Late ABA ref made call that still lasts

Andy HershockCourtesy Hershock Family

The referee died, and the world barely flinched.

It's a weird thing, even nearly 43 years later. You have surely heard of Hank Gathers, the former Loyola Marymount star who collapsed on the court during a game in 1990. You have surely heard of Reggie Lewis, the felled Boston Celtics forward done in by a heart condition 20 years back. When big-time athletes pass, we cry and mourn and leave flowers at the nearest shrine. We retire uniform numbers and wonder whether the games will, in fact, go on.

But what of Andy Hershock?

What of the ref?

You likely don't remember him. He was a little man -- 5-foot-7 in boots -- who spent four years as the best referee in the American Basketball Association. He was a tough guy from the streets of Philadelphia; a 43-year-old basketball junkie who smoked three packs of Benson and Hedges per day and loved betting on the ponies and raised 11 (yes, 11) children.

He was a disciplinarian, an Irish Catholic scrapper. He worked side jobs delivering prescriptions for Lehner's Pharmacy, manning the window at Philadelphia Park. Before games he would slather Cramergesic ointment atop his legs, to loosen aching joints.

"He lived a big life," says Mark Hershock, his son. "A very big life."

Then, on Jan. 6, 1971, inside Hempstead, N.Y.'s Island Garden, Andy Hershock collapsed.

Perhaps someone should have seen it coming. Three days earlier, during a matchup between the Carolina Cougars and Virginia Squires, Hershock crumpled to the floor, causing Bones McKinney, the Cougars' coach, to rush to his side.

"What in the world's the matter, Andy?" he asked.

"Oh, nothing," the referee said. "I guess one of the players just bumped me, that's all."

"Well," said McKinney, "don't do that again. I thought you had a heart attack."

"

My dad would take me to games, and we'd be the only white faces in the place. He would say, 'You respect people, people will respect you.' He didn't see color -- just basketball.

" -- Tommy Hershock, Andy's son

Now, without bothering to visit a doctor, Hershock was back on the court. The Memphis Pros-New York Nets game wasn't exactly a hot ticket. Midway through its fourth season, the ABA was still struggling to generate revenues. There were few household names to be found, and the dimly lit Island Garden was the worst arena in organized American athletics.

"Oh, it was bad," says Billy Paultz, the Nets' center. "Fans only sat on one side of the building. There was only a poor man's Nathan's out front where you could buy a pretzel."

Hershock never minded. When he wasn't officiating basketball games, he was thinking about officiating basketball games. His father, Andy Hershock Sr., had been a major league scout for the Phillies and Mets. The younger Andy was a sports addict from an early age, and his short stature and limited athleticism didn't prevent him from joining House of David, a barnstorming baseball team of bearded players. Hershock transitioned to umpiring local baseball games and, on the side, refereeing basketball. He began doing summer league contests for $6 a pop, then advanced to high school, where the pay was a whopping $8. By the early 1960s, he was known throughout Philadelphia as an elite court manager.

"My dad would take me to games, and we'd be the only white faces in the place," says Tommy Hershock, the second of his children. "He would say, 'You respect people, people will respect you.' He didn't see color -- just basketball."

When the ABA came along, Hershock jumped at the opportunity. Sure, the league featured silly red, white and blue basketballs and a wacky 3-point line and garish uniforms. But he would be paid $85 per game, plus a $55 per diem.

"Andy was great at his job," says Billy Walsh, a fellow ABA official. "He wasn't the type to give technicals just to give technicals. He was the ultimate pro."

That's why, even with the incident in Norfolk, Va., there was no way Andy Hershock wouldn't be on the court in Hempstead.

Led by the scoring of point guard Jimmy Jones, the Pros jumped out to a commanding lead late in the first quarter. With 1:22 remaining, Hershock approached the Memphis bench, turned to Don Sparks, the Pros' trainer, and said, "I'm sort of dizzy." A pause. "I'll be all right, though," he added. "Just let me rest for a second ..."

Hershock fell to the hardwood.

"The arena went quiet," says Gerald Govan, the Pros' center. "Someone said, 'He's having a heart attack!'"

Hershock was carried off the court and into the Nets' locker room. Al Levy, the team's physician, immediately confirmed the worst: The referee was dead. (An autopsy later showed the cause to be atherosclerosis, the thickening of the artery walls.) In the background, Levy could hear the whistles and cheers from the game, which continued with Joe Bavetta as the single official.

"It got to the players what had happened," says Paultz. "It was shocking. Then someone told us about his 11 kids ..."

Although the Pros-Nets game was covered by only a single Associated Press reporter, word of the tragedy quickly reached Philadelphia. Before long, relatives and friends were converging upon the Hershocks' brick row home at 5400 Lawrence Street in the Olney neighborhood. Delores, Andy's wife, was out walking the neighborhood with Andrew III.

"We were on Third and Duncannon, and a car pulls up," says Andrew III. "It was Jimmy Armstrong."

A longtime friend of Hershock's, Armstrong yelled for the two to enter the vehicle.

"It's cold out," Armstrong said. "Lemme give you a ride back home."

Upon arriving at the house, Delores was befuddled. She turned to Catherine, her sister.

"Did something happen to Andy?" she asked.

Catherine nodded solemnly.

"He was hurt tonight at the game," she said. "He ... he didn't make it."

Delores Hershock -- housewife, mother, spouse for 18 years -- passed out.

"She was all alone," says Karen Dunleavy, the third oldest, "with 11 of us."

The days that followed were an ugly blur. There was a wake and a funeral. The Kentucky Colonels held the Andy Hershock Benefit Night. The children, ranging in age from 15 months (Mara) to 16 (Andrew), struggled to grasp the magnitude of their father's legacy. In fact, they struggled for the ensuing four decades -- through the demise of the ABA, through the arrival of Andy Hershock's 33 grandchildren, through Delores' passing in 2005.

Then, one day this past March, something miraculous happened. The Philadelphia Daily News randomly ran a profile of John Thompson, pro basketball's first African-American referee. The piece referenced Andy Hershock, and the family reached out. Thompson and nine of the 11 children met at Tony's, a nearby Italian restaurant. For 2½ hours, Thompson, 83, told stories of a warm man who controlled the court with a surgeon's precision. Then he let them in on something they'd never heard: It had been Andy Hershock who convinced the Eastern League to hire Thompson. Their father was largely responsible for breaking a color barrier.

"We always knew Dad was a great guy," says Andrew III, "but we never knew what he'd done."

When the luncheon concluded, the oldest of Andy Hershock's offspring embraced Thompson. "My father has always been in our hearts," he told him. "But you've put him back in our minds."

Jeff Pearlman is a New York Times best-selling author.