[I’d intended to post this article for the all-star game earlier in the week. But technical difficulties got the best of my best intentions. So, here’s the article several days late and still very much worth the read.
When the NBA tipped off the 1966-67 season, Red Auerbach had retired as coach of the world-champion Boston Celtics. But on January 10, 1967, Auerbach made an encore appearance for one night only as coach of the East squad in the NBA All-Star Game played in San Francisco’s Cow Palace. Though the West triumphed 136-120, Auerbach wouldn’t have been around to light a victory cigar had the East won. As reporter Harry Jupiter detailed in the San Francisco Examiner, referee Willie Smith, known around the NBA for his quick whistle, had Red seeing red. Here’s the story.]
Willie Smith is an anonymous sort of name, but Willie Smith is anything but anonymous today. Willie will go down in NBA history as the referee who threw Red Auerbach out of his last game.
Smith is a chunky little guy who resembles Edward G. Robinson. He’s one of the finest basketball officials in America. As far as Auerbach is concerned, though, the only difference between Smith and Little Caesar is that the movie mobster used to end up wearing horizontal stripes on his shirts.
“Aaaah,” snorted the disgusted Auerbach. “Here I come, all the way from one coast to the other to coach one game, and I get thrown out of it.
“I thought the whole thing was ridiculous. It takes away from the game. These guys—all of ‘em—they play great, and this guy (Smith) has to get into the act.”
Auerbach, the most-successful coach in professional basketball history, retired to become the Celtics’ general manager after their eighth consecutive world championship. Altogether, Red’s Boston teams won the world title nine of the last 10 seasons.
Ironically, Auerbach made a point of introducing the refs, Smith and Earl Strom, at the NBA All-Star banquet Monday night.
But in the second quarter last night, Bailey Howell was unable to get the ball in from out of bounds within the five seconds allowed.
“Tweet,” went Smith’s whistle, and the ball went to the West team.
As Smith moved down court past the East bench, he got a haircut from Auerbach.
“Tweet,” went the whistle again. Smith called a technical foul on Red. “I don’t mind him saying things like that to me,” Willie said later, “but he was saying ‘em loud, and there were women who could hear him. He used some bad language.”
Auerbach said he didn’t say anything out of line to Willie, but you know who won.
With 2:12 left in the third quarter, Oscar Robertson was driving toward the basket when he collided with Nate Thurmond.
“Tweet,” went the whistle. Smith called the foul on Oscar for charging. “Thurmond had good position under the basket,” Smith explained. “Oscar ran into him.”
It was a tough call on a hectic play, but Smith made his decision, Auerbach leaped to his feet, stomped toward the end of the bench, and “tweet,” there went that whistle again.
Another technical, and this one meant Mr. Auerbach’s presence was no longer welcome on the bench. Two technicals call for automatic expulsion. Auerbach, fiery as ever, tossed his program high into the air, turned the coaching chores over to Bill Russell, and wandered away to the East dressing room.
It’s never happened to anybody in an All-Star Game before, and last night was the 17th of these annual extravaganzas.
Smith sat quietly in the dressing room later, explaining his calls to a battalion of reporters. “The first one was for profanity,” Willie said. “The second technical was for the explosive nature of his reaction to my call. It was a real bang-bang call.
“I didn’t want to throw him out, but it’s the same as not calling a foul. He did it, and I reacted. It’s automatic.”
Exit Auerbach, just as he entered. With a growl.