backstory: In a 112-80 blowout of Toronto on March 19, 2002, Willard made a remark as he ran past Saunders about Minnesota forward Sam Mitchell‘s 3-pointer in the final minute, possibly about the sportsmanship Mitchell showed or the trouble he could have incited. Saunders snapped back along the lines of, ”I thought referees were supposed to ref games. I didn’t know they were supposed to give opinions.”
Let Saunders pick up the story:
“Since that time,” he said after the Wolves were bounced that day 11 years ago, “I’ve had two referees that, when I asked them about something, said, ‘I thought you didn’t want referees to give opinions.’ … I told them I thought that was total bull. First of all, my problem was not with them, it was with Greg Willard. To bring something like that up in the heat of the battle, I don’t know what you’re thinkin’. … They all talk.”
They surely do. The fraternity of NBA referees is a tight one, reaffirmed constantly by the rigors of their travel, the pressures inherent in their jobs and the guff they take while working from players, coaches and fans. Then there are their shared experiences, the close quarters of the refs’ dressing rooms throughout the league and the collegial respect that comes from knowing who’s good and, well, who’s still learning in a tough profession of split-second decisions.
Willard had that respect and more, not just from how he worked as a ref but how he endured his year-long battle with the pancreatic cancer that killed him Monday at age 54. He was one of the NBA’s senior officials, officiating nearly 1,500 regular-season games along and 136 more in the playoffs, two in The Finals and the 2006 All-Star Game. He achieved the best kind of status for someone in a competitive pursuit, the appreciation not only of his peers but most of those — those coaches and players — with whom he butted heads in the heat of their most intense moments.
Saunders and Willard made peace over their dispute soon after it happened and shared, in their respective roles, NBA courts for another 10 years. That sort of on-court silliness evaporated with the news last spring of Willard’s illness. It’s another example of that instant perspective, and life’s reminders, that none of us ought to need.
“Greg epitomized what it meant to be an NBA referee through dedication to his craft, hard work, and integrity both on-and-off the court,” said Lee Seham, general counsel for the National Basketball Referees Association, said in a statement Tuesday. “He was not only a great NBA Referee, but more importantly a wonderful person, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time.”
Some of the highest regard shown by an NBA player to a ref came back in October, after the Los Angeles Lakers faced Utah in a preseason game in Anaheim. Willard had worked that game, despite his worsening condition, and Kobe Bryant shared thoughts on the moment via ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Ramona Shelburne:
Longtime referee Greg Willard, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in June, had just taken the court and officiated the game even as his body showed the ravages of the pernicious disease.
The Lakers had already sent the game ball to the referees’ locker room. Several had shook Willard’s hand after the game. Bryant stopped by for a visit on his way out.
“He’s an extremely good ref,” Bryant said of Willard. “He doesn’t hold grudges. He just makes the call in front of him.
“Honestly, tonight I wanted him to T me up for old time’s sake. I didn’t want him to have any kind of special night. I wanted it to be just like it’s always been. I wanted to drop a couple F-bombs to him.
“I wanted it to be like how it’s always been. That’s the best way. “
All NBA game officials will wear wristbands or patches with Willard’s jersey number 57 for the balance of the season to honor his memory.