The Sixth Man: Ailing Willard casts sad shadow over Finals

If you ask most NBA observers what the toughest job on the floor Tuesday night in Oklahoma City might be, you will probably hear all about how difficult it is to stop Kevin Durant or LeBron James.

While that's certainly the case, Game 1 officials Monty McCutchen, Ed Malloy and Derrick Stafford have the toughest gig.

The incredibly difficult job of officiating an NBA basketball game was made virtually untenable back in 2007 when disgraced referee Tim Donaghy went down for betting on games.

Even before Donaghy attempted to save his own skin by alleging the NBA routinely encouraged refs to call bogus fouls in order to manipulate results, that's how most fans felt about the league's officials and perception is often greater than reality.

Sure, four or five NFL games a week are decided by middle-aged men in striped shirts, any Major League Baseball game can hinge on whether the home plate umpire decides to give some junkballer the outside corner, and the Timothy Bradley-Manny Pacquiao judges on Saturday should have been handcuffed the minute that decision was announced. Yet, the perception has always been that NBA officials are the corrupt ones.

The truth is most NBA referees are good people who do a solid job trying to handle a gaggle of massive, world class athletes in a condensed 94-x-50-foot space.

One of the best, Greg Willard, was scheduled to work Game 6 of the Western Conference finals last week before being pulled after a blood test revealed the possibility of a serious illness.

Willard was sadly diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, perhaps the most insidious form of the disease since it causes virtually no symptoms early leading to locally advanced or metastatic disease at time of diagnosis.

All NBA referees who work the Finals will wear his No. 57 on their jersey to support their longtime peer.

"Greg's professionalism and integrity have made him a role model within the NBA community," said National Basketball Referees Association general counsel Lee Seham. "We want him and his family to know that our thoughts and prayers are with them."

You probably didn't notice Willard back on June 3 when he worked Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals between the Boston Celtics and the Heat. In fact, you probably rarely noticed him over the past 24 years despite the fact that he logged more than 1,500 regular-season games, 120 postseason contests and made Finals appearances since 2009-2010.

Willard was a great official, the antithesis of Donaghy, and being great at his job meant not getting noticed.

Well, now it's time to acknowledge Willard as he faces the toughest fight of his life, one that involves far more pressure than anything James will ever face against the Thunder.