Vanak, who is 40, began refereeing junior high games in 1956 to stay in shape and pick up $6 a night in cigarette money, but it was not until 1959 that he started to officiate in earnest. "I used to lie on the couch and watch the NBA games on the tube," he says. "One time I told my wife, 'I can do as well as those guys are doing.' She said, 'Yeah, sure. You're too lazy.' "
In 1960 Vanak got off the couch and onto the court for good. That year he officiated 68 times in the short-lived American Basketball League for $40 a game, 16 times in a minor professional league for $25 a game, 50 high school games at $10 apiece, uncounted junior high games at $7 per doubleheader and a bunch of CYO games for free. Unknown to his bosses in the ABL, he also worked two NBA games on a trial basis. At the end of that first season, during which he was also a sergeant on the Lansford police force, Vanak was assigned to the final game of the ABL playoffs. Although he was flattered, he had to turn the job down. He told the ABL he could not leave home because his wife Joan had fallen down stairs and injured her back. The real reason was that the struggling new league did not pay refs' traveling expenses in advance and Vanak could not afford the trip to Kansas City.
The next year he refereed in the NBA for $50 a game. When he left the league eight seasons later, he was earning only $125 a game. For half of those years he continued working as a $4,100-a-year policeman and he worked for a private detective agency. That officiating was still an avocation, not, a profession, was brought home to him one night in Philadelphia when Wilt Chamberlain showed Vanak his new $4,000 camel's hair coat. That single item in Wilt's wardrobe was worth more than the house Vanak then owned in Lansford.
In 1966-67 Vanak finally earned a substantial sum ($21,000) through refereeing. He did it by working 140 games in the NBA, taking two weeks off and then going to Puerto Rico to officiate 65 more games in a summer league. His bonus for signing with the ABA the next summer was more than twice what he had earned in any previous year. This season he expects to make nearly $50,000, all of if from officiating.
Vanak accepts with pride the fact that the pastime he so liked as a second job has evolved into a lucrative full-time profession, but aside from new material comforts his life is little changed. Last month Vanak and his wife sat in the sun on their patio and planned for the winter ahead, just as they have for 14 years.
"I walk in these woods every day, even on the coldest day of the year," said Joan. "I take the dog and pick wild flowers and dried weeds for my arrangements. The best way to get rid of the loneliness is to walk it off."
"I love the job, I still do," said John, even though he must now wear hip-high Supp-hose when he works to protect the varicose veins in his left leg. "But I love it here, too. Some guys think I'm crazy driving three hours to the Philly airport. On trips when my last game is in Salt Lake, I don't get home until the evening of the next day. But I'll tell you, it's worth it. What diversity it gives my life. One night I'll be in an arena with all that yelling, screaming and booing, and the next afternoon I'm off in this absolutely peaceful woods with nobody but my dog.
"Still there are times when I wonder how far our profession has really come. Like we asked for $50 per diem this year to take care of our hotels, food, cabs, things like that. The league said they'd give only $45. I guess that's what you'd call a negotiating point, but you'd think if they respected us for the hard work we put in they wouldn't debate about a lousy five bucks. I'm pretty sure there's no player who puts out more than I do, but for a lot of the athletes and coaches and owners we're still just the guys to blame their mistakes and losses on. There's an old saying and it's the truth: 'A referee is nothing but a paid excuse."
The NBA is currently willing to pay very well for some good excuses. And, according to the coaches, the decision to work aggressively to improve refereeing comes none too soon.
"Only 25% of our refs are good enough to put on the floor with the caliber of athletes we have," says one coach. "Some of the other 75% may get good enough with a couple more years of experience, but that leaves a big percentage at the bottom made up of guys who were rotten last year, will be rotten this year and will still be rotten the day they die. You get one of them assigned to a game, even with the best ref, and he'll manage to louse up everything. The bad official will either do nothing and let the senior man make all the calls, or he'll make calls that are all wrong. I'm sick of having to coach around these guys. My team sees one of them walk out on the floor and you can tell just standing at the sidelines that the players are saying to themselves, 'Well, there's Joe Blow. We might as well kiss this game off.' Then I've got to take them aside and try to tell them not to worry about the refs. I'll tell you, my biggest worry going into a game is not predictable play by the other team, but whether we're going to get consistency from the officials."