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.