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Longtime Fort Wayne referee Tom Knox will be remembered for his flair and his care

Tom Knox, right, officiates a basketball game early in his career. (Courtesy photo)
Tom Knox, left, officiates a youth football game. (Courtesy photo)
Tom Knox. (Courtesy photo)
A newspaper clipping about Tom Knox, left, and his son Ronald. (Courtesy photo)
Tom Knox. (Courtesy photo)

Joe Jordan was a seventh-grade basketball player the first time he met referee Tom Knox.

Jordan, now president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Fort Wayne, remembers he had scored about 20 points and was feeling good about his play when Knox pulled him aside after the game.

“Young fella, you have to work on your right hand,” Knox said, as Jordan remembers it. “You can’t go left all your life.”

To Jordan, the moment captures what made Knox a special referee, but even more a special person. Knox loved sports, he loved officiating – to the point of making it part of the show – but most of all he loved passing knowledge along.

“When I think about Tom Knox, I think about longevity and consistency as a role model, not only for me but for a lot of people in the community, specifically African American males,” Jordan said. “He was a consistent, long-time role model for us. He’d always have these nuggets of wisdom.”

Knox, 82, died Friday after a long illness.

If you played, coached or watched sports around Fort Wayne from the 1960s until a few years ago, you saw Knox call a game. He officiated basketball, football and baseball, was a founding member of Metro Youth Sports and even spent a brief period officiating in the American Basketball Association. He was honored by the IHSAA for distinguished service in 1988.

A native of Beckley, W.Va., Knox moved to Fort Wayne as a freshman and was an all-state football and basketball player at Fort Wayne Central High School. An injured knee limited his post-high school opportunities, he told Frost Illustrated in 2015, but he played against the Harlem Globetrotters and Goose Tatum and was asked by Tatum to join the team. Knox told Frost Illustrated his aversion to traveling led him to turn them down.

Knox officiated in the ABA in 1973-74 season, back in the heyday of Julius Erving.

But his lasting impact was on local Fort Wayne sports and the athletes who played them, from Pee Wee league through high school.

Knox brought flair to his calls. He was as demonstrative as he was confident.

Fort Wayne’s Walter Jordan, who went on to play at Purdue University and in the NBA, said he can still see Knox making a call in his distinct style. Walter and Joe Jordan are brothers.

“He was there to enjoy the game, he wasn’t there to argue with you,” Walter Jordan said. “When he made the call, it was over. If you were traveling, he’d call it but he’d make you laugh, ‘You can’t do that. You’re walkin’. Keep that pivot foot still, young fella.’ ”

And, yet, Joe Jordan said, officiating was just an avenue to making a broader impact.

“He always looked for the best in people,” Joe Jordan said. “When he’d look at a person, he looked for their strengths, not their weaknesses. That was his personal ministry. You don’t have to be behind a pulpit to be a minister. He’d minister to so many of us and made us better people.”

Jim Winters of Metro Youth Sports praised Knox for his ability to engage all members of the community. Knox talked Winters into becoming an official, too. Knox’s son, Ronald, also became an official and the two sometimes worked games together.

“Officiating was his profession, he worked at it, 24/7,” Winters said. “He didn’t only make an impact on the African-American community, he made an impact on the entire community of Fort Wayne.”

Walter Jordan remembers how Knox used to give him a hard time about his high school career. He’d tease Jordan, saying, “Walt, were you guys really that good? How good were you and (Eugene) Parker? Were you as good coming out of high school as I was coming up?”

The good-natured back-and-forth was part of Knox’s personality, both Jordan brothers agreed.

The respect Knox received on the basketball court was second to none, Walter Jordan said. Walter remembers his older brother, Charles, getting upset with a call during a summer game when Knox was refereeing.

“How long do you want to play today, son?” Knox said to the older Jordan, who stopped arguing.

“He was colorful and he was cool and he was caring,” Walter Jordan said. “He was a man of integrity but he could make you laugh like you wouldn’t believe.”

Joe Jordan chuckles when thinking about another one of the conversations he had with Knox.

“He told me, ‘Joe, I know every baller who came through Fort Wayne the last four decades. If I didn’t know them, that means they couldn’t play,’ ” Jordan said. “Anybody who played basketball, it was that simple. If you were a baller, you had a relationship with Tom Knox.”

Underneath the playful banter and boisterous officiating was a heart of gold.

“People say he was a referee, but he was really a lifesaver,” Joe Jordan said. “He epitomized to me what it means to live a life of significance. Everything God blessed him with, he tried to pass it on.”

A funeral service for Knox will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at Zion Lutheran Church, 2313 S. Hanna St., with visitation from 2-4 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. Friday at Klaehn, Fahl, and Melton Funeral Home, 6424 Winchester Road.

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