Hugh Evans always figured it was his job to be respected, not liked. Over time, he got so good at the former he couldn’t help but feel a lot of the latter.
Evans, who becomes the 17th referee enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend and just the seventh for his work in the NBA, focused so heavily on the integrity of his role as a game official, he stunted some of the relationships he might have had with players and coaches.
It was vitally important to the native of Squire, W.Va., to keep the participants at arm’s length to avoid any possibility — or even the suggestion — that he might be compromised by a friendship. He did so successfully yet wound up with plenty of work friends anyway.
“Hugh Evans would walk to the middle of the floor,” former NBA official Bob Delaney said, “and even with coaches and different people he knew, he had this aura of ‘I’m here to do a job and I know I’m not supposed to be the center of attention.’”
Said longtime ref Joey Crawford: “Players and coaches really came to like him because he had a good way about him. He was the total opposite of myself, which is why I guess they liked him.”
… As a referee, his integrity, his knowledge of the game, his professionalism, all of that was top tier. The guy was always ready to do the job. His preparation was magnificent. I knew every time he stepped on the floor we were going to get his best.”
— Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens, on Hugh Evans’ officiating career
When Evans — who died at 81 on in July from congestive heart failure — officially is enshrined Saturday night, his presenters will be Reggie Miller and George Gervin. It’s safe to say their connections bloomed more after his retirement than during his active run from 1973-2001.
“He liked to keep it all business,” Evans’ widow, Cathy, 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 Wilkens, that rare Hall member elected both as a player (1989) and a coach (1998), can guess that Wilkens appreciated Evans’ dignity and professionalism. Coincidentally, Evans — an excellent athlete from North Carolina A&T — had been selected as the 79th pick in the 1963 Draft by the St. Louis Hawks, the team for which Wilkens starred. Evans never made the roster, though.
“I never knew him as a player,” Wilkens said. “But as a referee, his integrity, his knowledge of the game, his professionalism, all of that was top tier. The guy was always ready to do the job. His preparation was magnificent. I knew every time he stepped on the floor we were going to get his best.
“When you talk about the top officials in the NBA, he’s right up there. He was a no-nonsense guy. But we knew the game was going to be fair and he was going to call it as he saw it. It was a pleasure to have known him.”
A unique NBA officiating journey
Evans also becomes the first African-American referee among the Hall’s 17, a distinction of which his family and friends are proud. Delaney, who nominated him, said: “I first met Hugh Evans in 1985 and I would hear people say he was ‘the best Black NBA referee.’ And I never understood why the word ‘Black’ was inserted — he was one of the best NBA referees ever and the Naismith Hall agrees.”
Across 28 NBA seasons, Evans worked 1,969 regular season games, 170 playoff games, 35 NBA Finals games and four All-Star Games. But the tale of his arrival to the league was as impressive as what he did once he got there: Evans never worked a high school or college game, jumping right to the pros.
The sturdy 6-foot-4 Evans opted for 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. That’s where he officiated some rec league games and, soon enough, took his whistle to the fabled Rucker League, where some of the game’s greatest players stayed in shape on the summer blacktops.
He spent $100 to enroll in an officials’ camp and, a couple of weeks later, after failing the first exam, he passed. He also caught a camp instructor’s eye.
As Evans recalled years later, “He said I would be wasting my time with college games because I already had what it took to make it in the pros.”
Evans, then 31, was signed to a part-time contract in 1972, then was added full-time the following year. Challenging as that was, he said it helped that stars such as Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Walt Frazier and others recognized him from his Rucker Park work in Harlem.
Evans was one of the NBA’s first Black referees, preceded only by Ken Hudson (1968-72) and a few others. Not surprisingly, he faced a brand of heckling most of his colleagues did not.
“You have to remember, that was back in the ’70s and ’80s,” Cathy Evans said. “I recall being at a game in Houston and there was a fan who went on and on and on. Hugh was never one to go back and forth with a fan. He would just call for security.
“I remember thinking, ‘This guy’s getting ready to leave and he doesn’t even know it.’ Because I saw Hugh go over to the table and then I saw the table guy go to security. Next thing you know, they were taking the kid out.
“He didn’t have time and he didn’t want to take away from the game. That’s what security is for – you let them do their job.”
Evans ‘only cared about the game’
As for the fellows with whom he worked, Evans was the opposite of how he distanced himself from players and coaches. He was a willing resource and ready mentor, eager to share what he had learned about the game on the fly.
“He had a demeanor to him that was so reassuring to a younger referee,” Delaney said. “If you walk into an arena and no one knows you, you want to prove that you belong. He gave you that kind of strength.
“He had such leadership qualities but wasn’t a guy who was ‘I told you to do this’ and ‘I told you to do that.’ He modeled what should be done. And he encouraged you along that way, with a great way of teaching to make his point.”
Added Crawford: “There were some older guys who were control freaks, and it was tough to learn. But Hugh was the total opposite. He’d be like, ‘Do it.’ If something happened on the floor, he had no problem with you going to the [scorers] table and handling the clock, talking to the coaches.
“You didn’t have Las Vegas [Summer League] back then, you didn’t have all these venues where you could learn to referee. You had to learn on the job. Some older refs, if you didn’t ref like them, they’d get in the locker room and annihilate ya. Hubert was low-key and only cared about the game.
“When ‘Duke’ [Mike] Callahan broke in — he and I are best friends — he always said, ‘I like working with Hugh more than you.’ ”
After stepping down in 2001 as a game official, Evans worked for two seasons as an NBA assistant supervisor of officials. Even in retirement, though, he stayed serious about giving back to the game.
“There were times,” Cathy Evans said, “when I traveled with him, he would forfeit dinner because there were games he wanted the young referees to watch. He would say, ‘Listen, I’m going to so-and-so’s room to break this tape down.’
“And the guys called even after he retired. They’d say, ‘I’m working an ESPN game tonight. If you have time, would you look at that game and send me some notes?’”
Evans lived in Richmond, Va., for much of his career, later moving to Florida and then Atlanta. He was an accomplished golfer, frequently playing with Boston Celtics Hall of Famer Sam Jones (who died last December) and former NBA ref Luis Grillo.
Evans was in failing health himself in April when he, wife Cathy and Delaney — as the engine of Evans’ wheelchair — traveled to the men’s NCAA Final Four in New Orleans for the announcement of the referee’s Hall induction. The reception he got that weekend made up for what he’ll miss this weekend in Springfield, with former NBA players, coaches and refs congratulating him and even fans stopping to say hello.
Some older refs, if you didn’t ref like them, they’d get in the locker room and annihilate ya. Hubert was low-key and only cared about the game.”
— Joey Crawford, on Hugh Evans
“I think Hugh kind of knew he was faltering,” Delaney said, “and that’s why the Final Four thing was important to go to. He knew the recognition would come there.”
No one really wants to win an award or gain recognition posthumously. Fortunately for Evans, the embrace he felt at the Superdome and over the next three months before his passing showed Evans, Cathy and sons Aaron and Todd how happy the basketball world was for him.
“He got an email from [former NBA deputy commissioner] Russ Granik,” Cathy said. “He got phone calls from [longtime league exec] Matt Winick, who did the referees’ scheduling for all those years. He got lots of calls and text messages. 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 happy he knew he was going in.”
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