By TIM REYNOLDS
AP Basketball Writer
Greg Willard, a longtime NBA referee who worked more than 1,600 games before he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, has died. He was 54.
Willard died Monday night, according to the league. He was diagnosed with the illness during last season’s playoffs and worked only one more game, a preseason matchup in October not far from his Huntington Beach, Calif., home.
Some NBA players, including three-time MVP LeBron James of the Miami Heat, New Orleans guard Roger Mason and Sacramento center Cole Aldrich, tweeted condolences to Willard’s family, as did Golden State coach Mark Jackson. More tributes were expected in the coming days, including moments of silence in Willard’s memory at all NBA games Tuesday and Wednesday.
“The entire NBA family joins me in mourning the loss of one of our own, Greg Willard,” NBA Commissioner David Stern said. “Greg touched all those with whom he came in contact thanks to his extraordinary spirit, dedication and hard work. As a Finals referee, he reached the highest level of his profession while at the same time demonstrating a strong commitment to his family and his community.”
Willard officiated 1,494 regular-season games, 136 playoff games, two NBA Finals games, the 2006 All-Star game and Europe Live games in 2006 in Italy, France and Germany in a career that spanned nearly a quarter-century.
All league officials will wear wristbands or patches with Willard’s jersey No. 57 for the rest of the season.
“Our thoughts are with his wife Laurie, their children and the rest of the Willard family during this difficult time,” Stern said.
Willard spent four years as an official at the college level and four years working games in the Continental Basketball Association before joining the NBA ranks.
He was also active in several youth programs, particularly ones supporting athletics and the performing arts.
“Greg epitomized what it meant to be an NBA referee through dedication to his craft, hard work, and integrity both on and off the court,” said Lee Seham, general counsel for the National Basketball Referees Association. “He was not only a great NBA referee, but more importantly a wonderful person.”