Hugh Evans always thought his job was to be respected, not admired. Over time, he became so good at the former that he couldn’t help but feel so much from the latter.
Evans, who became the enshrined seventeenth arbiter in Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame This weekend and only his seventh in the NBA, where he focused so heavily on the integrity of his role as a game official, he has cut off some of the relationships he may have had with players and coaches.
It was extremely important to Square native, W. Fa, to keep participants at arm’s length to avoid any possibility – or even suggestion – that he might be jeopardized by friendship. He’s done it so successfully so far he’s ended up with a lot of work friends anyway.
“Hugh Evans was walking to the middle of the floor, and even with the coaches and the different people he knew, he had the aura of ‘I’m here to do work knowing I’m not supposed to be the center of attention,'” former NBA official Bob Delaney said.
Longtime referee Joey Crawford said: “The players and coaches really liked him because he had a good way about him. He was the complete opposite of myself, which is why I think they like him.”
…as a referee, his integrity, his knowledge of the game, his professionalism, it was all top notch. The guy was always ready to do the job. It was wonderful to prepare. I knew that every time he set foot on Earth we would do his best.”
– Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens, on the career of Hugh Evans
When Evans – who died at 81 in July of congestive heart failure – was officially honored Saturday night, his presenters will be Reggie Miller and George Gervin. It’s safe to say that their relationship blossomed more after his retirement than during his active career from 1973-2001.
“He liked to keep it all in the works,” Kathy, Evans’ widow, told NBA.com last week. “But the players he respected, he had a relationship with some of them.”
Anyone who knows a little about Lenny Wilkins, the rare Hall member who was elected both as player (1989) and coach (1998), can guess that Wilkins valued Evans’ dignity and professionalism. Coincidentally, Evans – an excellent athlete from North Carolina A&T – was selected as the Choice No. 79 in the 1963 draft by the St. Louis Hawks, the team that Wilkins starred in. But Evans never made the list.
“I never knew him as a player,” Wilkins said. “But as a referee, his integrity, his knowledge of the game, his professionalism, it was all top notch. The guy was always ready to do the job. His preparation was fantastic. I knew that every time he set foot on the ground we would do his best.”
“When you talk about the top officials in the NBA, he’s right there. He was a no-nonsense guy. But we knew the game was going to be fair and he was going to call it what he saw. It was a pleasure to know him.”
A unique official journey in the NBA
Evans also became the first African-American judge of the 17 to be inducted, a distinction that his family and friends would be proud of. “I first met Hugh Evans in 1985 and I could hear people saying he was the best black referee in the NBA,” Delaney said. And I never understood why ‘black’ was included – he was one of the best NBA referees ever and Naismith Hall agreed.”
Over the course of 28 NBA seasons, Evans worked in 1,969 regular season games, 170 playoffs, 35 NBA Finals games, and four All-Star games. But the story of his arrival in the league was as fascinating as what he did once he got there: Evans never worked in a high school or college game, he jumped straight to the pros.
The powerful 6-foot-4 Evans chose baseball upon leaving North Carolina A&T and played three seasons in the San Francisco Giants farm system. He eventually moved to New York and became the director of a community center in Brooklyn. This is where he officiated some league games, and quickly took his whistle to the legendary Rucker League, where some of the game’s greatest players stayed in shape on the black summer peaks.
He spent $100 to enroll in an administrators’ camp, and two weeks later, he passed the first exam after failing. It also caught the attention of one of the camp coaches.
As Evans recalled years later, “He said I would waste my time in the college games because I already had what it took to make it in the pros.”
Evans, 31, was signed to a part-time contract in 1972, then added full-time the following year. Challenging, he said, he helped stars like Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Walt Frazier and others get to know him through his work at Rucker Park in Harlem.
Evans was one of the first black referees in the NBA, preceded only by Ken Hudson (1968-1972) and a few others. It’s no surprise that he faced the kind of harassment that most of his colleagues didn’t.
“You have to remember that was in the ’70s and ’80s,” said Kathy Evans. “I remember I was at a game in Houston and there was a fan who kept going a lot. Hugh was never one to go back and forth with a fan. He was just asking for security.
“I remember thinking, ‘This guy is getting ready to leave and he doesn’t even know it. Because I saw Hugh go to the table and then I saw the table man go to security. Next thing you know, they were taking the kid outside.
“He didn’t have time and didn’t want to get away from the game. That’s the purpose of security – you let them do their job.”
Evans “only cares about the game”
As for the teammates he worked with, Evans was the opposite of how he distanced himself from players and coaches. He was a willing resource and ready teacher, eager to share what he learned about the game on the go.
“His behavior toward him was very reassuring to the junior judge,” Delaney said. “If you walk into an arena and no one knows you, you want to prove that you belong. It gave you that kind of power.
“He had such leadership qualities but he was not a ‘I told you to do this’ and ‘I told you to do this’ man. He formulated what to do. And he encouraged you along this way, in a wonderful way of teaching to make his point.”
Crawford added, “There were some older guys who were control freaks, and it was hard to learn. But Hugh was just the opposite. He’d be like, ‘Do it.’ [scorers] Table and clock handle and talk to coaches.
“You don’t have Las Vegas [Summer League] Back then, you didn’t have all these places where you could learn judgment. You had to learn on the job. Some of the older rulers, if you don’t like them, will go into the locker room and kill you. Hubert was low on and only cared about the game.
When “Duke” [Mike] Callahan—he and I are best friends—always said, “I’d love to work with Hugh more than you do.” “
After stepping down in 2001 as a game official, Evans worked for two seasons as an assistant superintendent in the NBA. Even in retirement, though, he stayed serious about giving back to the game.
Cathy Evans said, “There were times, when I traveled with him, he’d lose dinner because there were matches he wanted the young umpires to watch. He’d say, ‘Listen, I’m going to So-and-so’s room to break that bar.'”
“And the guys called even after he retired. They’d say, ‘I’m working on an ESPN game tonight. If you had time, would you look at that game and send me some notes?'”
Evans lived in Richmond, Virginia, for most of his career, later moving to Florida and then Atlanta. An accomplished golfer, he frequently played for Boston Celtics Hall of Famer Sam Jones (who died last December) and former NBA referee Louis Grillo.
Evans was in poor health in April when he and his wife, Kathy and Delaney — as Evans’ wheelchair drivers — traveled to the Men’s Final Four in New Orleans to announce the Judgment Hall’s extrapolation. The reception he got over the weekend made up for what he will miss this weekend in Springfield, with former NBA players, coaches and referees congratulating him, and even fans stopping to salute.
Some of the older rulers, if you don’t like them, will go into the locker room and kill you. Hubert was calm and only cared about the game.”
– Joey Crawford on Hugh Evans
Delaney said, “I think Hugh kind of knew he was stumbling, which is why it was important to go to the last four game. He knew the recognition would come there.”
Nobody really wants to win an award or receive posthumous recognition. Fortunately for Evans, the embrace he felt at the Superdome and over the next three months before his death showed Evans, Kathy, and his children Aaron and Todd how happy the basketball world was for him.
He received an email from [former NBA deputy commissioner] “Ross Granick,” Kathy said. “I have received phone calls from [longtime league exec] Matt Winnick, who has been scheduling referees for all those years. Received a lot of calls and texts. In fact, [Philadelphia coach] Doc Rivers texted and said he was with some other coaches, and they talked about Hugh for over an hour.
“I’m just glad he knew he was going.”
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