Again, Ernie D Is Trying to Earn His Stripes in NBA : ON THE SECOND BOUNCE

Times Staff Writer

When the average gym rat realizes that playing basketball all day, every day, will not pay the bills or feed the kids, he usually stops being a gym rat.

But Ernie DiGregorio, perhaps the ultimate gym rat, figured he would never have to choose between the free-throw line and the unemployment line. He decided early on that, if at all possible, he was going to do little else with his professional life but play basketball.

The plan was to graduate from those dimly lit high school gyms to the polished college courts, and then go on to the National Basketball Assn.'s glittering arenas. He eventually was going to build his own indoor court, complete with glass backboards and a wooden floor, next to his Rhode Island home.

That was DiGregorio's idea of a blissful way to play out his days.

DiGregorio is now 35, and things haven't quite worked out the way he planned. The little man they used to call Ernie D, who once was given his own key to Providence College's gym, says he hasn't played much basketball recently and doesn't expect to play much in the future. Not even in those 6-foot-and-under leagues.

But one day, you may find DiGregorio back in NBA arenas in another capacity--as a referee. Will Ernie D become Ernie T, as in technical foul?

The way DiGregorio figures it, if he can't make a living anymore by playing basketball, he can do the next-best thing, running up and down the floor officiating games. DiGregorio was in town last week to referee games in the NBA summer pro league at Loyola Marymount under the tutelage of Darrell Garretson, the NBA's supervisor of officials.

Realistically, Ernie D could be officiating in the NBA in a few years. Rod Thorn, the NBA's director of operations, said DiGregorio might be assigned to work Continental Basketball Assn. games next season.

That sounds fine to Ernie D, who apparently will do almost anything to make a living in basketball. This, after all, sure beats his previous job as a salesman for a meat-packaging company.

"It was hard to give up playing," DiGregorio said. "Me, I kept trying to make comebacks after I quit because I had a (pro) contract that could let me do what I wanted for a few years. It was tough to believe I wasn't as good as the other players. (But) I have no aspirations of playing anymore. Officiating is the next-best thing."

It has been eight years since DiGregorio, an All-American at Providence in 1973 and the NBA's Rookie of the Year in 1974, last played in the NBA, but only about two years since he last hankered to be there.

Except for a memorable rookie season with the Buffalo Braves, in which his ball-handling and fancy passing was compared to that of Bob Cousy, DiGregorio steadily saw his dream of playing with the big boys fade away. It was as if coaches suddenly realized that, at 5-11, DiGregorio was too short and too slow to keep up defensively in the NBA.

So Ernie No-D, as his critics snidely called him late in his career, took his million-dollar contract and bounced around to three teams before finally quitting in 1978.

But because DiGregorio still receives $50,000 a year in deferred payments under the terms of his original Brave contract, he didn't find it immediately necessary to quit being a gym rat. For several years, he happily spent evenings and weekends playing ball, drinking beer and talking hoops with the boys in his hometown of Narragansett, R.I.

Twice, he had schemes of making comebacks. The Boston Celtics thought about signing him in 1979, and Ernie D (for Determined?) even flew to San Diego in 1980 and lived there nine months in hopes of catching on with the Clippers.

Inevitably, he would return to Rhode Island and wind up playing pick up games with the guys at Branch Avenue Boys Club in Narragansett. And when he wasn't playing, DiGregorio often could be found at Providence College home games or at a local pub watching games on television.

DiGregorio has always been a big man in little Rhode Island. But after his promising career abruptly ended, he took a lot of guff from people wondering what happened. There also has been a certain amount of jealousy, mostly because Ernie D (for Dollars?) collects $50,000 a year for another 23 years under terms of his contract.

But it can become boring being the world's highest paid pickup-game player, so DiGregorio tried several other real jobs. He was briefly a part owner of a bar, tried broadcasting, worked for a landscaping firm and, most recently, as a meat-packaging salesman.

Frankly, DiGregorio didn't like doing anything else but playing basketball.

"When I was 12, I knew what I wanted to be," DiGregorio said. "And I became it. But the last 10 years, I didn't know what the hell I wanted to be."

