INDIANAPOLIS – Bert Smith hasn’t seen the moment that made him famous. His wife has seen it once, and she’ll never watch it again. If you saw it, you understand.
Smith is the college basketball official who passed out during the men’s NCAA Tournament regional final between Gonzaga and Southern California, toppling over like a fallen tree – his description – his body prone and unmoving, his eyes open and unseeing, a Gonzaga trainer frantically waving for help.
People in the building, and I was one of them, thought he was dead. Turns out, that night probably saved Bert Smith’s life. But slow down, OK? We’ll get there, but right now we’re moving too fast.
Then again, isn’t that what Bert Smith has always done? Moves fast, this guy. First as an athlete growing up in Buffalo, a high school small forward, receiver and 400-meter runner, then some junior college basketball. After that he studies business administration at SUNY-Buffalo, gets a job at Avis Budget Group, moves fast up the ranks as his career takes him to Chicago, Houston and finally the Cincinnati area.
Then he becomes a basketball official. Moves fast? Check this out. He works his first game at age 24. Bunch of sixth-graders at Garfield Park in Chicago. That’s 1990. By 1993, he’s an NCAA Division I official. This season he worked about 90 games, including dates in the ACC, Big East, Big 12 and Missouri Valley Conference. He’s worked 17 NCAA Tournaments. You’ve probably seen him.
Well, no. You’ve definitely seen him.
It was March 30. It was 7:28 p.m.
‘You little SOB, you tricked me!’
Everyone’s joking with him now. Gallows humor, you call it, and it’s pretty funny, how Bert Smith’s buddies tease him.
“Yeah man, you were staggering like you were fighting Ali.”
“You were asking Mark Few for a job application because you were on his bench.”
“Next thing you know, you were back in the ring again with Ali and you went down like a tree in a forest!”
Bert Smith doesn’t remember any of that and hasn’t seen a replay of his fall, though he says he’s almost ready to watch. Has it cued up on his iPad and everything.
Smith does remember the play before it: Gonzaga’s Andrew Nembhard stealing the ball and going the other way, but now the action is coming back toward the USC basket, where Smith had remained – he’d been unable to run the court as Nembhard finished at the rim – and Smith is wondering what’s going on. Why can’t he catch his breath? He’s feeling wobbly, so wobbly. And how did the court get so blurry all of a sudden, like someone smeared it with —
“That’s when I go timber,” he says.
Next thing he remembers, he’s looking at the ceiling of Lucas Oil Stadium. What’s he doing on his back? Why is he lying down near the Gonzaga bench?
“I look to my left, and it’s a doctor,” Bert says, and he’s laughing about it now. “I say, ‘What’s going on, man?’ And he goes, ‘Bert, you passed out. You blacked out.’
“I said: ‘What?’
“I look to my right, and I see a stretcher. What’s that for? The doctor says, ‘That’s what I’m taking you out on.’
“I said: ‘Listen, Doc, I’m walking out of here. You’re going to get on one side, he’s going to get on the other, we’re going to wave to the fans, and I’m walking out of here.’”
What happens next leads to a picture caught by IndyStar photographer Kelly Wilkinson. See Bert Smith? He’s on the stretcher, and he’s not even a little bit happy about it. Look at those crossed arms. Look at his scowl. Here’s why:
“The doctor said, ‘Listen, tell you what, why don’t you just sit on the stretcher?’ I said OK, I can do that,” Smith says and now he’s laughing. To me, he offers an aside: “He’s taking advantage of a guy in a weakened position.”
He continues the story:
“The doc says, ‘Swing your legs around.’ I swing my legs around, and they go: Click-click-click-click. They strapped me in! I looked at him and said, ‘Oh no you didn’t…’”
Here’s where I’m telling him about that picture, how he looks so angry on the stretcher.
“It’s because I was telling the doctor: ‘You little SOB, you tricked me!’”
Now Bert Smith is laughing again. It’s deep, and it’s contagious.
Did he miss a red flag?
He rarely uses the elevator. He’d rather take the stairs, and Bert Smith doesn’t walk them. He runs. Who parks in the farthest spot from the entrance to Kroger? Bert Smith does. If he’s going to walk, might as well make it a long one. Might as well walk fast, too.
“Every chance I get, I want to get my heart rate up,” says Smith, 56, who takes the court 90 times a year with elite NCAA athletes. Officials figure they run at least four miles during a game, and it’s not a jog but a series of sprints. Smith trains year-round on a treadmill or stationary bike, and gets in other workouts, like when the family goes to Disney World and Smith says they don’t need a stroller for their grandson, Karter. He’ll just carry Karter on his shoulders, and yes, they’ll use the stairs when everyone else rides the escalator.
