Pottstown’s population on Aug. 17, 1990, was 21,000 and dropping. Then as now, the nearest major airport was 46 miles away. Not a single movie theater remained in a downtown that at night was as lifeless as the Montgomery County borough’s idled foundries.

And yet on that summer night, as if transformed by some fairy godmother, fading Pottstown magically came alive. Outside an old jitterbug-era dance hall, basketball’s biggest and brightest celebrities emerged from limousines: Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, Red Auerbach, Bob Cousy, Billy Cunningham.

What made this scene at the SunnyBrook Ballroom even more incongruous was the nature of the event that attracted this royal court of court stars – a referee’s retirement dinner. It wasn’t until you learned that referee’s identity that it made sense.

For more than three decades, Pottstown native Earl Strom, who died in 1994 at age 66, was the NBA’s most respected, well-known and controversial referee. He officiated 2,400 regular-season games, 295 in the playoffs, including 29 NBA or ABA finals. When he finally stepped aside in 1990, coaches and players begged him to stay. Five years later, he was posthumously inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

“You can tell a lot about a person by who comes out to something like this,” Magic Johnson said at that 1990 dinner. “And tonight, Earl, the stars among stars are here to honor you.”

Thursday night in a ceremony made virtual by the COVID-19 pandemic, Strom will be honored again, this time by the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame.

In addition to Strom, the Hall’s 2020′s class is headlined by Kobe Bryant, the basketball superstar from Lower Merion High who died in a helicopter crash this year. It includes former Phillies president Dave Montgomery; basketball coaches Bo Ryan and Ken Hamilton; tennis star Lisa Raymond, the Flyers' Rick Tocchet; ex-Eagles Jerry Sisemore and Vic Sears; heavyweight champion Tim Witherspoon; Olympic runner Herm Frazier; early Phillies star Cy Williams; Temple football’s Deron Cherry; boxing promoter J. Russell Peltz; lacrosse’s Cherie Greer Brown; and the three-time world champion 1910-13 Philadelphia Athletics.

Curiously for an area that has produced an abundance of them – especially basketball referees – Strom will be just the second sports official named to the Philly Hall, joining longtime National League umpire Shag Crawford.

“Earl wasn’t always the easiest guy to get along with,” Shag Crawford’s son, Joe, a longtime NBA ref now retired, said this week. “But he was a tremendous referee.”

Early in his career, when paired with Strom, Crawford threw out Kansas City coach Phil Johnson two minutes into a game.

“We went into the locker room at halftime and Earl annihilated me, calling me every name in the book,” Crawford said. “He said, ‘I like that you have guts, but you’ve got to have smart guts like me.’ ”

Earl Strom, right, ordering Chicago Bulls coach Dick Motta to leave during a 1974 game in Milwaukee.
Anonymous / AP
Earl Strom, right, ordering Chicago Bulls coach Dick Motta to leave during a 1974 game in Milwaukee.

Never afraid to make a tough call against a home team, quick to engage with angry fans or players, flamboyant and drawn to the spotlight, Strom was described by an Inquirer sportswriter in 1982 as “one of the NBA’s most resilient and controversial characters, a man who has staged a private war with his peers, fans, coaches and bosses for as long as anyone can remember.”

But he was so consistently fair, decisive and unshakable that despite all those battles, his reputation on the court rarely wavered. A 1989 USA Today poll named Strom the NBA’s top referee. In a Detroit Free Press ranking, he was chosen as the best official in any sport.

“Strom never hesitated to call a game the way he saw it,” reads his Pro Basketball Hall plaque.

A style and reputation of his own

Born in 1927, the sports-crazed Strom was a Pottstown High classmate of future American League MVP Bobby Shantz. He started refereeing high school games in the early 1950s. In 1957, he was working a college game at the Palestra when NBA supervisor of officials Jocko Collins spotted him.

“The NBA hired him and his first game was an exhibition in Coatesville,” recalled his son, Eric Strom, who will introduce his father Thursday night.

Apprenticing with colorful refs like Mendy Rudolph and Sid Borgia, never backing down from a challenge, Strom quickly developed a style and reputation of his own. He kept his whistle in his hand, not on a lanyard. His foul tweets had a distinctive cadence and were punctuated by energetic leg kicks.

During the 1960s, Strom was a fixture in the playoffs – and in sports headlines. He broke a thumb punching a fan during a Boston-Philadelphia Eastern Conference Finals game. Wilt Chamberlain rescued Strom from an angry postgame crowd in Atlanta. He ejected Auerbach from an All-Star game.

Strom’s wife stopped going to games with him in 1968 after they were chased to their car by irate fans in Philadelphia. Two years later at the same Spectrum, he punched officiating partner Dick Bavetta because the latter had overruled one of his calls.

“He used to be tough early in his career,” said Eric Strom, 61, one of his five children, who now lives in North Carolina. “He had to do a lot of fighting and a lot of crazy stuff went on. But that was just how things were back then. By the time the ’80s rolled around, he had mellowed out a lot.”

In 1969, Strom was earning $16,000 a year. So when the upstart ABA offered him $25,000, plus a $25,000 signing bonus, he and three other NBA refs jumped. Three years later he was back in the NBA, but not before encountering “the greatest player I’ve ever seen.”

“My father was working a Virginia Squires game and he saw Julius Erving,” said Eric Strom. “He told a Philadelphia sportswriter that Julius was the greatest he’d ever seen. The commissioner said a referee shouldn’t be talking about a player’s ability and fined him $50. Dad sent him a check for $100 and when the commissioner asked why, he said, ‘The first $50 is because I told the writer and the second is because I’m telling you.’ ”

In the course of witnessing so much NBA history, Strom was on court for some of Philadelphia’s greatest pro basketball highlights.

He was there for the first meeting in 1959 of Chamberlain and Russell and the last a decade later. He did Erving’s first ABA and last NBA games. He refereed Game 6 of the 1967 Eastern Finals when the Sixers finally shed the Celtics' monkey on their backs. When Philly won another title in 1983, Strom worked the clinching Game 4.

Finally, early in the 1990 season, Strom announced that he’d be retiring. Players and coaches lobbied him to stay.

"At the NBA All-Star Game party in Miami that year, Chuck Daly and Del Harris [then the Detroit and Houston coaches] came up, opened their wallets and started throwing money at Dad’s feet. They said, ‘Don’t go, Earl. We’ll pay you to stay.’

“A player on the Nets, Lester Connor, told me he’d miss Dad a lot. He said, ‘When your Dad does a game, we all play harder.’ ”

In retirement, Strom stayed in Pottstown, did a little broadcasting, worked some clinics, golfed at a public course near him and went to an occasional 76ers game.

“After one game we walked back to the locker room and the guard wouldn’t let him in,” said Eric Strom,. “Finally Manute Bol and Rick Mahorn came out and told the guy, ‘Do you know who this is?’ ”

In the winter of 1994, Strom was diagnosed with brain cancer. Six months later he died.

“He was a little sad toward the end,” Eric said. “He missed it. He missed it a lot.”