Grousing about officials has been part of basketball as long as the center jump, but not since the league's earliest days have complaints in the NBA reached the proportions of the last four years. Even the winners started griping. The reason is plain enough. As recently as the 1966-67 season, the NBA was the only major league and it consisted of 10 teams. It had an officiating staff of 12 men, most of them with five or more years' experience. Since then expansion in the NBA and the creation of the ABA have increased the number of franchises to 27. The proliferation of teams brought a mild decrease in the quality of play—and a far greater drop in officiating. Playoff games, which are handled by the best refs, are still as well officiated as ever. It is the regular-season games, in which an older official is usually paired with a man who is at best inexperienced and at worst incompetent, that are causing much of the controversy.
Most of it is centered in the NBA. While the ABA has had little success in pirating away the older league's star players, it has acquired the services of five of its "star" referees. A sixth, Earl Strom, has switched twice, returning to the NBA this season. Largely because of the jumpers, regular-season officiating in the ABA is somewhat better than in the NBA.
Like the players, refs have prospered from the war between the two leagues. Before the ABA existed, officials worked for small, per-game fees. Now they have full-time contracts, $45 per diem for expenses, health plans, pensions and incomes that range from $14,000 to nearly $50,000 for eight months' work. Six years ago nobody would let his daughter go out with a ref; now bankers invite them to lunch.
John Vanak's house sits at the bottom of a narrow valley in the Pennsylvania mountain hamlet of Hauto. It is a large, red-brick building with a pond out front, woods on three sides and a beautifully kept lawn. When a visitor arrives, he is greeted by an overweight Norwegian elkhound named Aba. The Vanaks bought the dog in 1969, the year John jumped to the ABA.
It is with good reason that the elkhound is named after the newer league. The bonus Vanak received for joining the ABA went a long way toward paying for his custom-built house, and his increased income keeps two Oldsmobiles in his driveway, steak on his lunch table and John Jr. in Penn State.
John Vanak Sr. is a big man in a profession that tends to attract small ones. He stands 6'2" and weighed as much as 255 pounds when he played football in the Navy nearly 20 years ago. Last summer what Vanak calls his "Proxmire health kick" trimmed his bulk to 205 pounds, the lowest since his boyhood.
Vanak was raised not far from Hauto, in a town called Lansford that lies in what Pennsylvanians refer to as the Northeast anthracite region. His father, like most men of Eastern European extraction in the area, was a miner, then a boiler-room stoker. Until refereeing turned him into a classic American success story, Vanak was coal-town poor.
He is no longer that way because of the competing leagues and because he is very good at his job. In an informal SPORTS ILLUSTRATED poll of ABA coaches late this summer, Vanak was named the league's best official. Some NBAers consider him the finest referee in basketball.
Although his expertise is considerable, the facet of Vanak's officiating that impresses most coaches is his calmness. That he does not get worked up over games is understandable, considering what he has to go through to get to them.
When Vanak returned home from the Navy in the mid-"50s, he chose to become a policeman instead of a miner, not so much because he knew digging coal was a dead-end job, but because he was afraid of tight spaces under the ground. It is a fear he has transferred to tight spaces above the earth. Vanak cannot sleep the night before a transcontinental flight. He prefers the sight of 15,000 angry fans to that of one 5'2" stewardess asking him to fasten his seat belt. Yet he flies 100,000 miles a year. Considering all that his travels have brought him, he feels the anguish has been worthwhile.