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Referee Celebrates Three Decades in NBA

STAMFORD, Conn. – Bennett Salvatore didn't count on a 30-year career as an official in the National Basketball Association. He wasn't confident he would make it through his first one.

"I remember in my third game working at a sold-out arena in Washington, D.C.,'' the Stamford native said last week when he was selected for the Fairfield County Sports Hall of Fame . "I threw Gene Shue, the coach of the Bullets, out of the game. Then with one second to go, I took away the winning basket for Washington with a travel call. I was escorted off by 10 security guards. If you'd asked me then, I'd say there's no way I'd have lasted this long."

Even Salvatore's prep career got off to a rocky start. He recalled officiating his first high school game at Westhill when Viking coach Lou Orlando yelled at a player named Keith Bennett. Salvatore thought he was yelling at him and gave him a technical. "I didn't know until after,'' Salvatore said, "that he was yelling at one of his players."

The stories are part of a lengthy career on the hardwood for Salvatore, who was an all-state football and baseball player at Stamford Catholic High School. He played baseball and football at C.W. Post – "At 5-10 and 162 pounds, I wasn't going any where,'' Salvatore said. He then returned to Stamford to work in an architectural hardware business.

He got into officiating by happenstance. Legendary local official Sharkey Laureno asked Salvatore to officiate a game in the Stamford Youth Basketball League. "I was sitting home on a Saturday afternoon, and Sharkey called me and said he needed help,'' Salvatore said. "He said he'd stand at half court and make all the calls."

Salvatore took to it immediately. He honed his skills by officiating high school games for 10 years. He worked for two years in the Continental Basketball Association before making it to the NBA. "It's like a Major League Baseball player, where you could be there for 10 years waiting to get a shot,'' Salvatore said. "I was going to give myself three years. Fortunately, after two years I was hired."

Salvatore, 61, has gone on to call 1,385 regular season games, 167 playoff games and 20 NBA finals. He works at staying fit during the off-season and says he has "some gas left in the tank" for a few more years.

"It's a challenge,'' Salvatore said. "I recommend to every one to go out there and run around with 25-year-old men."

Many of the lessons he learned on the courts in Stamford remain with him all these years later in the NBA. "The basics are the same,'' Salvatore said. "You have to respect the game, you have to respect the rules, you have to respect the players. You work with poise and strength, and let the chips fall where they may."

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