OK, so the night of March 29. He’s working Gonzaga-USC the next day, and Bert and his crew are staying in one of the NCAA bubble hotels, Le Meridien. Bert’s on the sixth floor, and he’s putting on his mask to run the stairs down to the fifth floor for ice, or to run up to the eighth floor to see his buddies. He’s huffing and puffing a little, but he’s running stairs in a mask. That’s normal to huff and puff, right? Now he wonders.
“For me, it didn’t seem like a red flag,” Smith says. “As the doctor says: ‘Sometimes you don’t get a red flag. Sometimes it just hits you.’ I don’t know which bucket I’m in.”
The whole thing is mysterious, because he’s a sculpture of a man, 6-3 and 195 pounds. Look at that picture again. Are you going to tell Bert Smith he’s out of shape? And after it happens, with a replacement official stepping in for Smith, he spends two hours getting treatment at the stadium, where his vitals are normal – pulse, blood pressure, oxygen level – and he doesn’t have a headache. He’s not wobbly, no blurry vision, nothing. The NCAA announces that Smith has returned to the hotel, and it’s true.
For a few hours.
His crew comes back to Le Meridien with a doggy bag of the dinner he missed at the game, and they’re talking and laughing, but they’ve seen replays of Smith’s fall. And they heard the sound his head made – I heard it, too, 30 rows away – when it slammed onto the court. They suggest he go to the hospital to get examined for a concussion, just to be sure. He goes to IU Health Methodist.
Turns out, nope, no concussion. Turns out, it was something worse.
Do we say ‘I love you’ enough?
When he’s telling a funny story, which happens quite a bit, Bert Smith talks quickly. He’s a motivational speaker and diversity recruiter in addition to being an NCAA referee, and I imagine he’s awfully good at both. When he’s saying something serious, though, he slows down.
He’s slowing down now.
“Dr. Katie Trammel,” he tells me slowly, then repeats her name, then spells it. “She’s an important part of this story.”
Trammel was at Methodist the night of March 30.
“She sits down next to the bed,” Smith continues, “and she says: ‘I saw your fall tonight. Something doesn’t add up. I want to know why you fell.’ She checked a few things out, came back in and took me through the car wash. Just a lot of tests. And they found out.
“She said: ‘I got the answer to the question. You went down because you had a blood clot in your lung.’”
Smith’s pausing. Dr. Katie Trammel, he’s wanting me to know, may have saved his life.
“You don’t know where that clot was going next,” he says.
Smith was admitted into Methodist and put on blood thinners. Two days later, clot gone, he was discharged. Where did it come from? Nobody can say. Smith tested positive for the coronavirus in August, but doctors can’t say whether there’s a correlation between COVID-19 and his blood clot.
Smith, who’d driven a rental car into town after working the Atlantic-10 Tournament in Dayton, Ohio, was driven to his home in Florence, Kentucky, by Eric Lowe, a Central Indiana-based referee.
Jacquie was waiting at the door. That’s his wife of 33 years. So was Karter.
“The hugs were pretty intense,” Smith says, and he’s talking slowly again. “They were pretty intense, man.
“It puts in perspective the value of each day, because we all go through our lives – we’re all guilty of it – and we just live, right? But do we say ‘I love you’ enough? Do we give an extra hug enough? Do we do the things with our family and friends that have value to them? When you live something like I did, it hits you square in the eyes that you really have to value each day.”
After his nationally televised fall, Smith had more than 500 texts, emails and calls to return, and by Wednesday he’d returned them all. Former NCAA national men’s basketball officiating coordinator John Adams says Bert is funny but quiet, “not a me-first guy.” Adams was one of the 500 who reached out to Smith. Another was former Indiana State coach Greg Lansing.
“I always thought he was a good dude,” Lansing says. “You could talk to him during a game. He wasn’t one of those guys you couldn’t talk to. I thought he was a good official, a fair official, and when you saw him at a game, you knew you were going to get a good whistle from him.”
Smith says we’ll see him at games next season – “I could work again in seven to 10 days,” he says – but for now he wants to thank some people publicly. The doctors who cared for him at Lucas Oil Stadium, Pat Kersey and Luke Berghoff; he appreciates their care and understands their stretcher subterfuge. He mentions NCAA officiating coordinator J.D. Collins and NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt, “for their support and kindness to me.”
Smith’s also grateful that his health scare, if it was going to happen, took place during the NCAA Tournament and not when he was driving or sleeping.
“I hate the fact I passed out in the Elite Eight,” he says, “but you know what? I’m happy I did it around a bunch of people who had the ability to help me.”
Find IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter at @GreggDoyelStar.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: NCAA Tournament ref Bert Smith’s collapse during game saved his life
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