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Ex-referee Vanak helped improve job with courage

by Sam Smith

John Vanak was a quiet revolutionary.

The humble, simple man from his beloved Nesquehoning, Pennsylvania, about 145 km northwest of Philadelphia, was one of the four men who defied the National Basketball Association and, effectively, created modern refereeing in the NBA.

Vanak, a 30-year pro referee who officiated in multiple NBA Finals and All-Star Games, died on Nov. 26 at age 83. His passing was little known and much overlooked around even the basketball world, perhaps also reflective of the quiet life he lived and humble nature he preferred outside of basketball.

But in being one of the four officials in 1969 to leave the NBA for the fledgling American Basketball Association, Vanak was a pioneer who helped first bring credibility to the profession in pro basketball.

The NBA these days insists more upon uniform and almost robotic commitment to rules and procedure for officials. They are not permitted to even speak with media without permission.

But longtime referees will talk about officials like Vanak as those who put referees on the map, as many will say Vanak along with Joe Gushue, Earl Strom and Norm Drucker, all of whom had worked the 1969 NBA Finals, followed the path of several top NBA players like Rick Barry, Zelmo Beaty and Spencer Haywood and more to come like Billy Cunningham, Julius Erving and George Gervin to either leave or skip the NBA to go to the competing ABA.

The ABA battled the NBA for nine years, and though eventually four ABA teams were absorbed into the NBA in 1976 to end the ABA, the ABA effectively modernized the NBA with the 3-point shot, the highlight dunking and fast break game and the advent of free agency.

Amidst the drives and dunks and changing dress and hairstyles was the professionalization of officiating, which had been a per diem profession before then.

NBA officials still were paid by the game into the 1960s, perhaps $100 or $125. Vanak was a police sergeant who got into officiating games; all had other jobs.

Vanak worked in the old American Basketball League, a brainchild of Harlem Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein in 1961 that lasted less than two seasons. Then he went on to the NBA at a time when the officials were permitted personality.

It doesn’t much exist anymore as NBA officials are bound by strict rules of behavior and comportment, much like a military platoon. Which, in a sense, has led, some believe, to even more of the on-court complaining that goes on in NBA games today.

Not that players back then didn’t disagree with officials. But flamboyant and decisive referees like Strom maintained a level of respect and discipline because of their authority. Not that they’d occasionally go too far with excessive technical fouls and ejections. But they and the players were often able to develop a rapport and dialogue that often doesn’t exist today.

In some sense, the isolation of the officials now from the players and inability of officials to stand up more vocally to players has, ironically, raised more questions about officiating than even existed in that era.

You didn’t mess with Earl or Norm or John back then, though Vanak was less likely to light a fire than simply extinguish one with his firm, knowledgeable ways. Not because they were dictators seeking attention, but they were arbiters demanding respect. When officiating was more of an art as well, the officials bombastic at times, but also unique in their profession.

So when those four shocked the NBA and departed for the ABA it became a disaster the NBA preferred to dismiss, much like it did when so many top stars left for the ABA in the 1970s and left the NBA in that decade with a mishmash of declining star talent.

Suddenly, ABA games, the games the NBA tended to dismiss and sneer at, were being handled more smoothly and competently than NBA games. Of course, many of those games were not quite as restrained. Vanak told author Terry Pluto in his oral history of the ABA, “Loose Balls,” of seeing a player knock an opponent cold at the free-throw line shooting a free throw and a game held up because a player was back in the locker room fighting with teammates.

The fledgling ABA owners started the league to basically force a merger with the NBA, like the American Football League did with the established National Football League. It led to the Super Bowl and the powerhouse of American sports.

The NBA owners first dismissed the upstarts. Then the players, seeing their salaries rise with the competition, fought off a merger. But in trying to induce the NBA and its players, the ABA owners in for the fight then went for the officials.

Barely making $10,000 to $15,000 then, the first four officials had their salaries tripled with additional benefits. After a few years, more veteran referees left for the ABA, like Jack Madden and Ed Rush. Eventually all would return at some point after the merger to go on to be the principal officials through the next two decades.

Vanak was one of the quieter, more humble of the group, a family man who later had a detective agency back in Nesquehoning, who friends say simply loved the job, if not the life.

“Punchy,” as he was called, was lesser known as he rejected the histrionics practiced by some, the notoriety awarded to others. It was the so called era of the star officials with the likes of Strom, Mendy Rudolph, Sid Borgia, Jake O’Donnell and Richie Powers. Vanak was as respected and admired as any. But he liked it best back home.

He was an expert with the rules, an official’s official, as it were, someone accorded the respect of the players for his veracity and the acknowledgement and thanks of his successors for the risk he and his three colleagues took that changed the lives of officials for years to come.

Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”