Earl Strom: NBA’s Oldest Referee Does It His Way, 1982

[Referees tend to be homers. Not Earl Strom. He was known around the NBA as being tough on the home team and cantankerous about it. In this 1982 profile of Strom, then the oldest referee in the league and known to his friends as “Yogi,” the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Chuck Newman tags along with Strom for several games. Newman’s profile ran first in the February 21, 1982 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer. It reappeared in the December 1982 edition of Basketball Digest, which is where we found it.]

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It’s just after 8 a.m. on a Saturday when a DC-10 noses into a weepy Philadelphia sky, barely beating a slow-moving weather front that is expected to dump snow in the area. During the week, United Airlines’ flight 263 is a favorite for Midwestern businessmen, but today it is partially filled with stragglers and people on weekend family visits.

Earl “Yogi” Strom, having arisen at 5 a.m. for the drive from Pottstown to International Airport, boards the flight, the last passenger on, his tinted aviator glasses, plaid sweater, and sports jacket giving him an almost preppy look that belies his 54 years. 

The hair is gray now, but the body still is solid. The 24 years he has spent at his physically taxing, psychologically stressful vocation seem, outwardly at least, to have taken little from Strom, one of the National Basketball Association’s most resilient and controversial characters. 

Earl Strom, NBA referee, is headed for business out West, for an 11-day, eight-game trip that will carry him to Chicago, Indianapolis, Denver, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Oakland, Portland, and Houston before he returns home. It is a schedule made for younger men. He is, in fact, the oldest of the 30 NBA officials. But, for Strom, it is life as he has known it for 24 years, just another day at the office in eight cities before he returns to his wife. 

Yvonne Strom worries a little more than she usually does about his trip because a reporter is accompanying her husband. Her concern is understandable considering the subject: a man who has staged a private war with his peers, fans, coaches, and bosses for as long as one can remember. He never has been one to hide his opinions, which are considerable, on any aspect of his business. And his opinions almost always have been unwelcome in high places, not only in the league office but also in the office of his own union, of which he is an unwilling member. 

Earl Strom is considered, in some corners of the NBA and by his colleagues, a maverick, a rebel, even a renegade who won’t conform. He is, however, respected, feared, tolerated, cajoled. In his career, he has fought with fans, has grabbed a club official, has lifted a reporter out of his press-row seat, has been involved in a physical row with his officiating partner that brought him a reprimand from the league office, has been fined for “unsportsmanlike” conduct, has jumped leagues like a modern-day player, and has been a “scab” in a strike.

He is a survivor of another era of the NBA, a relic of a different approach to officiating, a link to the days of Sid Borgia and Mendy Rudolph and Norm Drucker, visible characters when the referees were a larger part of the show. 

While franchises have come and gone, Strom has endured. While teams have changed cities, he has persevered. He is a throwback to another era, one that goes back to Ned Irish and Eddie Gottlieb and Ben Kerner. One that some NBA officials might like to see disappear, too. He has seen six changes of supervisors of NBA officials, but even his extensive experience never has earned him such a position. And, from the word around the NBA, never will. 

When a reporter asked to do a story on an NBA official—specifically Strom—he is steered by the league office to another referee. A second reporter gets the same answer when he calls New York. Such a reaction might indicate why Yvonne Strom worries about this trip. She has seen and heard enough controversy concerning her husband over the years. 

Earl Strom will earn more than $76,000 this season, not bad for someone who started at pro rates of $25 an outing, plus $2 expense money. It has been a long, stormy trail up from the college ranks and through the Eastern League to the NBA. 

The route is spiced with colorful stories. 

Strom is working an Eastern League game in Scranton in his early days as a pro. The home team loses, and its owner is about to lead a charge of fans on the officials’ dressing room before being discouraged by police. A woman with a cast on her leg spits on Strom. 

It was an incident that might have discouraged some aspiring referees. Strom laughs at it as just part of the life. He tells you he learned from the best, Mendy Rudolph. “I had the best teachers there ever were,” he says. “I was told if you get run out of the league, get run out because you are a lousy referee. Don’t let anyone run you out of the league.”

Strom didn’t get run out of Scranton or the Eastern League, but a woman did vaccinate his derriere with a hatpin before he got to the NBA. But the promotion to the NBA didn’t end similar incidents, such as one that happened in Syracuse at the Onondaga War Memorial Auditorium. 

