- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 8, 2000

Now it turns out that Morgan Wootten wasn't the only Washingtonian honored last month at the Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Springfield, Mass. Our old friend Arnold Heft also came in for a nice tribute, and it's about time.

Heft, now 81, has been around the D.C. sports scene on and off since 1932, when he was a batboy for the Senators. He played minor league baseball with the Baltimore Orioles, owned a chunk of the Bullets/Wizards, Caps, Capital Centre and MCI Center, and amuses himself these days by racing a string of nags.

The folks in Springfield, though, were doffing their collective hat for a different reason. Arnie Heft was one of two officials in the first NBA game played with the 24-second shot clock on Oct. 30, 1954, in Rochester, N.Y. Danny Biasone, owner of the old Syracuse Nationals, was inducted posthumously in October for concocting the idea; the next time you visit Springfield, you'll see his clock. And in a display case right below it, you'll find Heft's shirt and whistle from that game.

Heft has a newspaper clipping that tells how the Rochester Royals beat Red Auerbach's Boston Celtics 98-95 in the inaugural. The players included such early NBA notables as Bob Cousy, Easy Ed McCauley, Frank Ramsey, Bill Sharman, Arnie Risen and Bob Davies. And because of the new clock, not one of them could hold the ball indefinitely while the other team gnashed its teeth and rended its garments.

"I don't recall that there was much confusion about the clock, because it had been tried in some exhibition games," Heft was saying the other day. "Heck, we had to do something. The previous season, Boston and Minneapolis had played a 19-18 game, for heaven's sakes, and who wants to see somebody standing around and holding the ball. The NBA might not have survived without the shot clock. It wouldn't have survived."

No NBA? That means we would have to spend the winter months watching nothing but hockey. Hey thanks, Arnie.

Heft also is the only referee still living from the league's first season of 1946-47, when it was called the Basketball Association of America and played in such places as Providence, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. How long ago was that? Well, a Washington team Auerbach's Capitols actually won its division.

In those days, the league hired two officials from each city, and Heft was anointed from Washington although he had reffed for only one season. It wasn't exactly a financial windfall. The zebras were paid $40 a game.

In 15 seasons of trodding the NBA boards, Heft got to work in places like Fort Wayne, Ind.; Sheboygan, Wis.; and Waterloo, Iowa, among other remote outposts. Want to know how the Detroit Pistons got their name? They started in Fort Wayne and were known as the Zollner Pistons, after an owner named Zollner who made guess what? pistons. Back then you didn't need a lot of money, or a basketball pedigree, to own an NBA team.

Heft was one of two Washington guys named Arnold who cast notable shadows in the old NBA. The other, of course, was Auerbach, who coached the Caps for four years and the Tri-Cities Blackhawks for one before finding fame, multiple championships and victory cigars in Boston.

"Red and I are friends today, but we didn't always like each other very much," said Heft. "He said I had a quick whistle maybe I did, damned if I know. I remember one game when the Celtics had lost three in a row, and Red was hollering like hell the whole game. Finally, I blew my whistle, went over to the bench and said, 'Red, I know you want me to throw you out, but I'm not going to do that. Instead I'm going to recommend to the league that you be fined …'

"That made him even madder because, you see, he wanted me to throw him out as a way of firing up his team. Red was always thinking."

Heft, who inexplicably had been reduced to the role of a very silent minority partner in Abe Pollin's sporting empire, bailed out in January, when he sold his 8 percent interest to Ted Leonsis for a healthy bag of bucks. "I miss not being around [the basketball team]," he concedes, "but every time I walk past my bank, I feel pretty good."

Ultimately, Heft's share of the Wizards was sold to Michael Jordan, which led to another pretty good line by Heft.

"When Michael decided to come here, I told Ted, 'You just made a hell of a deal you traded a broken-down, 81-year-old left-handed pitcher for the greatest basketball player in history.' "

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