Couldn’t sleep Tuesday night. Kept thinking about Greg Willard, an old classmate at Long Beach State who probably officiated his final NBA game hours earlier, a forgettable Lakers loss to the Utah Jazz at the Honda Center.
Willard learned he had pancreatic cancer last spring.
I thought something was wrong when I watched him work Game 5 of the Lakers’ second-round playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. He looked winded after the first quarter. His chest heaved and he went to the scorer’s table for a drink of water.
That wasn’t like him. He was always in great shape. But that’s pancreatic cancer. It’s not one I’d wish on my worst enemy. I’ve already lost two friends to it, and it hurts to think how young they were when they left us.
Heather Stevens was a co-worker for a while at another newspaper. She was smart and funny, a single mother trying to break into a merciless business. We ran into each other after many years in a Chinese place on P.C.H. in Long Beach.
She had it, showed off a surgical scar on her belly and vowed to beat it.
Graig Woodburn worked for a paper in the Inland Empire. He was an avid cyclist, loved writing about hockey and practiced law. When the Ducks won the Stanley Cup, he lifted the trophy above his head and screamed when he thought no one was looking.
He slipped away without a chance to say goodbye.
I can’t honestly say Willard and I are close friends. We had a few journalism classes together at Long Beach State back in the 1980s, and talked often about sports. He was older by a few years, more assured as he walked the campus, far more serious.
I learned he wanted to be a referee rather than a journalist.
A few years later, a colleague, another Long Beach State alum, told me Willard was on the officiating crew at his high school football game that night in Orange County. Soon, I covered a prep game Willard worked. We talked and laughed during a timeout.
That’s the way it went for years.
I began covering the NBA in 2001. Willard had been officiating in the league for years. We would exchange greetings. Reporters had better seats in those days. Courtside was the norm. Now we’re farther from the action and it’s tougher to swap, “Wassups.”
Then the elevator doors opened in a hotel in Salt Lake City and Willard joined me in the box on the morning after a Lakers-Jazz playoff game in 2010. My mother-in-law died two days earlier and I should have been anywhere but Utah at that moment.
Talking with Willard, catching up, made me feel better.
It was our longest conversation since college.
We spoke again Tuesday night after the exhibition in Anaheim. I looked into his eyes and he looked into mine. I knew he knew I knew. It was tough. I wasn’t sure what to say. He assured me he was hanging in there. I wanted to cry. He was thin, gaunt.
I put my arm around him and told him, “If there’s anything I can do …”
I wasn’t alone in wishing him well, and took some comfort in that fact.
Kobe Bryant knew this was Willard’s final game. He wouldn’t let him off easily, barking at him after a call in the first half. Willard stared back. That’s the way NBA officials are trained to be, quiet and dignified even as players question their ancestry.
“Honestly, tonight, I wanted him to ‘T’ me up for old time’s sake,” Bryant told me after the game. “I didn’t want him to have any kind of special night. I wanted it to be just like it’s always been. I wanted to drop a couple of F-bombs on him.
“I wanted it to be like how it’s always been. That’s the best way.”
Later, Bryant went to visit Willard in the officials’ locker room. He didn’t want anyone taking photos or scribbling down what was said or done. He didn’t want anyone to know. But I knew. I was waiting around hoping for a word, too.
Actually, what I wanted to do was scream at the top of lungs that this wasn’t fair.
Before the game, my wife sent a text to tell me about the death of a family friend. Mary Gates was elderly. She lived a long and full life. She was a nurse who married a doctor and raised a large and fun-loving family.
Her passing made a little more sense. It was her time.
Willard is only 53, and I can’t stop thinking about him.
I hope you won’t either. Say a little prayer, keep him in your thoughts the next time you watch a game.