by Dr. L.A. Gabay
Referees wear black and white but up to the ’67-68 season, NBA refs were not. This changed when Jackie White, wearing No. 32 on the back of his uniform, blew his whistle and tossed up the ball for the opening tip of that February’s Chicago Bulls-Cincinnati Royals game.
But as quick as his whistle was, the march to blowing it was slow. It started years before in the mid-’60s, when the NBA’s most influential black superstars—Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robinson—requested the NBA broaden its referee ranks with black talent.
So when Jackie White threw that game ball in the air, it was not just a moment. It was a movement that broke one of the many glass ceilings during that era.
The following season Ken Hudson became the first full time African-American NBA official under contract. And although Hudson knew the impact of what he was doing in a historical context, he didn’t feel particularly singled out on the job. Sure, he got heckled but it was probably not due to his race. Even in 1968, the only thing bigots hated more than non-whites were basketball officials. But Hudson took it in stride, enjoying the frat atmosphere in late 1960′s basketball arenas. For the next four years, Hudson’s consistency, fairness, humor and drive were exhibited inside NBA gyms all over America.
Hudson says that, while some fans were probably upset to see a black referee, he never suffered confrontations or racial slurs. In his memoir, A Tree Stump in the Valley of the Redwoods, Hudson reflects on how he was naturally drawn to officiating. His knowledge and ability to manage others in “highly emotional situations” was where he thrived.
Hudson’s career and Jackie White’s entrée led to a steady continuum of African-American men employed by the NBA in the early 1970s. During 1969-70, John Parker became the next black man to dress in black and white, run up and down the court and maintain order among some of the planet’s best athletes. Parker was considered to be “Phase 2” of the NBA’s quietly measured plan to integrate its officials. Gentlemen including James Capers Sr, Hugh Evans and the revered Hue Hollins were soon to hold basketballs under their arms during timeouts. Currently 29 out of the 63 NBA refs are African-American.
The day Ken Hudson died in May of 2012, there was no official acknowledgement league-wide and during the next night’s playoff game (Hawks and Celtics), little if nothing was made of the fact that all three referees—Derrick Stafford, Eric Lewis and Bill Kennedy—were African-American. For White, Hudson, Parker and those who paved the way, this is their quiet yet totally visible legacy.