One morning about two years ago, Ernie D (for Depressed?) was lying in bed watching an NBA game on cable television when he noticed something on the court other than the players.

"It never occured to me before," he said. "I watch a lot of games on cable and I never noticed the refs before. I just thought, bleep, that'd be great to be an official and be involved in the game. Travel to all the big cities. Stay close to the players and coaches. So, I decided to do it."

Just how does one become an NBA referee? Well, unlike a basketball player, an aspiring official does not graduate from high school games to college and then the pros. The NBA's rules are so different, and the style of play so fast-paced and physical, that only a great deal of on-the-job experience is required.

So, when DiGregorio called the NBA office seeking a whistle and a striped shirt, he was told to work as many games as he could find that most simulate NBA action. That meant working the pro-am summer leagues in places like Detroit, Boston, New York and Los Angeles.

Last summer, Ernie D (for Dauntless?) came to Los Angeles and worked as many games as they let him. Last winter, he officiated everything from recreational leagues in Narragansett to the local high school and junior college circuit.

It wasn't until this summer that DiGregorio felt he was ready to seriously be considered for the big time. He worked a four-day "referee camp" in Windsor, Canada (near Detroit), in mid-July, refereeing summer league games involving several NBA teams from the Midwest. In early August, he spent a week at Loyola Marymount.

DiGregorio returned to Rhode Island last week with words of encouragement--but no promises--from Thorn.

"Ernie is still in a learning stage," Thorn said. "He's got good instincts but needs experience. There are other guys ahead of him with more experience, but I think he has a good chance down the road. One thing about Ernie, he is very serious and interested in pursuing this."

Make that obsessed.

DiGregorio said he has watched stacks of video cassettes of referees in action and film isolating his own officiating. Anyone who knows Ernie D (for Dynamo?) wouldn't expect anything less.

"People think a referee has a bum job," DiGregorio said. "I think it's a great job. A referee gets paid good money. They work only eight months a year. I tell you, I can't see a job better suited for me than that. I've done a lot of things the last 10 years, but nothing really excited me.

"This here gives me an opportunity to stay close to the basketball. It's almost like playing. When you ref, you're maybe more involved than the players. There's never a time when you can relax. I like that. You've got to concentrate all the time. It's really a fulfilling thing. When you're done with a game, you feel physically exhausted. I like that."

Funny, but DiGregorio had a dislike of referees during his playing career. Now, he has to deal with players who argue and complain just as much as he used to.

"It's got to be an advantage (being a former player) rather than someone who never played before," DiGregorio said. "You can anticipate what's going to happen. From playing the game and being a good passer, I can see the floor and react better than most officials.

"Coaches like (Detroit's) Chuck Daly came up to me after one camp and said I would make a hell of a ref. But that doesn't mean I still don't have things to work on. I've got to work on positioning and some of the rules regarding things like where to take the ball out of bounds in certain situations. But as far as the mechanics of the game, I don't have to learn that. I know what's a charge and traveling."

There is a chance that Ernie D (for Dreamer?) may be setting himself up for another disappointment, like his aborted playing career.

DiGregorio still has a dash of bitterness about how his NBA career turned out. He cannot understand why coaches tried to harness his behind-the-back, between-the-legs style, or why people begrudged him the high salary he received from the Braves.

"At the time, it was a great contract," DiGregorio said. "But compared to what people in the NBA today make, it was peanuts. You look today, and guys who can't play a lick are making $900,000 a year. It's amazing.

"Me, I found it hard to realize I wasn't good enough anymore. When I play ball now, people I play pick up games with say, 'Bleep, he wasn't that good.' They have a vendetta against me and come after me on the court. I don't need that."

That, combined this his newly found yearning to referee, drove this rat out of the gym.

"You could say I've replaced playing by reffing," DiGregorio said. "Like tonight, I'm going to try to get up to Boston and do a pro-am game. There's a league in Narragansett I work just to get the feel of blowing the whistle. I want to head to the city (New York) to work the pro-am league there.

"Very seldom do I play anymore. The thing is, there's no purpose in playing anymore. I might play occasionally, just to sweat . . . But I sweat just as much reffing."

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