This is the 10th in a series of stories on the 2008 inductees into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. The installments will appear in Saturday's editions of The News.
Hank Nichols could not be swayed.
"You don't know what gym you're working in," a friend once told the long-time college basketball official.
Sure, some arena atmospheres were more intense than others and some coaches more excitable. Yet even on the occasion he admittedly missed a call, his response never wavered.
"I owe you one," he'd tell coaches, "but I'll never pay."
A four-decade career with the NCAA, in which the Niagara Falls native officiated some of the sport's greatest games and worked to restore the game's integrity as the national coordinator of men's basketball officiating, will be celebrated next month.
Nichols, who retired from the NCAA in April and currently evaluates Major League umpires in Baltimore and Philadelphia, is one of this year's 13 inductees into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.
The 18th induction ceremony will be held Oct. 29 at HSBC Arena.
"It's very exhilarating to feel you can go home again, and flattering that somebody remembers you," said Nichols, in a telephone interview from his home St. Davids, Pa. "I wouldn't miss this for all the tea in China."
Nichols' life in sports began on the fields at Bishop Duffy High School in Niagara Falls. A three-sport star there, Nichols went to Villanova on a baseball scholarship and briefly played professionally in the Cincinnati Reds organization. Nichols went on to earn a doctorate in education from Duke University before returning to Villanova, where he served as a professor for more than two decades.
Yet his first love became officiating college hoops, and Nichols fast earned recognition as one of the sport's top referees. His assignments proved it. Nichols worked John Wooden's final game at UCLA in 1975, the 1976 and 1984 Olympics, 10 Final Fours and six national title games, including the Michigan State-Indiana State championship between Magic and Bird in 1979 and North Carolina State's upset over Houston in 1983.
A fan of the game, Nichols was not above the excitement.
"When special things happened, it always caught your eye," Nichols said. "The first time I saw a 360 from [North Carolina's] Phil Ford and then seeing [Houston's] David Thompson jump over the moon, it was like, 'What did I just see?' And the big games were always exciting."
Yet no matter the stakes, Nichols was the same official.
"The crowd screaming, the coaches hollering, that's all immaterial," Nichols said. "Everyone's counting on you to be fair and do the right thing, and that's what you do."
In 1986, Nichols was named the NCAA's officiating coordinator and charged with ensuring his way became the only way. Back then, games were called differently from region to region and too many refs could easily be pushed around.
"We had to get everybody on the same page, so it wasn't going to be like going to the moon when you go to a gym across the country," Nichols said. "We tried to instill one philosophy."
Twenty-two years later, following his retirement in April, Nichols can look with pride at the game he loves.
"Our college officiating is the best it's ever been," Nichols said. "The perception will always be that refs can be intimidated, but I don't see it anymore."