Remembering Lenny: making the ‘right’ call

Published 8:34 am Monday, October 13, 2014

That ‘thump, thump, thump’ you hear is the sound of basketballs hitting the floors of college gyms, and for some fans who’ve given up on good old’ alma mater’s football season already I guess it couldn’t have come a moment too soon.

Seems a bit early this year, but I suppose that’s because of all the early-season tournaments in Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Ukraine, you-name-it.

I supposed I’m also a little more nostalgic about the start of this season.  No, not because Louisville is coming into the ACC (as if Syracuse’s presence a year ago wasn’t strange enough!), or that national champion UConn will be coming to Greenville to play ECU in February (that’s the Huskies men’s team; the national champion women’s team plays in Minges on New Year’s Eve).

No, the thing I reflect on is because it was a year ago that one of my favorite people in college basketball passed away: a spirited little fellow (5’9”) in a striped shirt and a whistle by the name of Lenny Wirtz.

Full disclosure time, folks: what follows is not name-dropping, just some recollections and reflections from a time when I had the privilege of rubbing shoulders with some of the most outstanding – and some sitting – people in the sports world.  I lived in Wilmington then, and I covered a lot of college basketball at the time, among other sports.  The Colonial Athletic Association (CAA), of which UNC-Wilmington was a member, shared officials with the more powerful and prestigious ACC.  I got to meet a lot of prominent personalities in the sports world in those days; some of them I knew and they knew me and with some we were even on a first-name basis. I didn’t feel special because of it: I felt blessed.

But back to the story: let’s face it, in those days, the seventies into the nineties – the David Thompson-Michael Jordan-Johnny Dawkins era – ACC officials were as big a star and as known as well as the coaches and players.  Guys like Hank Nichols, Sam Croft, Rick Hartsell, Dick Paparo, and Larry Rose roamed the hardwoods and let’s face it: sometimes they preened like peacocks.

Wirtz – or ‘Lenny-at-his-worst’ – as some NC State fans liked to call him was one of my favorites.  I never really understood why ABC – Anyone But Carolina – fans viewed the man with such derision because no one seemed to give Wirtz more grief about his officiating than the venerable Dean Smith – (yet everybody always said Lenny was a ‘Carolina man’).  I always found it funny how the players towered over him, yet he would run in, whistle blasting, making a call from waaaaay across the court, right into the middle of these seeming behemoths, arm raised and blurting out the foul or violation.

Wirtz would sometimes stop by the Press table before games and I’d chat up some questioned call he’d made in a TV game. He’d always shake his head and smile; but that was Lenny.  He was one of those guys who always said officiating is a sales job and your clients are the players, the coaches, and the crowd.

“You only have to sell two-out-of-three on a call,” the ref would say. “Doesn’t matter the order; just sell your call to two out of three.”

Wirtz retired in Florida in the late 1990’s and he died there, some say of Lou Gehrig’s disease, last October, and he’s interred back in his native Ohio. When I heard of his passing I smiled and remembered all those WakeForest fans chanting Lenny’s name followed by a verbal expletive.

Blow your whistle in heaven, Lenny.  I think you just made another sale; and in any case, I know you’ll insist it was the right call.

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. He can be contacted at or 252-332-7211.