LIKE ALL leagues, the NBA constantly grades its game officials but closely guards those evaluations (and keeps secret the occasional reprimand), preferring that the zebras be no more conspicuous than the kids who hand out towels to players. It takes a major breach for a ref to be called out publicly by the league. Alas, it was Joey Crawford—one of the least anonymous officials of all time, a bulldog of a whistle-blower so well known and widely respected that using his little-boy first name is enough to identify him—who was taken behind the woodshed on April 17.
The indefinite suspension of Crawford, 55, who has worked more playoff games (266, including 38 in the Finals) than any other active ref, is exactly what the NBA does not need. (Technically he wasn't chosen to work the postseason, but the idea that he wouldn't be picked under normal circumstances is laughable.) Complaints about inconsistent and incompetent officiating were at full throat during the 2006 NBA playoffs, particularly during the Finals, when the Heat's Dwyane Wade was directed to the foul line with the same regularity that limes are deposited into cocktails at a tiki bar. The playoffs without Crawford is, for the NBA, tantamount to the Spurs without Tim Duncan, the superstar Crawford fatefully ejected from an April 15 game in Dallas.
Even casual fans know the scenario by now. Duncan was on the bench when Crawford hit him with a technical for arguing a call. Then, when Duncan laughed at another call a minute later, Crawford T'd him again, which meant an automatic ejection. Thrown out for laughing. It sounded like a joke. It was a joke. David Letterman jumped on it with the Top Ten Signs Your NBA Referee Is Nuts.
Crawford saw Duncan's laughter as mocking the referees and the game; indeed, the Spurs' All Star gets on the nerves of many officials for what they consider his supercilious attitude toward them. But Crawford screwed up. He shouldn't have been looking toward the bench and thus inviting Duncan to infuriate him. Then Crawford, who has reffed for 31 seasons and is part of America's First Family of Officials (brother Jerry is a major league ump, as was their father, Shag), screwed up worse. In his report to the league office about the incident, which he filed by e-mail after the game, Crawford defended his decision, stated that he would do it again if faced with the same circumstances and, further, made an unkind comment about fellow ref Dick Bavetta, saying it would be a "travesty" if Bavetta ended up working Game 7 of the Finals. The world saw how unrepentant Crawford was when excerpts were leaked to Bloomberg.com and ESPN.com.
In the past commissioner David Stern has had discussions with Crawford about his volcanic temper, specifically after he called four technicals in the first 10 minutes of a Western Conference playoff game in 2003, ejecting Mavericks coaches Don Nelson and Del Harris. What Stern was looking for in the report was Crawford on bended knee. Instead, he got a metaphorical knee to the groin.
The question is, What is Crawford's future status? He cannot be reinstated (if he is reinstated at all) until he sits down with Stern after the postseason. He despises the video reviews and self-critiques that all referees must submit to the league office after games. Also, Crawford made his bones when referees such as Earl Strom and Jake O'Donnell were personalities, every bit as conspicuous as players and coaches, and he chafes under a regime that he believes wants to turn refs into automatons. In some quarters, in fact, Crawford's e-mail was seen as his I-might-as-well-go-out-swinging manifesto, indicating that he's ready to retire.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Crawford would not comment to SI, but reliable sources say that 1) he is prepared to offer Stern a mea culpa; 2) he wants back in and doesn't want this incident to define his legacy; 3) he will submit to anger-management counseling; and 4) he will, this time, go on bended knee before Stern, who proved, once again, that the only line in the NBA that can't be crossed is the one on which the commissioner is standing.
In an unpublished SI poll conducted in December, Crawford was voted by 57% of NBA players as the ref most likely to assess a technical foul. Still, despite his hothead reputation, he remains one of the league's top officials: Even after the suspension, Spurs coach Avery Johnson said he'd rather have Crawford work a Game 7 than anyone else. Among coaches and players, Johnson isn't the only one who holds that opinion about Joey. Stern should take him back.
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