Syracuse, Earl Strom says, is one of those towns that identifies closely with the team. “When you call the foul on them, you called it on the city,” he says. It so happens that four or five calls went against the home team, decisions that aided its eventual loss. The fans, before the game had ended, had formed a gauntlet through which the officials would have to travel before reaching the dressing room. 

Earl Strom officiates with his whistle in his hand. His partner, Joe Gushue, wore his on a lanyard. Strom suggested that Gushue remove the lanyard before they reach the exit, so that fans couldn’t get such an easy hold of him.  

The fans showered the officials with beer and soda, and Gushue took a punch to the head before a security guard rescued them. When they reached the safety of the dressing room, the guard told them, “The way you guys refereed, they should have killed you.” 

It is an incident from another time. When the NBA was in Syracuse, St. Louis, Rochester, Baltimore, and Minneapolis. “I led the league in fines,” Strom recollected of the good, old, expensive days. “One time involved Irv Gack, the assistant general manager of the St. Louis Hawks.

“They took some games into Memphis. They’re playing the 76ers, and Irv is operating the 24-second clock. I make a call against [St. Louis’] Richie Guerin, wipe out a goal, the Sixers win. The game is on television back to Philly, Matt Goukas, Sr. doing the TV. The fans are irate. I walk by the scorer’s table and Gack says, ‘You gutless bastard.’  

“I stupidly say, ‘Would you like to repeat that? He did. I leaped across the table and grabbed him by the shirt. The camera was on me, my wife and our five children are sitting in our living room watching this idiot jump across the table. Wilt Chamberlain walked by as the fans started to surround us. Wilt stepped across the table and said, ‘Earl, let’s get the hell out of here.’” 

Chamberlain picked up Strom and carried him to the dressing room. “You owe me one,” Strom recalls Chamberlain told him when he had dropped Strom off. 

Then there was the time in San Francisco when the team owner was so incensed with the officiating that he told the public-address announcer to inform the fans that he was giving them free tickets to another game. The announcement was supposed to be made at halftime, long after Strom had ejected San Francisco center Nate Thurmond for an obscene remark. 

When Strom and his partner walked on the court for the second half, the PA announcer told them he needed a few minutes to make an announcement. It was then that Strom found out just what the announcement would be. He went right to the owner and objected. “You’ll bring the house down on us,” Strom said. The announcement was made—but with only two minutes to go in the game. 

And then there was the time in 1968 that a playoff game between the Celtics and Philadelphia had to be played in the Palestra because the roof had blown off the newly constructed Spectrum, and Convention Hall was not available. Strom was working along a baseline when a fan wrapped his legs around those of the official, refusing to let him move. Strom finally kicked free, and the fan was moved to another seat. When Strom next returned to the Spectrum, the fan was in a front-row seat, holding a large paper bag. It turned out the bag contained shin guards. 

By that time, Strom already had a reputation as someone who could not be intimidated. And one whom many coaches appreciated seeing on the road. One of those was Boston’s Red Auerbach.“You knew you were going to get a fair shake when he was officiating,” Auerbach says. “And, as old as he is, I would still rather see him than 90 percent of the referees. I kinda preferred to see him on the road. The same with Borgia. I know there were some officials I didn’t care to see on the road.”

Auerbach was, and still is, an admirer of Strom, although it was not always publicly apparent. Auerbach used to conduct a rules test with most of the officials, usually during the game. Strom, according to the Boston general manager, hardly ever flunked. “He [Strom] used to pride himself on the fact that he knew as much about the rules as I did, and he probably did.”

Don Nelson, now the coach of the Milwaukee Bucks but formerly a player with the Celtics, agrees. “Let’s say I don’t like to have him at home,” Nelson says. “I guess you get used to having a few favors at home.”

Carl Scheer, the president and general manager of the Denver Nuggets and one-time supervisor of NBA officials, says Strom’s reputation is one of the first things he heard when he came to the league. “I knew he had a short fuse and was a great referee, and I was told never to cross him,” Scheer says. “He was a showman with a lot of . . . I think the road thing was part of his shtick, almost a sadistic type of thing. He comes from the ‘go-into-the-stands type’ of philosophy.”

