Norm Drucker, one of pro basketball’s most prominent referees, who notoriously ejected Wilt Chamberlain from a game — the only minutes Chamberlain missed in his epic 1961-62 season — died on Friday. He was 94.
His death was confirmed by his son Jim, a former commissioner of the Arena Football League and the Continental Basketball Association, The Associated Press reported.
In the 1952-53 season, when Drucker began refereeing regularly in the N.B.A., there was no 24-second shot clock, the league had only 10 teams, TV exposure was minimal and the officials were paid $40 a game.
Drucker saw the N.B.A. evolve from an often plodding, highly physical game to a crowd-pleasing spectacle.
“When I started, the game was played on the floor,” he told The New York Times in 1984. “When I reffed my last game, it was played two feet off the floor.”
Drucker became a familiar face in the striped shirt alongside officials like Sid Borgia, Mendy Rudolph, Earl Strom and Richie Powers. But he jumped to the rival American Basketball Association in 1969 for a lucrative multiyear contract.
Drucker returned to the N.B.A. in 1976, when the leagues merged. In recounting his departure for the A.B.A., he told Charles Salzberg in the oral history “From Set Shot to Slam Dunk” (1987), “I think that led to the total improvement in referees’ salaries and working conditions that are now enjoyed by pro officials.”
The N.B.A.’s current commissioner, Adam Silver, said in a statement upon Drucker’s death that he was “a frequent choice to preside over some of the biggest games in N.B.A. history.”
In the 1961-62 season, during which Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points a game for the Philadelphia Warriors and scored 100 points in a game against the Knicks, Chamberlain played every minute of every matchup on the 80-game regular-season schedule — except on the night of Jan. 3, 1962.
With 8 minutes 33 seconds remaining in the Warriors’ game against the Lakers in Los Angeles, Strom gave Chamberlain a technical foul for complaining about a call. Chamberlain then “made reference to Earl Strom’s old mother,” according to Drucker’s report to the league, as cited in Gary M. Pomerantz’s book “Wilt, 1962” (2005).
When Chamberlain “yelled at Strom that he must be gambling on the game,” according to Drucker’s report, he slapped Chamberlain with a second technical, causing an automatic ejection. Drucker tacked on a third technical after “additional sequences of profane words” from Chamberlain.
Red Auerbach, the Boston Celtics’ Hall of Fame coach, who often battled with referees, saved much of his ire for Drucker and Borgia. After Drucker gave Auerbach a second technical foul in a November 1961 game, causing him to be ejected for a second straight game, Auerbach was suspended for three games by the N.B.A.’s president, Maurice Podoloff.
Drucker grew up in Brooklyn and played basketball for Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush and then for Coach Nat Holman at City College. A 5-foot-11 guard, he played with Red Holzman, who went on to become the Knicks’ coach, on the City College squad that went to the 1942 National Invitation Tournament.
After serving as an Army officer in World War II, Drucker played on weekends in the American Basketball League. He also refereed in that league and in college games before joining the N.B.A.
Drucker was a teacher and an administrator in the New York City school system while building his career as an N.B.A. official. An off-season job was a necessity. He recalled that when he went to Podoloff’s office to ask for a $10-a-game raise for the 1956-57 season, Podoloff pounded his desk and roared, “Are you trying to bankrupt the N.B.A.?”
During the league’s early years, referees were confronted by angry fans, especially at the Syracuse Nationals’ War Memorial Auditorium, where the officials had to walk through the stands to get to their dressing room.
“As we walked off the floor, we’d take off our belts and wrap them around our fists with the buckles obvious to everyone,” Drucker told Neil D. Isaacs in the oral history “Vintage N.B.A.” (1996). “This was going to be our protection.”
After 17 seasons as an N.B.A. referee, Drucker was recruited by the A.B.A., then in its third season. He and three fellow referees — Strom, Joe Gushue and John Vanak — each received a $25,000 bonus and an annual salary of $25,000 a year in three-year deals, far in excess of what they were earning in the N.B.A., where they were still being paid according to the number of games they officiated.
Drucker remained in the A.B.A. for seven years, working as a referee and as supervisor of officials. He returned to the N.B.A. for a final season as a referee after the A.B.A. merger and then became the N.B.A.’s supervisor of referees in 1977, holding that post for four seasons. He was later the director of operations for the World Basketball League, a minor circuit.
A complete list of Drucker’s survivors was not immediately available.
In January 1984, Drucker returned to the court when he and Borgia were paired as referees for the N.B.A.’s first old-timers’ game, played in Denver.
Auerbach was the coach of the East team. After it lost by 2 points, Auerbach raged at Drucker for calling a foul that gave the West its margin of victory.
Drucker was hardly perturbed. As he put it, “What else is new?”