Ode to a Rookie Referee in Two Takes, 1967

[I stumbled onto an article in my files from The Sporting News featuring Lou Moser. Ring a bell? Didn’t think so. Moser was a basketball ref in and around Wilmington, Del., during the mid-1960s. He caught the keen eye of Philadelphia’s Jack Ramsay, who passed Moser’s name up the NBA flagpole. The league needed a few good referees. 

Moser, a true basketball nut, was flattered by the NBA’s offer to come join the big leagues, but agreed only to a part-time gig during the 1967-68 NBA season. He didn’t dare join the NBA full-time. Moser had big family to feed and a steady job as the circulation manager for a Wilmington newspaper. He also was a reluctant traveler.

In these two brief clips, reporters with Wilmington News-Journal look in on their intrepid, moonlighting circulation manager. In the first story, I’ve folded in some additional tidbits from the Boston Globe, and I think you’ll understand the weather-related why. This first article, published on November 17, 1967 from a reporter named Karl Feldner. 

Moser, who passed away in 2017 at age 88, would referee part-time in the NBA for two seasons (1967-69). Then, with his kids a little older, he gave the ABA a part-time stab in 1970-71. Moser eventually found his niche as a referee on the collegiate level, with its more-civilized travel schedule. For almost 20 years, he blew a familiar whistle in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and one of his career highlights was calling the 1981 NCAA men’s basketball tournament title game between North Carolina and Indiana.

But first, Moser was an NBA ref, and here is a look back at his start in two colorful takes. And yes, getting photos for this one was a real chore. Enjoy it, grainy photos and all!]


Lou Moser in the crouch.

Lou Moser always has been one of those early-to-work types. That’s why the full-time Wilmington News-Journal circulation employee and part-time rookie National Basketball Association referee was in Boston Garden in plenty of time Wednesday to work the San Diego-New York game, the first of a twinbill.

Lou was up in the referee’s dressing quarters, donning his striped shirt, testing his whistle, limbering up to work out the kinks—and waiting.

What Moser was waiting for was his partner, veteran official Norm Drucker. He waited . . . and waited . . . and waited. But this was the night of the day a blizzard unexpectedly played havoc with Boston and strangled its transportation, creating chaos where it is chaotic to start with, snow or no.

“I was just lucky to get in Boston before the zipper opened, and all that white stuff really started to come down,” Moser said today, back safe and snug in warm, sunny Wilmington. “Drucker came in on a later plane, and by that time, everything was paralyzed. Streets were just frozen sheets of ice, and people left their cars stranded to head for the subway. No wonder traffic couldn’t move.

“Shortly before the first game was to start, Red Auerbach, the Boston general manager, came in asking where Drucker was, though we both could guess the story.

“Finally, Red induced a college official to help me. Funny thing is this college official—his name was Charley Diehl—had come in even earlier than me to work a Boston College scrimmage. However, the scrimmage was called off [when Boston College coach Bob Cousy failed to show], and he stayed around. I guess he didn’t figure he’d be able to get anywhere with the traffic either.

Charley Diehl on the call in his football jersey sans stripes.

“Diehl wasn’t too keen about working the game and said he hadn’t seen a pro game in seven years, but he finally agreed. Then it turned out there were no spare striped shirts anywhere. He ended up working in a football jersey—don’t ask me where that came from—and was embarrassed even more because the game was being televised.”

Moser, who just joined the NBA staff of officials this season and who was working only his third game, reported it all came off without a hitch. “Actually, I would have been willing to work it myself—it has been done before in similar situations: you work from foul line to foul line—but Auerbach acted like he really wanted this other guy, so I just played it cool. Another thing, you know you get more cooperation players and coaches than you normally would. They understand the problems.”

And problems there were. At the scorer’s table, the clock operator Carroll Getchell, in his 70s, had walked three miles from Belmont to Harvard Square in the height of the storm to get a train into Boston. Thankfully, he was on time for the start of the San Diego-New York game. 