As part of his education of younger officials, Earl Strom says he tells them not to read the newspapers or listen to announcers. But Strom evidently reads and listens. Once in Baltimore he reached over the press table and lifted off his seat a Philadelphia writer, who had been commenting on Strom’s officiating. The Baltimore general manager, trying to protect the writer, attempted to leap over his own bench in an attempt to get to the scene, didn’t quite clear the bench, and fell flat on his face on the court.

Or the time in Indianapolis that the Celtics went to the foul line for 13 straight free throws. A point a writer made to Strom at courtside. “What does that mean?” Strom challenged. “Are you saying we’re cheating? If you are, say so, so that I can do something about it.”

It is not the type of diplomacy that ingratiates Strom with the NBA hierarchy. But it is the type of thing that makes him “the Earl Strom.” And he plays no favorites. 

He will tell you that he isn’t very happy with the officials’ union, of which he is a captive member. And he tells most of the other members, too. But he gets little reaction and less support when it comes to changing some things, such as choice of hotels. 

Many of the gripes he has with Richie Phillips, who represents the officials and who has helped bring their salaries to their current level, are left unsaid. That subject will be explored in a book Strom is writing. 

But much of the unhappiness concerns the officials’ union, and it happened after Strom, Drucker, John Vanak, and Gushue—outside of Rudolph, the backbone of the NBA officiating staff—had jumped to the American Basketball Association for a package deal that was worth about $100,000 for three years to each of the officials. When the leagues merged, Strom was not officially reinstated to the NBA staff. He threatened to sue and eventually was rehired. 

When the referees went on strike in a playoff series, Strom worked. His relationship with the union has been strained since. If the pressure of it all does not show outwardly, it is because, Strom says, he is taking a mellower approach to life, something that has been noticeable around the league. 

When he arrived at Chicago Stadium for a game between the Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks, his partner for the game, Tom Nunez, was waiting in the dressing room. The backgrounds of Earl Strom and Tom Nunez are about as familiar as Frank Zappa and Arthur Fiedler. Nunez, 41, a pleasant, quiet man, is a Mexican-American from Tempe, Ariz., who comes from a broken home, grew up in poverty, and worked as a shoeshine boy in a barbershop for $10 a week. 

Strom grew up in a kosher house. He has a unique rapport with club officials, players, and coaches. 

Nunez has struggled for recognition of his ability for the nine years he has been in the league. Strom has differences with the union. Nunez, who would be making maybe $18,000 a year with overtime working at a phone company if he was not in the NBA, has great respect for Phillips and the organization. While Strom may golf with people in basketball during his time off, Nunez likes spending his off hours talking with a friend back in Tempe who owns a gas station. 

They are the stereotypical Odd Couple on the court. Although Nunez won’t admit it, his job is more difficult when he is paired with Strom. “No, I have no trouble working with Earl,” Nunez says. “. . . The only thing I would say is that when I work with Earl Strom, if coaches want to get on me, they better get on me, and they better get on him. Coaches are afraid of him sometimes. They will turn on me, not him. That’s where I draw the line.

“There are guys on the staff who have a helluva time working with Earl Strom, don’t want to play second fiddle, chase the basketball. I don’t have that problem.”

Nunez and Strom work the game between the Bucks and Bulls, a 30-point blowout by Milwaukee, without incident. The poor play of Chicago and outstanding effort of Milwaukee makes the outcome clear early and takes the crowd out of the game. Even Chicago coach Jerry Sloan, who would be fired the next week, has few complaints about the officiating. What minor arguments there are from the players are directed at Nunez.

“We stole money out there tonight,” Nunez smiles after it is over. Strom has a postgame drink with Milwaukee assistant John Killilea, who tells him about some complaints he has about another official. Nunez goes back to the hotel. 

The next night, the same pair works a game in Indianapolis between the Pacers and the Portland Trail Blazers. Upon entering the arena, Strom greets Portland players Billy Ray Bates and Kelvin Ransey and holds a short conversation with Bob Gross. He talks with coach Jack Ramsay about a multi-colored pair of pants Ramsay is wearing. 

Somebody brings Strom a cup of coffee in the dressing room; Nunez walks to the concession stand to buy a soft drink. 

Although he doesn’t show it, Nunez may have some reservations about the game. He recalls his early days in the league when Ramsay was tough on him. His concerns are unfounded on this night. The Blazers, coming off an extended roadtrip, fold late and lose, 107-91. There are a few complaints from either coach. 

