Nichols humbled by Hall honor

The 2012 inductees: From left, Derek Barksdale accepting on behalf of his father Don Barksdale, Tammy Harrison, accepting on behalf of the The All American Red Heads, Reggie Miller, Phil Knight, Ralph Sampson, Katrina McClain, Don Nelson, Hank Nichols, Chet Walker and Jamaal Wilkes.
The 2012 inductees: From left, Derek Barksdale accepting on behalf of his father Don Barksdale, Tammy Harrison, accepting on behalf of the The All American Red Heads, Reggie Miller, Phil Knight, Ralph Sampson, Katrina McClain, Don Nelson, Hank Nichols, Chet Walker and Jamaal Wilkes. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: September 07, 2012

IT'S A STORY with many lives that still sounds apocryphal. Hank Nichols swears it is true.

Jim Valvano really did ask Nichols if he could get a technical for what he was thinking. One of America's best referees said he could not. So, Valvano said: "I think you suck."

Nichols' reaction? No technical.

"I was laughing too hard," he said.

The 1958 Villanova grad and retired chairman of the school's Education and Human Services Department understood the absurdity of the "other" life he led traipsing around the East Coast to gyms where he had no friends. It was, then and always, just about getting the next call right.

Friday night, Dr. Henry Nichols is being recognized as one of the best officials of his era and, as the NCAA's first national coordinator of officials, for his contributions to the game, with induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Hubie Brown will be his presenter in Springfield, Mass. Nichols grew up watching Brown play for Niagara. And he was also someone who gave Nichols a push in the business. Brown was an assistant coach at Duke when Nichols was there for his doctorate in 1969.

"He arranged for me to do a scrimmage with Jacksonville and Artis Gilmore at Duke," Nichols remembered. "He had the supervisor come to the game and, after the game, the supervisor gave me a schedule. That jump-started me in the ACC."

Nichols once officiated a freshman game at Syracuse with his brother. They managed to foul Niagara star Calvin Murphy out of the game.

"Two Nichols aren't worth a dime," screamed a female Niagara fan, whose unmistakable voice Nichols recognized.

"Everybody in the place heard her," Nichols said. "It was a great line."

Nichols managed to overcome that by officiating in 10 Final Fours and 13 ACC finals, including the legendary 1974 Maryland-North Carolina State game.

Nichols' first of six national championship games was in 1975. Nobody remembers who officiated. Everybody remembers who coached. That was UCLA legend John Wooden's last game. And Nichols almost managed to upstage him.

He called a foul and then a technical on UCLA's David Meyers after he slammed the ball on the court. The calls got the attention of the UCLA coach.

"I was absolutely amazed at John Wooden's animation and irate actions," Nichols said. "I had done the semifinal game and everything was fine. My partner was over there keeping him from coming on the court. I remember being such a rookie, cocky, dumb guy that I hollered over 'Let him come.' Thank God, he didn't."

Nichols visited the first Hall of Fame at Springfield College, but had not been in any of its two more modern incarnations until a few months ago. When he wandered about, he had one thought: "I might be the mule in the horse race."

But at least he is in the starting gate.

"It's still kind of a wonderment to me that it's happening," Nichols said.

Nichols was just 48 when he gave up the whistle to work for the NCAA. In his 22 years with the NCAA, he changed the game. Officiating was very regional. Now, it looks pretty much the same anywhere in the country.

"I think we're doing OK," he said. "I think people are ultra-critical because of the heavy media exposure of everything now. A critical call that gets controversial has an afterlife for weeks on ESPN and all these highlight [shows]."

There always will be missed calls. The officials are trained better. The way the games are officiated has been standardized. But . . .

"They're trying to make a science out of it, but it's really an art," Nichols said. "The court's the same size and the players are twice as big and faster than they ever were. It's tough to get them all right."

Nichols, a baseball player at Villanova and in the minor leagues, retired from the university a few years before retiring from the NCAA in 2008. These days, he evaluates umpires for major league baseball, a valuable exercise but not something that is heavily scrutinized.

"I made a decision after 22 years of being in charge of bad calls that that was more than any human being should have to endure," Nichols said on the day his selection was announced at the 2012 Final Four in New Orleans.

He has endured his last bad call. However, for getting so many calls right and for giving up his officiating career when he was arguably the best in the game to give back to the game, Nichols takes his rightful place next to the greats of the game. And he has a sense of what his induction will feel like.

"I think it's going to be overwhelming, humbling, exciting, awesome," Nichols said. "Any emotion that you can have, I think I'll have."

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