The organist and announcer weren’t. So, there was Celtics’ play-by-play broadcaster Johnny Most, taking over the public address system for Weldon Haire and giving it his “and Havlicek stole the ball” histrionics. 

Drucker arrived shortly before the end of the first quarter, and the college tooter departed into the stands clad in his green football jersey and blue street pants. Organist John Riley finally appeared late in the fourth quarter, unthawed his fingers, and squeezed in a few rousing notes before the final buzzer on San Diego’s 122-108 upset victory, marking the expansion Rockets’ first win over an established NBA club.

Meanwhile, in the Boston locker room, Celtic Baily Howell regaled his teammates in his native Tennessee twang with his latest tale of winter woe. Howell and his wife left the city of Melrose by auto for the Garden, got so far as the town of Lynn, and had to turn around. They boarded a train for Boston, which got stuck about a mile from the Garden. The train operator stopped a train passing on another track, put Howell onboard to get him to the game, but left Mrs. Howell stranded on the snow-logged line.

While Howell told his tale, Boston Celtics player-coach Bill Russell remained a no-show for the Celtics-Warriors nightcap set to tip off shortly. Big Bill had driven off from his home in Reading at around 5:30 p.m., but he was soon ensnared in traffic and abandoned his car to set out on foot. “I don’t even know where it is,” Russell later said of his car. “I phoned the Garden to tell Red I was stuck and then walked five miles into Lynn Square to get a train. But there were none. So, I walked over to a policeman on duty in the square, told him who I was, and asked if he could help me.”

Red Auerbach fills in for Coach Bill Russell, still stuck in the snow.

At 9 p.m.—halfway through the game—Russell was picked up by Lynn police car No. 6, a vice squad cruiser, to be “rushed” to the game. “They put me in a police car with that blue light spinning, and I thought to myself, ‘I’ll make it now.” At 9:20, I was on the Mystic River Bridge, but it took me until 11 o’clock to get the short distance to the Garden. By then, the Celtic-Warriors game had just ended. 

Wayne Embry, who had filled in for Russell at center and logged big minutes in helping the Celtics to this 113-110 victory, just shook his head at the belated sight of Russell. “You did this on purpose,” he mumbled. Embry was too tired to say more. It was the first time in years that he’d played a game from start to finish.

Back in the referee’s dressing room and just three games into his NBA career, Referee Moser reports his pro career Is proceeding smoothly. “No problems,” he said, “except for a pulled muscle in the back of my leg, which Dr. Roy Rylander, the Delaware trainer, fixed up for me.

“I’ve felt the games I worked were good ones, and I have found all the players to be genuinely first-class guys off the court, though oncourt, they’ll still play you for what they can get.

“Nobody from the NBA front office said anything to me one way or the other, but they are giving me more games so I guess that’s a good sign.

“What pleases me most though,” said Moser, “is the sense of acceptance I get from the other veteran officials. They act just like I have been around for a lot years and am not just a rookie. This makes me feel pretty good.”

He makes sure he always has an extra striped shirt in his traveling bag, too. No football jerseys for Moser.

Moser and referee Earl Strom in Boston Garden

[In this second clip, Wilmington Evening Journal sports editor, Al Cartwright, tagged along with Moser for a nationally televised game between the Knicks and Celtics on February 4, 1968. It’s a nicely done article that also ran in The Sporting News on March 2, 1968]]

The ball escaped from a meaty scrimmage beneath the Boston Celtics’ basket and flew out of bounds. Lou Moser pointed at the hoop and yelled “White!” That meant it was the Celtics’ ball, for they were the guys in the white suits. 

“You don’t always have to say ‘White,’ do you?” snapped Red Holzman, the New York coach, from the Knickerbockers’ nearby bench. “Get some dark glasses, Lou, and yell ‘Blue’ once in a while.”

Moser, about to hand the ball to the Celts’ John Havlicek, looked at the agonized Holzman—the Knicks were 16 points behind—and said firmly, “That’s enough,” without exclamation point. Holzman closed his case against officiating—until the next unappreciated call.

