Posted 2/18/2003 1:01 AM
Updated 2/18/2003 1:28 AM
By Roscoe Nance, USA TODAY
|Referree Ken Hudson works an NBA game. Hudson became the NBA’s second black game official in 1968.|
|Courtesy Ken Hudson|
“I said then, ‘If this works out, a lot of people will get an opportunity,’ ” says Hudson, 63, who officiated in the NBA from 1968-72. “History has proved me right. That’s what makes me happy.”
Jackie White, now deceased, broke the color barrier among NBA referees during 1967-68 season. Hudson was the league’s only black referee during the 1968-69 season. The NBA this season has 26 minority referees on its 60-person staff; 24 African-Americans and two Hispanics.
Racial tension was high across the USA when Hudson entered the NBA. But he says he didn’t have any problems. He worked 60 games his first season, earning $90 a contest, while learning the ropes from veterans Norm Drucker, Joe Gushue and John Vanek, who were his officiating partners on most nights.
“They were very protective and very helpful,” Hudson says. “During that first year you’re kind of feeling your way. They were there, one, to teach me how to referee, and, two, to protect me.”
Hudson says as it turned out, he didn’t need a whole lot of protection from fans, coaches or players.
“On all the teams there were one or two guys who would go out of their way to be supportive,” he says. “Walt Bellamy, Jerry West, Gus Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain. They would let you referee, and others would pick up on it.”
If a player did question a call, Hudson would only take so much, and, regardless of who the player was, Hudson wouldn’t back down. He established that from the outset by hitting Oscar Robinson with a technical foul in the second game he worked, an exhibition contest in Columbus, Ohio.
“He just looked at me,” Hudson says. “He couldn’t believe that I would call a technical on him when most of the other guys wouldn’t. He looked at me as if to say, ‘Are you OK?’ “
“Kenny had (nerve),” says Boston Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach, who along with Bill Russell, player/coach of the Celtics that season, and Milwaukee Bucks center Wayne Embry, played a major role in the NBA hiring Hudson. “He would call it. He was always in good shape, and he was emphatic. He was a pretty good referee, if there is such a thing.”
Hudson, 5-6, whose book about his career as an NBA referee, A Tree Stump in the Valley Of Redwoods, will be available in May, says coaches weren’t openly supportive of him, but they weren’t hostile toward him, either.
“Most coaches treated everybody the same,” he says. “Some coaches would attack everybody. If I happened to be on the court, they would still express their opinions. The only guy kind of left of center was Paul Seymour (coach of the Detroit Pistons), but he treated everybody the same way. Winning was so important to him that sometimes he got out of hand.”
Hudson says that some fans probably were upset to see a black referee, but none of them ever confronted him or directed racial slurs at him that he heard.
“Fans were fans,” says Hudson, who says refereeing summers in New York’s Rucker League prepared him for the NBA. “That made me immune to any craziness from people. That was a good training ground. You make a call and guys would jump all over you.”
Hudson began refereeing while he was attending Central State (Ohio) on a baseball scholarship. His work-study job was with the basketball team, and one of his duties was to referee scrimmages.
Hudson enjoyed refereeing so much that continued calling games in the Eastern League, semipro leagues and for high schools after he graduated and went to work for Gulf Oil in Boston.
“It was sort of an extension of my athletic career,” says Hudson, who gave up on becoming a Major League baseball career after meeting teammate Jimmy Wynn, who went on to a 15-year major league career. “I looked at his talent and said I had better become a good softball player.”