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NBA referee Greg Willard dies at 54

Greg Willard explains a call to Avery Johnson NBA referee Greg Willard has passed away after battling cancer. (Duane Burleson/AP)

By Ben Golliver

Greg Willard, a veteran NBA referee who worked more than 1,400 games, died on Monday after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 54.

The National Basketball Referees Association announced his passing in a statement.

“Greg epitomized what it meant to be an NBA Referee through dedication to his craft, hard work, and integrity both on-and-off the court,” said NBRA General Counsel Lee Seham. “He was not only a great NBA referee, but more importantly a wonderful person, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time.”

Willard officiated 1,494 regular season games, 136 playoff games, two Finals games and the 2006 NBA All-Star Game during his NBA career, which dates back to 1988.

“The entire NBA family joins me in mourning the loss of one of our own, Greg Willard,” NBA Commissioner David Stern said in a statement. “Greg touched all those with whom he came in contact thanks to his extraordinary spirit, dedication and hard work.  As a Finals referee, he reached the highest level of his profession while at the same time demonstrating a strong commitment to his family and his community.   Our thoughts are with his wife Laurie, their children and the rest of the Willard family during this difficult time.”

Willard's cancer diagnosis became public in June 2012 when he was unable to work a Western Conference finals game between the Thunder and Spurs. His fellow referees then wore a patch with his jersey number -- 57 -- during the 2012 Finals between the Heat and Thunder.

"Greg's professionalism and integrity have made him a role model within the NBA community," Seham said in a 2012 statement. "We want him and his family to know that our thoughts and prayers are with them."

The NBA announced Tuesday that its officials will wear wristbands or patches with his number for the remainder of the 2012-13 NBA season.  The NBA will also have a moment of silence at all games Tuesday and Wednesday to honor Willard.

Heat forward LeBron James posted condolences on his Twitter account Monday night.

"RIP to one of our NBA refs Greg Willard due to cancer," James wrote. "Prayers goes out to his family and friends."

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