The Sunday sun streamed through the portholes up near the ceiling of the tacky Boston Garden. The towering Celtics and Knicks were galloping back and forth on the portable floor over the hockey ice, observing their umpteenth stop on the National Basketball Association schedule. Two things made this one a little different. The game was on national TV, and the Knicks were to rally and win a game in Boston for the first time in five years.

It was old stuff to most of the giraffes in uniform. For Lou Moser, rookie official from Wilmington, Del., it was only as old as a 24th game in basketball’s big league can make it. Not very old. His partner and counsel, Earl Strom, was working for an 11th season.

The night before, they had officiated in Baltimore. Moser got home at midnight. Now he was on a 10:20 a.m. flight to Boston out of Philadelphia. He does not do this for a living, but it helps him to live better. Dolph Schayes, the NBA’s official-in-chief, wants him full-time next season because the reports on the rookie are excellent.

But Moser has 14 years’ service as a Wilmington News-Journal circulation man, and there are Mrs. Moser and seven children and, as of now, Moser just doesn’t know if he’d like to change occupations.

“I think I’m being accepted,” he said on the 50-minute hop to Logan International Airport. “I’m working the best basketball there is—these players are unbelievably great—and people like Schayes and Strom and my other partners have gone out of their way to help me. Strom is tops—a gutty referee.

“I like everything but the traveling. I guess I’m just a homeboy, but the airport-hotel-locker room routine gets me down sometimes. I never traveled much. Now I’ve worked in most of the league cities, plus Miami, Cleveland, Tacoma. It takes a certain breed, I guess, to get used to this life. Maybe if I could continue to be a part-timer every season, working enough to please Schayes, maybe that would be best.”

Moser, 39, the son of a piano teacher, is blond, stocky, and a good-humor man. He augments his conversation with sound effects like Jonathan Winters. Lou is one of five new officials. After three exhibition games, he worked his first NBA game in Baltimore—”I was tied in all kinds of knots. Now, I’m a little more loose. The anxiety disappears as soon as the ball goes up, but for the first time in my life, I have trouble going to sleep after a game. I want to be accepted—by the officials first, the players second.”

In the dialogue of the men in the striped shirts—Moser’s is No. 35—a comfortably-worked game is “a piece of pie.” Routine squawks, no technical fouls.

After three dreary periods, the Knicks caught the Celtics. They pulled out a three-point victory in the closing seconds on the work off Bill Bradley and Walt Bellamy.

Ten thousand fans made the joint jump in the closing quarter. But to Moser and Strom, a good-looker from Pottstown, Pa., who manages to officiate 85 games plus playoffs when he isn’t doing customer work for General Electric, it was pastry. Nobody came close to a technical foul. Holzman yipped a lot, but so would you if you were coaching the Knicks.

“You know, I didn’t call a technical foul my first nine games?” said Moser in the officials’ room. “I was beginning to worry about it, thought something was wrong. Then it started. I called one on John Kerr, the Chicago coach, and threw him out of the game, too.

“He gave me some rough language on a play that wasn’t even my responsibility. I’ve had to call technicals on Oscar Robertson, Tom Meschery, Al Bianchi, Bill van Breda Kolff. You don’t like to hit ‘em—a technical is an automatic $25 fine—but you can’t let them intimidate you, or you’re done.”

Moser is only 5-foot-10, and there he is policing giants. “You don’t see many tall referees; I think a smaller man has an edge because you do a lot of crouching. Officiating in the NBA is liberal—they don’t want a lot of whistles.

“Otherwise, you’d be calling the little grabs, the slight palming of the ball all night. Strom told me early: “This isn’t high school basketball, so lay off the chicken calls.’ My theory is that if a foul causes an advantage, or a disadvantage, then blow.”

Moser scrambled and made the 4:50 plane to Philadelphia, chattering and giggling with Strom as they unwound. A piece of pie, maybe, but it is always tense, no matter how you slice it.

“This is the fifth time I’ve had the Celtics, and they’ve lost four of ‘em,” the rookie commented. “I hope they don’t think there is any connection.”

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