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'I’m on the Road to Recovery:' Collapse of NCAA Tourney Ref Bert Smith Caused by Blood Clot

In a scary moment, Smith passed out cold during a recent Elite Eight game. Later, doctors discovered the reason.

Bert Smith just now finished returning the text messages.

There were 500 of them. There were ones from coaches, ones from colleagues, ones from family, one even from an NFL official he’d never met.

We’re praying for you.

We’re rooting for you.

Get better.

They poured into Smith’s phone after he collapsed on national television during Gonzaga’s eventual win over USC in a men’s Elite Eight game on March 30. Smith, a veteran college basketball official of 28 years, lost consciousness five minutes into the game, falling backward in a scary moment captured on the TBS broadcast and banging his head against the hardwood court.

In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Smith says the fall and subsequent battery of testing was a life-saving ordeal. Once hospitalized—at first, he didn’t even plan to go—doctors discovered a troubling issue: a blood clot in his lungs. The clot restricted enough oxygen to Smith that he passed out during the game.

More than a week later, he hasn’t watched the moment.

“I will,” he says. “I’m letting the paint dry.”

For now, he’s at his home in Florence, Ky., just outside of Cincinnati, relaxing and watching the Masters golf tournament while medicating an ailment that, if not caught after that fall, could have eventually been much worse.

Oh, and he’s also been returning those messages.

“It took me a few days,” he says. “The support and love was just overwhelming. It kept me going.”

Smith is one of the longest tenured and most respected officials in college hoops. He started on the lowest levels as a youth league official in 1990, began working Division I games in 1993 and now does as many as 80 games a year. A former employee at Avis Car Rental, he dropped that job to officiate full time in 2010.

He’s got a wife, Jacquie, of 32 years, two daughters and two more grandchildren. He’s incredibly fit, somewhat of a workout freak, and he’s never really endured many traumatic health issues—certainly nothing like this. There were no signs in the preceding days of this happening, even when he was running up and down three flights of stairs, with a mask, the day before.

He doesn’t remember passing out, only that things got “foggy,” he says, and that his breathing didn’t feel normal. That’s around the time he spilled onto the hardwood, awaking to a semicircle of people surrounding him.

One of those people was Mike Fox, an independent contractor hired by the NCAA to help run the tournament and a basketball official himself. He’s been friends with Smith for 30 years.

“We get him off the floor out of sight and he just loses it,” Fox recalls. “It’s hard for me to talk about now. I lost it, too. I know his wife is going to be going bananas. I ran and grabbed his phone, and he checked his phone and within the first hour, he had 250 texts, and a lot of them from fellow referees. That says something about that officiating fraternity.”

But first, Smith had to get stretchered off the floor, something he was adamantly against. Medical officials tending to him on the floor insisted he be transported off the floor by the stretcher. He said no. They insisted more. No, he said he’d walk off under assistance.

Well, says one of the doctors, at least sit on the stretcher. He agreed.

Within seconds, they’d strapped the seated Smith onto it. He’d been duped.

“There’s video of me with my arms crossed on the stretcher,” he says. “The reason is I’m saying to them, ‘You tricked me, you little SOB!’”

Referee Bert Smith is carted off the court in the Elite Eight

Off the court, doctors checked his vitals: blood pressure, heart rate, etc. Everything was normal. They released him to return to his hotel. The NCAA even distributed a statement announcing the news: Smith was O.K. and would not need hospitalization.

Given time that night on March 30, those around Smith—NCAA doctors, his wife and colleagues—thought it best if he at least visited IU Methodist Hotel in Indianapolis to check his head and spine. After all, he hit the court hard, so hard that it left a giant bump on the back of his head.

When he arrived, in walked Katie M. Trammel, the physician who, in many ways, may have saved his life. Trammel had seen the video. “Do you know you went viral?” she playfully asked.

Trammel wasn’t as concerned with a CT scan on his skull as she was on why he fell in the first place.

“We’re about to put you through the car wash of testing,” she said.

Two hours later, she returned into the room with the test results. A pulmonary embolism.

“They were supposed to just check my head and spine for a concussion (he didn’t have one, by the way),” says Smith. “If they had done that and said, ‘Mr. Smith, have a good night,’ I thought they had done a good job,” he says, “but because she wanted to know why I fell, we got the answer.

“Katie Trammel’s stock is up with me in the Smith family book,” he says, laughing. “I’m very grateful.

I’m on the road to recovery now.”

That road includes blood thinners and a trip next week to see a nearby doctor to strategize his future treatment.

He plans to return as soon as he can to the court, and that includes ref camps this summer. And when next season arrives, you can expect to find Bert Smith on the hardwood.

“Oh, I’ll be back. I’m ready to get after it,” he says.

For now, he’ll continue to return new messages—still flooding in—and relax while, yes, watching golf’s first major championship.

“It’s a good week to be getting sympathy from the wife,” he says, chuckling. “I get to watch the Masters.”