As a second baseman at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, Ken Hudson dreamed of someday wearing a Major League uniform.
His work-study job with the basketball team included refereeing scrimmages, however, and that set him on a groundbreaking career path.
In 1968, Mr. Hudson became a pioneering black referee with the National Basketball Association. Four years later, he founded the popular Boston Shootout, which featured the best high school basketball players in the country.
“Kenny had strong opinions, and he voiced them loud and clear,’’ said Tom “Satch’’ Sanders, the former Celtics star who coached the victorious Boston team in the first Shootout at Boston University’s Case Center. “He also had an affinity for dealing with young people and always had advice for them in the same manner.’’
Mr. Hudson - who published an autobiography, “A Tree Stump in the Valley of Redwoods,’’ in 2006 - died Wednesday in Atlanta after suffering brain damage in a fall. He was 72 and moved more than 20 years ago from Boston to Atlanta, where he had been diagnosed with cancer and was living in Hospice Atlanta.
Mr. Hudson also had initiated the Coca-Cola Gold Helmet Award, which is presented to New England college football players.
Celtics legends Bill Russell and Red Auerbach were impressed with Mr. Hudson’s officiating at a college game and recommended him to the NBA, for which Mr. Hudson refereed until 1972.
“Red had a soft spot for him, because Kenny could disarm a tiger and he was a friend to the game,’’ said Leo Papile, a former Celtics executive and longtime coach with the Boston Amateur Basketball Club. “Kenny was comfortable in the boardroom and on the playground.’’
At 5 foot 6, Mr. Hudson may have been short in stature, but in Boston’s neighborhoods he stood tall to countless young people for whom he was an important mentor.
“Kenny always believed in accountability, right down to the last detail,’’ said Charlie Titus, vice chancellor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, who was the school’s athletic director when the Shootout moved to that campus, “When I applied for the AD’s job, he gave me the confidence to pursue it. Kenny had a tremendous impact on our city, and his legacy will live on through those who knew him.’’
The Shootout was born when Mr. Hudson met with Sanders, Deputy Mayor Clarence “Jeep’’ Jones, Shelburne Community Center director Alfreda Harris, Roxbury Boys and Girls Club leader Roscoe Baker, and youth advocate Rudy Cabral.
“Because of Ken’s efforts and contacts as an executive with Coca-Cola, he let the world know about the Shootout and helped support it financially,’’ Sanders said. “And he was not just a basketball referee; he was a basketball fan.’’
The Shootout became a steppingstone to college and the pros for many participants, including Cambridge Rindge & Latin School star Patrick Ewing.
Harris, a former college and AAU coach and a longtime member of the Boston School Committee, said Mr. Hudson always urged young people to “be the best they could be.’’
“I admired him so much for his work with the Shootout, the United States Youth Games, and for helping start the Boston Neighborhood Basketball League, which still exists today,’’ Harris said.
Jones, a former point guard at Winston-Salem State College in North Carolina, said Mr. Hudson always kept a cooler with bottles of Coca-Cola in the trunk of his car, which he shared on hot summer days.
“He familiarized himself with our neighborhoods that way and also through officiating at several leagues in Boston,’’ Jones said. “Once he got to know you, you were on his list forever.’’
The Shootout, held from 1972 through 1999, “was willed into existence by Mr. Hudson,’’ said Globe basketball columnist Bob Ryan.
It was at the Shootout that Celtics coach Doc Rivers met Hudson.
“Of all the tournaments I’ve ever played in, that’s my favorite, and Kenny was ahead of the curve in creating that,’’ Rivers said. “He stood for a lot of good things.’’
The Basketball Hall of Fame gave Mr. Hudson the Mannie Jackson Human Spirit Award in 2009, and the New England Football Writers presented him with the George Carens Award in 1985 for establishing the Gold Helmet Award.
“My feeling is that if you help two or three people, and they help somebody else, everybody benefits,’’ Mr. Hudson told the Globe in 1988, before moving to Atlanta. “Color was never a big thing with me. I’m proud to be black, believe me, but people are people. There’s always going to be idiots, people who don’t like you because you’re black or Irish or Jewish, but it’s a waste of time.’’
An only child, Mr. Hudson was born in Pittsburgh, where he was a 1957 graduate of Westinghouse High School. He graduated in 1961 from Central State with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and worked in Fitchburg for Gulf Oil, which transferred him to Boston.
During his career, he also was vice president of marketing development and director of community relations for Coca-Cola, vice president of community affairs with the Celtics, and executive president of Atlanta International Consulting Group.
Mr. Hudson, who vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard in recent years, also was a motivational speaker for success seminars held in Atlanta-area high schools.
“He sat on a lot of community boards here,’’ said Roger Johnson, a senior community manager with Coca-Cola Refreshments in Atlanta. “Kenny knew everybody and everybody knew him, and we’re going to miss him. He was a natural leader.’’
Mr. Hudson, who participated in experimental treatment for cancer, asked that his body be donated to the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine’s Georgia Campus.
He leaves his companion, Patricia Varnell, and his former wife, Hattie Dorsey, both of Atlanta.
A celebration of his life will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday in Cascade United Methodist Church in Atlanta.
“Ken gave a lot of love, and he got it back,’’ said Vickye Bone, a close friend of Mr. Hudson and a fellow parishioner at Cascade United. “He had such a passion for our youth, and that was his life’s calling. He insisted on giving me a piece of art a couple of months ago, saying, ‘I want you to have something to remember me by.’ My response was, ‘Who among all you’ve met could ever forget you?’ ’’