Bonita Spence, an investigator for public defenders whose second job as a basketball referee took her to the sport's highest level, working at NCAA tournament games, Women's National Basketball Association games and the first men's professional game to be officiated entirely by women, died on Sept. 15 in West Orange, N.J. She was 52.
The cause was suicide, said Alma Dobson, her aunt.
Well-known in the world of basketball, Ms. Spence officiated at college games for nearly three decades and at NCAA Division I championship games since 2000.
In 1992, she broke new ground when she and Sandhi Ortiz-Del Valle became the first all-female crew to officiate at a men's professional basketball game, in the U.S. Basketball League.
"It was just another game for us," Ms. Spence said at the time. "I thought the players had a harder time getting adjusted to two women officials."
The website College Spun said Ms. Spence was "one of the few officials willing to joke with students in the crowd," and noted that at the annual Paradise Jam basketball tournament in the Virgin Islands, she even participated in a halftime dance competition.
"She always put a smile on my face, no matter what, whether we won or lost," said Way Veney, a basketball assistant at Temple University.
Ms. Spence would be greeted at University of Connecticut games, which she frequently officiated, with a cheer from the student section: "Boooooniiiiiitaaaaa!"
She worked as an investigator in the public defender's office in Newark, N.J. Having run youth basketball clinics around the city, she was fearless about going to rough neighborhoods late at night, said Michael Marucci, the deputy public defender for the Essex region.
Bonita Spence was born on Aug. 5, 1961, in Atlantic City, and was raised by Ms. Dobson. At 5 feet 4 inches, she played point guard in college for Monmouth and set the program record for assists in the 1982 season. "When you assist, you don't have to be big and tall," Ms. Dobson said.
Besides her aunt, Ms. Spence is survived by a daughter, Leslie Celeste Sekou; her father, Archie Spence Sr.; a stepsister, Cathy Rabb; and a grandmother, Anna Mae DeShields.
Asked how she was able to officiate at so many basketball games and also work for the public defender's office, Mr. Marucci responded, "She did a lot of night flights."