One fan yells at Strom: “How about three seconds [on Portland]?” 

“They took it [the rule] out of the game,” Strom shouts back. 

Strom spends an off day visiting a daughter in Indiana, then moves on to Denver for a game between the Nuggets and Kansas City Kings, having an awful year under coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. His partner on this night is Ed Middleton from Broomall, Pa., who is in his 14th year of pro officiating. Strom holds a pregame bull session with Fitzsimmons and Nuggets coach Doug Moe. 

The game starts inauspiciously when Strom’s whistle fails on his first call, then Middleton makes a couple of decisions that are not so popular. But there are no major incidents in a Denver victory. 

“You’re a credit to the old folks,” a courtside spectator yells at Strom. 

He moves on to Salt Lake City, just another stop on his latest odyssey. And again, he will be highly visible, working his way through yet another assignment. There will be a few incidents in the game, if you don’t include Strom warning a spectator that he may not make it home safely if he doesn’t tone down his comments. It is an illustration that, despite his protestations, there’s some of the old Earl Strom still around. 

“I think he’s toned down,” says Doug Moe, who was a player for the old Carolina Cougars when Strom officiated in the ABA. “I don’t think he gets upset as quick as he used to. I think he was born to be a pro referee.”

Earl Strom probably would consider that the ultimate compliment.

Bonus Coverage  A few more stories from the mouth of Earl Strom, pulled from the Philadelphia Daily News, June 14, 1990:

“My most memorable game was the one up in Boston. The Celtics were playing the Sixers, seventh game of the [1965] Eastern finals. 

“The night before I had a game in Washington, Bullets against the Lakers. That game ended, a fellow threw something at me. I stupidly ran at him, punched him, broke my thumb. I didn’t think it was broken. 

“I took the train to Philly, I was gonna drive to Pottstown, get home at 2, wake up at 5:30, go to work at GE. My wife asked me what happened, and I said some guy tossed a ball at me and hit my thumb. She looked at it and said I had to go to the hospital. This surgeon said it was broken. I came out of the operating room, and my wife was crying. 

“She said the [league commissioner] Walter Kennedy had called and asked if I’d be ready to work the seventh game in Boston? I had this huge case on now. My wife said she’d told him I wasn’t going. She said if I did go, we were divorced, done. 

“Right about then, I heard a basketball being dribbled up the hospital corridor. This surgeon and my regular doctor had a basketball and a hacksaw. They said they were going to shape the cast so that the ball would fit in it. 

“That was the game Bill Russell’s inbounds pass hit the guide wire [holding the backboard], with about eight seconds to go. I call it, give the ball to Philly. Hal Greer is gonna throw it in to Chet Walker. 

“I walked near the huddle. I like to hear who might be getting the ball. And I heard Wilt say, ‘Don’t give me that ball.’ He knew he’d get fouled. Now, Greer throws it in, and John Havlicek tips it to Sam Jones. And he dribbles out the clock. I don’t think I could have gotten out of that arena if the Celtics hadn’t won. 

“I know Red Auerbach followed me off the floor several times. That one Lakers game, I saw him coming. He didn’t stop, and I didn’t stop. He called me a few unprintable names, told me I was a eunuch. I leaned out the door, and I knew he hated to be called Arnold. I said, ‘Arnold, you’re showing all the class I always knew you had . . .”

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Strom’s scariest moment came during the final game of the Philadelphia- Milwaukee playoff series in 1987. It was Julius Erving’s final NBA game:

“That’s the game I threw [Bucks coach] Don Nelson out in the second period,” Strom said. “We get off the floor at halftime, and there’s extra security and the commissioner’s waiting. They’d had a phone call, some guy saying he was coming down to the arena to blow my head off with a shotgun. 

“What else are they gonna do in Milwaukee on a Sunday afternoon? David Stern, the commissioner, said that if I didn’t want to go out again, he could understand. I said they were lousy shots. Later, I realized, hey, they shoot popes and presidents, why wouldn’t somebody shoot a referee?

“I have this thing about last games. I like to get the ball to the guy playing his last game. Game was over, Milwaukee won, I ran after the ball, got it, took it to Julius. We embraced and walked off the floor together.

“Later, my buddy called, said how everybody was talking about what a wonderful gesture it was. My buddy said, ‘You knew nobody was gonna take a shot at you if you were standing close to Doctor J.’”

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