NCAA ref Bert Smith says on-court collapse during Elite Eight saved his life

Cassandra Negley
·Writer
·4 min read

NCAA basketball official Bert Smith hasn't watched the moment that might have saved his life. 

Smith abruptly collapsed during an Elite Eight game between No. 1 seed Gonzaga and No. 6 seed USC last month in the men's NCAA tournament. It was a scary moment as an audible thud was heard throughout Lucas Oil Stadium, and the official was taken off the court on a stretcher, though he was awake and alert.  

Smith told the Indianapolis Star's Gregg Doyel he doesn't remember falling and hasn't seen a replay, but what doctors found that night could have been life-saving. 

NCAA ref on stretcher photo  

Smith, who became an NCAA Division I official in 1993, said he remembers the play preceding the fall. The action was moving away from his baseline position after a Gonzaga steal, but he said he couldn't move or catch his breath. He felt wobbly and the next thing he remembers seeing is the ceiling of the stadium. 

Immediately after falling, Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd ran to him and the bench waved for doctors. He was surrounded by medical professionals and eventually was helped on to a stretcher. 

He's grumpy in the now-famous photo of him on it and told Doyel he was tricked. 

“The doctor said, ‘Listen, tell you what, why don’t you just sit on the stretcher?’ I said OK, I can do that,” Smith says and now he’s laughing. To me, he offers an aside: “He’s taking advantage of a guy in a weakened position.”

He continues the story:

“The doc says, ‘Swing your legs around.’ I swing my legs around, and they go: Click-click-click-click. They strapped me in! I looked at him and said, ‘Oh no you didn’t …’” 

He said he told the doctor at the time, "You little SOB, you tricked me!”

Fall could have saved official's life 

Bert Smith on a stretcher.
Referee Bert Smith said he was 'tricked' into getting on the stretcher after his collapse on the court. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

The NCAA announced later in the night that Smith was "alert and stable" and would not be transported to a hospital. Per the Star, he was treated at the stadium for two hours with vital checks on pulse, blood pressure and oxygen level that came back normal. He didn't have a headache or blurry vision. 

A few hours later, his officiating friends joined him at the hotel and suggested he go to the hospital to be evaluated for a concussion, just in case. At IU Health Methodist, the 56-year-old Smith was treated by Dr. Katie Trammel, "an important part of this story." 

Via the Star: 

“She sits down next to the bed,” Smith continues, “and she says: ‘I saw your fall tonight. Something doesn’t add up. I want to know why you fell.’ She checked a few things out, came back in and took me through the car wash. Just a lot of tests. And they found out.

“She said: ‘I got the answer to the question. You went down because you had a blood clot in your lung.’”

Smith’s pausing. Dr. Katie Trammel, he’s wanting me to know, may have saved his life.

“You don’t know where that clot was going next,” he says.

Smith was put on blood thinners and discharged two days later with the clot gone. No one knows where the clot came from, per the Star. He said the night before the game, while running the stairs in the hotel to see his buddies or get ice, he was a little out of breath. He gets exercise any time he can and officiates around 90 games a year for the NCAA. 

It could have been a red flag, he said doctors told him, but then again "sometimes it just hits you." 

Smith is back home in Kentucky with his wife, Jacquie, and his grandson, Karter. He said he'll be back officiating next season. He told the Star he's happy it happened during the Elite Eight when he could get the right help he needed rather than during an instance when he was driving or sleeping. 

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