NBA official Greg Willard (Nov. 5, 1958 — April 1, 2013)

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN IN 2012. It’s been nearly 10 years since Greg Willard, one of the NBA’s greatest officials, passed away due to pancreatic cancer. He remains one of the best examples of what an official should be.


If you’re a hard-core NBA fan, you know who Greg Willard is. But if you’re a casual fan, chances are you can’t create a mental picture of him.

Well, he’s a rugged and strong official, he takes the job seriously, and he’s got an impeccable balance between presence and ego. Or put another way, Willard’s got presence; he has no ego.

I don’t know Willard, and I never talked him. But I feel like I know him because I’ve watched him officiate dozens upon dozens upon dozens of basketball games – many in person and even more on TV.

Willard, 53, is the kind of official who makes me stand up for officials so adamantly. He’s one of the reasons why I’ll defend so vigorously on a referee’s behalf.

Anybody who knows me or reads me with any interest knows that my dad was a high school and college basketball official back East, and I’ll give referees the benefit of the doubt and then some.

I do that because in my heart I believe refs are fair and forthright, they’re doing it for the right reasons and they want to do the right thing. That’s what my dad tried to do. And Willard does, too.

That doesn’t mean that refs don’t miss calls or that some are better than others or that certain ones have deficiencies when this or that happens during a game. And it doesn’t mean your team might not have a worse record with this guy reffing rather than that guy or that so-and-so may have blown a big call against your team recently.

But NBA officials are still the best basketball referees on planet earth and, with rare exception, comport themselves with dignity and professionalism. The best of the best also possess a keen eye, terrific mediation skills and a drive to be right.

Willard is all of those.

When it comes to the scouting report on Willard, it’s all strengths.

He has a steadiness about him that doesn’t waver whether its the first quarter or overtime. He doesn’t officiate with bombast, but he’s not emotion-less, either. He’s always under control, and I can’t ever remember him bringing attention to himself. Willard means business, but he’s approachable. He can’t be intimidated, but better than that he doesn’t lord his power over anyone whether it be player or coach.

Most of all, he’s a hell of an official; one of the best I’ve ever seen.

When I hear fans griping about referees or complaining that a certain guy screwed their team out of a playoff win, it irks me. Despite what some may think, the reality is that most refs do what they do because they love the game every bit as much as you do and they want to be involved in it — like players, coaches, broadcasters, trainers, statisticians, sportswriters, etc.

Hey, I know my dad loves the game, and when he was officiating he was as conscientious and earnest about that as he was about anything else in his life. And I assume Willard is the same way.

There’s that old adage about how the best referees are the ones you don’t notice. Well, if thats true, Greg Willard is damn near invisible.

Be well, Greg.


About Steinmetz

Matt Steinmetz is a veteran San Francisco Bay Area sports journalist. He covered the Golden State Warriors for the Bay Area News Group for more than a decade before becoming a television analyst with Comcast SportsNet Bay Area. Steinmetz can be heard on "Steiny & Guru" on 95.7-FM The Game in San Francisco, from 12-3.
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