Arnold Heft was a basketball pioneer, a lover of horse racing and a friend till his death at 94

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Earl Monroe was drafted by the Baltimore Bullets out of Guilford College. Monroe attended Winston-Salem State.


Arnold Heft, left, watches as Wes Unseld signs with the Baltimore Bullets in 1968. Heft passed away Wednesday night at 94. (File photo/Associated Press)
John Feinstein
Columnist March 15

Imagine a life in which you helped launch a major sports league, bought an NBA team and then sold your shares 36 years later to Michael Jordan. Imagine a life in which you stayed married to the same woman for 70 years and remained one of Maryland’s most successful horse owners well into your 90s. Imagine a life in which you were a good minor league pitcher, a close friend of Red Auerbach’s and you were loved and respected — revered — by all those who knew you.

If you can imagine that life, you have imagined the life of Arnold Heft, who died on Wednesday night at the age of 94.

John Feinstein is a sports columnist for The Washington Post and also provides commentary for the Golf Channel and National Public Radio. View Archive

He was the last survivor of the Basketball Association of America, which was launched in 1946 and became the NBA three years later. Heft was one of the league’s first referees and he continued to work in stripes until 1961.

“He was a pain in the butt,” Auerbach once said. “Because you couldn’t intimidate him. You’d get on him, and he’d just walk over and say, ‘You got a problem, let’s hear it.’ I’d let him hear it, and most of the time, he’d just tell me I was full of it and walk away. Then, if I really got mad, he’d tee me up.”

Red loved Arnie. They were friends for more than 60 years.

They spent their latter years playing cards together and arguing with one another at the lunches Red famously hosted at a Chinese restaurant every Tuesday. The lunches continued after Auerbach’s death in 2006, and Arnie continued to attend almost until the end, even after he was confined to a wheelchair in recent months and needed an oxygen tank.

“Let me tell you all something,” he would say in his loud, gravelly and unmistakable voice. “Back when I was pitching, baseball was a different game than it is now.”

Inevitably, someone would say, “Arnie, you last pitched in 1942. Of course baseball was a different game.”

He had been a minor league pitcher, winning 22 games one year, and was a very good basketball player before he started refereeing.

“He was a hell of an athlete,” Auerbach would say grudgingly. “And if I’m being honest, he was a damn good ref, too.”

That was the thing about Arnie: Anything he tried, he did well. He became a businessman after he gave up officiating, and in 1964, he and his friend Abe Pollin — along with Earl Foreman — bought the Baltimore Bullets for $1.1 million. Abe and Arnie fell out a few years later, and Pollin became the team’s majority owner but not before they drafted a guard named Earl Monroe out of tiny Winston-Salem State.

It galled Arnie that Abe took credit for drafting Monroe. “He didn’t want to draft him,” Heft would yell across the lunch table. “He didn’t even know who he was.”

Heft retained a minority interest in the team until 2000 when Ted Leonsis made a deal with Jordan to become president of the team and a minority owner. Leonsis bought those shares from Heft, who was more than happy to tell people he had sold his interest in the basketball team to “that kid Jordan.”

As much as Arnie loved baseball and basketball, his true love was horse racing. He and his wife, Sylvia, owned a string of horses, and almost to the day he died, Arnie made it to the track whenever possible to watch his horses run. His two favorites the last few years were a horse named Eighttoofastocatchin honor of Alex Ovechkin — and Red’s Roundtable — a filly named in homage to the lunch group.

The regulars in the lunch group, myself included, kidded him constantly about the training schedule of “our” horse. Whenever she won a race, we wanted to know where our cut of the winnings was. “Are you kidding?” Arnie would growl. “By the time I pay my trainer and for her upkeep and everything else I have to pay, I lose money whenever she wins.”

Chris Wallace, the Fox News anchor, would shake his head and say, “We really need better ownership in this horse.”

Here’s what made Arnie so special: He never got mad, no matter how much we kidded him. Whenever I would interrupt him to ask whether there was any chance the story he was telling would end before midnight, he would just keep plowing through. Every once in a while he would point his finger at me and say, “If you’ll shut your mouth for a minute you might learn something.”

Without fail, he was right. Listening to Arnie tell a story, no matter how long it took, was like getting in a time machine and being back in 1939, playing minor league baseball or butting heads with Red when he was the coach of the Washington Capitals — the basketball team, not the hockey team.

As wonderful and remarkable as his mind was, the greatest part of Arnie was his heart. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for a friend and — fortunately for me — he included everyone involved in the Red lunches on his long list of friends.

Several years ago, when my son Danny transferred to Churchill High School, Arnie’s daughter Harriet Feldman was working in the attendance office. As soon as Arnie found out that Danny was going to his daughter’s school, he let her know there was a new student she needed to look out for. Almost without fail, Harriet Feldman checked up on Danny every day to make sure he was doing what he had to do, getting to all his classes and finding his way around a new school.

When Danny graduated from Churchill, one of the first people to congratulate him was Arnie. “I’m proud of you,” he told him. “Even if your dad talks too much.”

The last time I saw Arnie — at one of the lunches — all he really wanted to talk to me about was “my boy Danny.”

Danny loved being Arnie’s boy.

Then again, we all did.

To say he was one of a kind doesn’t do him justice. To say he was just a flat-out stud of a human being his whole life does. Almost.

For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.

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