Chris Childs served a two-game suspension for punching Kobe in the throat. Carmelo Anthony got 15 games for landing one of the most solid punches we’ve ever seen in an NBA brawl. And Ron Artest got slapped with an 86-game suspension for socking a fan in the face during the infamous Malice in the Palace.
But there was a referee that did much, much worse, and faced virtually zero repercussions. He fought fans, ejected mascots, beat up other refs, and even threw out a coach from an All-Star game. And somehow he kept his job for 33 years.
This is the story of a man named Earl Strom, the most legendary referee to ever grace NBA hardwoods.
And while he might not have had the star-power of Magic Johnson or Larry Bird, Strom was captivating and enraging crowds with fists and a whistle.
When Strom stepped on the floor, everyone in the arena knew he was not one to be trifled with.
After all, as a general rule of thumb: Anyone under 6-foot, but always willing to throw hands is someone you walk away from.
But before he made his name, some people had to learn this the hard way.
In 1965, Earl Strom was officiating the Eastern Conference Finals. The series is known for the famous “insert Havlicek stole ball audio” call by Johnny Most, and Strom was on the floor for it. But with one hindrance.
The game before, Strom had gotten into a fight with a fan who took issue with one of his calls. In the fistfight, Strom broke his hand, and was forced to ref Game 7 in a cast.
That’s right, our hero dummied a loud mouth fan post game and went right about the rest of his day. Imagine doing that in your office place with no repercussions? However, this was far from the first time Strom had drawn fans ire.
During a Hawks game, Strom made call against Atlanta that prompted their manager to call him a “gutless bastard”.
Strom, never one to back down, moved towards the stands to fight him. As it was an Atlanta home game, fans came streaming down to back up the manager.
Strom was rescued from a beatdown by Sixers legend Wilt Chamberlain, who plucked him up and carried him to the safety. Like, literally snagged him like a sack of potatoes, carrying him off to safety.
Even if the fans had come down to the court, Earl Strom was ready to channel his inner Young Joc. In a 1970 ABA game he fought a fan on the court, and had multiple close calls after as well.
Fans weren’t the only ones who faced Strom’s fists.
Dick Bavetta, another respected referee, once made the mistake of overturning one of Strom’s late-game calls during a Sixers-Nets game.
Big mistake, Dick.
After the game, Bavetta was seen running from the ref’s locker room with a ripped uniform and a black eye. Strom was heard raining cuss words on Bavetta afterwards. Words that we can’t include in this video. Settle down Yogi!
When Strom wasn’t fighting people, he was ejecting them. But come on, who doesn’t love a nice ejection?
He’s responsible for the only All-Star ejection of a coach in NBA history when he ejected Red Auerbach in 1967 for excessive jawing in a game that is supposed to be nothing but a show for the fans.
In the 1974 playoffs, he executed the unimaginable. He went where no ref has gone before after ejecting Benny the Bull, Chicago’s mascot, in the middle of a game.
With that kind of record, you’d expect Earl Strom to be throwing out anyone who gave him a bad look.
But there was one instance he showed quite possibly the most restraint of any ref to ever live.
Jazz Head coach Frank Layden was fed up while watching his team play like a high school JV squad during a 1982 matchup. He began berating Strom in order to get thrown out. Even though he threw everything in the book at the veteran ref, Strom refused to T him up.
When Layden expressed his amazement that he hadn’t even received a warning, Strom shot back: “I know what you’re trying to do, Frank, but if I’ve got to stay out here and watch this shit, so do you!”
That seems like a fair punishment, if we’re being honest.
Strom built a reputation for being a straight shooter who wasn’t afraid to do (and say) whatever he wanted.
After watching Julius Erving dominate in a game he officiated, Strom claimed that Erving was the greatest player alive.
Obviously, the league was forced to crack down, and the opinionated ref was fined 50 dollars.
Instead of 50, Strom sent 100 to the commissioner. Why? Strom explained: “The first fifty dollars is for the fine and the second fifty dollars is because I’m tellin’ ya’ he is the greatest.”
Strom’s personality and actions drew mixed reactions: He received phone call death threats while officiating games, but also was voted by coaches and players to be the best referee in the league in ‘89-’90.
Additionally, fans voted him the best official of all the major sports leagues.
In the end, the world recognized Earl Strom for what he is: an absolute legend.
He was posthumously voted into the Naismith Hall of Fame, and his story continues to remind the world that sometimes, the referees can provide just as many interesting storylines as the players.
You know, provided they’re willing to RKO a player or fan every now again.