NBA referee Greg Willard, who worked in the NBA playoffs last year and one final preseason game this year, has passed away Monday due to pancreatic cancer. He was 54.
Willard had worked nearly 1,500 NBA games since he entered the league in 1988 and had even done two NBA finals. He was diagnosed last year.
“The entire NBA family joins me in mourning the loss of one of our own, Greg Willard,” NBA Commissioner David Stern said in a statement. “Greg touched all those with whom he came in contact thanks to his extraordinary spirit, dedication and hard work. As a Finals referee, he reached the highest level of his profession while at the same time demonstrating a strong commitment to his family and his community. Our thoughts are with his wife Laurie, their children and the rest of the Willard family during this difficult time.”
“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 National Basketball Referees Association General Counsel Lee Seham in a statement. “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.”
There is a fantastic post from Elliott Teaford at the Los Angeles Daily News about Willard from earlier this year, the two knew each other from when they went to Long Beach State together.
Willard refereed one last preseason game this season, and while a lot of people knew it wasn’t public that this was just one more run for him. But Kobe Bryant knew — and Kobe was still Kobe, barking at him after a first period no call.
“Honestly, tonight, I wanted him to ‘T’ me up for old time’s sake,” Bryant told me after the game. “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 of F-bombs on him.
“I wanted it to be like how it’s always been. That’s the best way.”
Later, Bryant went to visit Willard in the officials’ locker room. He didn’t want anyone taking photos or scribbling down what was said or done. He didn’t want anyone to know.
LeBron was thinking of Willard on Tuesday, too.
NBA officials will wear arm bands with Willard’s number on them the rest of the season.