Pete D'Ambrosio, 98, of Yeadon, an NBA referee who was officiating when Wilt Chamberlain made history by scoring 100 points in a single game, died Monday, June 18, of dementia at Sunrise of Granite Run.
Although he would go on to make his living as a Realtor in the Koenig Agency in Glenolden for 35 years, starting in the late 1960s, a passion for sports was a defining factor in his life.
He officiated for baseball and basketball, advancing in the latter from CYO and high school games to the NBA in 1955, and becoming full-time in 1959.
In the early days of his officiating, he worked a CYO game for $5 in the morning and an NBA game that evening "for a whopping $40," said his son, Mark.
He was nearing the end of his NBA career on the night of March 2, 1962, when Chamberlain reached 100.
"It just seemed like it was going to be a night like any other," Mr. D'Ambrosio recalled in a 2012 Inquirer interview. "The last thing I expected was history."
With the playoff spots already decided, the Philadelphia Warriors took on the New York Knicks at Hershey Arena.
When Chamberlain, who had averaged more than 50 points per game that season, began making nearly all his free throws early in the game, Mr. D'Ambrosio thought he might see a 70- or 80-point score.
"Wilt was a bad free-throw shooter," Mr. D'Ambrosio said, "but he started that game by hitting most of them. I thought to myself, 'Yes, he could have a big night.' But 100 points? Who could have imagined that?"
When the players realized that Chamberlain might reach 100, Mr. D'Ambrosio said, the game became a nightmare for him and co-referee Willie Smith of Reading. Each side began fouling the other.
"Things really got to be a little bit chaotic there at the end," Mr. D'Ambrosio said. "The last four minutes probably took about a half-hour to complete."
With 46 seconds remaining, Joe Ruklick, a Warriors reserve player, got the ball to Chamberlain, who dunked it for his 100th point. The final seconds were a blur for Mr. D'Ambrosio.
"I remember everyone in the crowd running onto the floor when Wilt got to 100 points," he said. "I don't recall what happened next, but I know that Willie and I were back in our dressing room before they got the floor cleared."
"All of the great referees had longer careers than me, but because of happenstance and of Wilt's amazing individual performance, I'm still mentioned 50 years after retiring from the NBA," he said.
Mr. D'Ambrosio was born in West Philadelphia to Louis and Helen D'Ambrosio. He graduated from West Philadelphia High School, and after serving in the Army during World War II attended Villanova University for two years.
He played high school and semi-professional baseball before going into the Army. Afterward, he began to referee in men's leagues in Philadelphia while attending Villanova and playing college baseball.
When Mr. D'Ambrosio left college to play minor league baseball and didn't succeed, he turned to umpiring to stay involved in the game.
He umpired in the minor leagues for more than 15 years, and in the process met Gertrude Halbert while officiating in Oneonta, N.Y. They married in 1952 and had four children.
In 1960, Mr. D'Ambrosio just missed a callup to the National League as an umpire after working spring training. That was the zenith of his baseball career, but in basketball it was a different story.
Mr. D'Ambrosio became a full-time NBA official in 1959 and continued through 1962, when he switched to refereeing at the college and high-school levels.
Mr. D'Ambrosio was inducted into the Delaware County chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 1995, and honored at the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association dinner in 2012 on the 50th anniversary of the famous game.
After retiring from officiating in the early 1970s, he coached his sons in basketball, and later attended his grandchildren's sporting events.
His wife died in 2005. In addition to his son, he is survived by sons Lee and Jay; a daughter, Petra Roney; 13 grandchildren; 16 great-grandchildren; and many nieces and nephews.
Services were Saturday, June 23.