SECAUCUS, N.J. – After nearly four decades making the toughest calls in the biggest games, Joe Crawford faced one he hoped to avoid.
It was early November, and his arthritic right knee wasn’t getting better. He wanted to get through one final season, but not at less than his best. At 64, he wasn’t going to keep up with NBA players while dragging around one leg.
“I tried to rehab a little bit but I knew it was over,” Crawford said.
And what a career it was.
Crawford officiated more than 2,500 games in the regular season and another 344 in the playoffs. He has worked more postseason and NBA Finals games than any current official.
Now the fiery Crawford, who grew up in an officiating family and wanted to be an NBA referee for as long as he can remember, gets emotional thinking about the end.
“When I was 18 I started doing grade school stuff and then all of a sudden it stops and you’re like, `Wow, what do I do now?,“’ he said Friday at the NBA’s Replay Center.
“It’s not as easy as I thought. I thought it was going to be a little easier. But you’re constantly talking to yourself: `Turn the page, it’s somebody else’s turn.’ But in reality you’re fighting it every day. You want to be out there, you want to do it, but you know you can’t. But the whole 39 years when you look back is off the charts. I mean, who dreams of being able to do what I’ve done for 39 years?”
How good was Crawford? Of the four Game 7s in the NBA Finals over the last quarter century, Crawford had the assignment for three of them. The only time he didn’t, in 2013, he had just worked a classic Game 6.
His last postseason assignment ended up being Game 4 in Cleveland, his 50th NBA Finals game. Crawford marvels at that total, recalling a referees union meeting from early in his career, when officials were told they would get a ring for working in the finals – once they did 25 games.
“Everybody’s looking around the room and goes, `Who the hell’s going to get 25 finals games?“’ Crawford said. “That’s like an impossible thing.”
He doubled it.
Constantly striving for perfection, Crawford would dive into the rule book again every year around Labor Day like he was cramming for a test he would’ve aced anyway. Yet earlier in his career, his excellence making calls was overshadowed by his temper.
Being aggressive was the way he learned it from his father, Shag Crawford, a major league umpire who once wanted to fight Giants manager Alvin Dark behind the stadium. His brother, Jerry, also is an umpire, and Joe Crawford says they were all overly passionate.
“I’m a firm believer that players and coaches want somebody to run the game, and it’s your job as an NBA referee to run the game,” Crawford said. “I am not there to be friends with anybody. I’m not.”
But that meant many nights after games wondering if he overreacted, said things to players and coaches that he should have avoided. The low moment was when he ejected the Spurs’ Tim Duncan for laughing while sitting on the bench in a 2007 game, earning a suspension for the rest of the season from former Commissioner David Stern.
Crawford said he can’t go anywhere without someone asking him about the Duncan ejection.
“He’s known for his great, stellar career. I don’t what I’m known for, I guess it’s throwing out Tim Duncan,” Crawford said. “What are you going to do, it’s just part of my career.”
And maybe it helped change it. Crawford spent time seeing a sports psychologist, and he says his last 10 years were better than the first 30.
“I had a tendency in those days to overreact to a situation versus just moving on to the next 24 seconds, and that’s what the sports psychologist got me to do,” Crawford said. “‘Joe, move on to the next 24 seconds. They’re only hollering at the shirt, they’re not hollering at you.“’
Bob Delaney, the NBA’s vice president of referee development and performance, called Crawford a “Hall of Fame referee and servant to the game of basketball.”
“Joe Crawford has a tremendous passion for the NBA referee profession and it drove him to be one of the all-time best,” Delaney said in an email. “He has an amazing commitment, dedication and work ethic to the game. He has always put the game first, his partners second and himself last.”
Crawford remains on staff until October and works occasionally in the Replay Center, where he says he can remain “viable.” After that, he hopes to stay involved with the game and referees.
But he knows it will be hard to replace the feeling of officiating that ended when he limped off in the first half of a game in Cleveland on Nov. 8. Crawford said Cavaliers veteran Richard Jefferson later visited him in the locker room and said he could tell Crawford was done by the way he walked off the court.
“He says, ‘I just want to tell you that you were part of my NBA experience,’” Crawford said.
Crawford said he has received similar messages since word of his retirement circulated recently.
“You know, people say they hate your guts when you make these calls, they holler at you and you go through these combative things with players and coaches, but really in reality, all it is is competition,” Crawford said. “And people reach out to you and they tell you how much they appreciate what you did for all these years and it’s pretty … it’s really impressive.”