Editor’s Note: Hugh Evans died shortly before this issue (9/22) went to print.
by Bob Delaney
We have walked through the “tunnel” of many NBA arenas throughout the United States, and even Asia, when we worked games in Beijing and Yokohama. But walking from the “back of the house” down the tunnel and onto the NCAA Men’s Final Four floor on April 2 in New Orleans was the most special — and the only time a few tears rolled down my cheeks.
A friend, mentor and fellow NBA referee, Hugh Evans was being announced as a 2022 Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame class member. What an honor for him, and for me to provide an “assist” — pushing Hugh in his wheelchair onto the Caesars Superdome basketball court.
The circle of life was front and center in this moment. You see, Hugh assisted me throughout my entire NBA career. I first met him in 1985 during summer training programs and was fortunate to work games with him during my rookie year as a full-time NBA referee in 1987, when only two referees worked a game. He spent countless hours teaching me how to survive and thrive as a professional official.
Many an afternoon we sat at a restaurant table, where he would move ketchup and mustard bottles along with salt and pepper shakers teaching correct positioning on an imaginary NBA court. It was about open and closed looks, being “stacked,” understanding rebounding coverage and so many other nuances to grasp while officiating the greatest athletes on the planet.
Hugh understood the game. He played at Boys High School in New York City with the great Connie Hawkins. He played college ball at North Carolina A&T with the great Al Attles. And I am sure many of his teammates have said they played with the great Hugh Evans.
Even today, Hugh has a quiet strength. His words are measured and concise. He has a calm confidence that creates an aura of trust. When you walked on an NBA floor as a part of his referee crew, you felt as if you were benefitting from that aura. Hugh would walk to center court during pregame warmups and stand shoulder to shoulder with his referee partners.
He did not leave you to go shake hands with players or coaches. They came to him or he just nodded hello. When he walked onto the hardwood floor, it was time to get down to business. He worked games with a professional, serious approach and yet had the ability to calm waters with a take-control “look” or a smile. Hugh always put the game and his partners before himself. He was an old-school values guy who was progressive on and off the court.
The Naismith Hall of Fame announces nominees at the NBA All-Star game each year, and those who are to be inducted are presented at the NCAA Men’s Final Four. The entire weekend in New Orleans, former NBA players, college coaches, referees and fans would stop to say hello and offer congratulations. Even on the flight, passengers and the captain came to offer a salute for his Hall of Fame career.
When we went onto the floor during halftime of the UNC-Duke semifinal game, the broadcasters at the announcer’s table — Bill Raftery, Grant Hill, Jim Nantz — stood, clapped and offered congratulatory words. One image I will never forget: P.J. Carlesimo, the former college and NBA coach, and now an announcer, started climbing over the sideline table to get onto the court — with help from Gene Steratore, who was trying to lift and push P.J. While a comical scene in itself, P.J. wanted to hug and thank Hugh for all he has done for the game. It was a gesture of love and respect that was felt and offered by so many that weekend.
Cathy, Hugh’s wife, told me we would be going to every Hall of Fame event during the Final Four weekend because “Hugh said we would.” In spite of his current health issues, he gathered that quiet strength to bask in the warm reception wherever he went.
At one point, as we were getting him onto the bus with the help of Hall of Fame classmate Tim Hardaway, I said, “Hugh, we go at your pace, no rush.”
His quick wit was at the ready with these words: “Robert, it took a long time to get here. What’s a few more minutes?”
Another laugh and another teaching moment from my friend, mentor and fellow NBA referee — Naismith Hall of Fame Class of 2022 inductee Hugh Evans.
Bob Delaney, retired NBA referee and former NBA V.P. of referee operations/director of officials, is author of Heroes Are Human: Lessons in Resilience, Courage and Wisdom From the COVID Front Lines. His previous books are Covert: My Years Infiltrating the Mob and Surviving the Shadows: A Journey of Hope into Post Traumatic Stress.
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