The NBA will lose two of its most visible figures at the end of the 2015-16 season. One is Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers legend and one of the best players in the history of the sport. The other is a 64-year-old bald man whom fans have rarely had any interest in watching.
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Longtime NBA referee Joey Crawford announced Saturday that he will retire at the end of this season. A 39-year veteran known for his expressive style and willingness to make big calls in any moment, Crawford spread the news via Jack McCaffrey of the Delaware County Times, his hometown paper (via PBT):
“I’m done,” he said.
Recovering this basketball season in his Newtown Square home from knee surgery, the Havertown native hopes to resume refereeing pro-basketball games by March 1. If he grades out, and that is the likely result, he will work in the playoffs, eventually hoping to add to his career total of 50 NBA Finals games officiated. Then, the former worker at the Wayne post office, the former CYO, Catholic League, Public League, Eastern League and any-Delco-bar-league referee will silence his whistle.
At 64, Crawford hopes to continue working in the executive side of the NBA in some capacity involving officiating. But the famous No. 17 will no longer be seen on the floor, making tough calls, threatening technical fouls, smiling with the coaches, enjoying the fans.
“There’s nothing to be sorry about,” Crawford said. “You know what happens? It’s not that you lose your passion. I have that. That’s insanity. But it just comes to the point where you say, ‘I don’t want to make a fool out of myself.’ And it’s been so good that I want to go out on a high note. I don’t want to go out on a low note. I want to be in the NBA Finals, and I don’t want to be reffing just for the sake of reffing.” [...]
Crawford has officiated 313 playoff games, most among active refs. For his 50 NBA Finals games, and for his lifetime of work that began at age 16 in a summer league at the Sacred Heart parish in Manoa, he was named by the Daily Times sports department as the 2015 Delaware County Sports Figure of the Year.
Opinions of Crawford depend largely on what the beholder values most in a referee. He has generally been acknowledged as one of the better officials in the league on the basis of overall consistency and a tendency not to bow to pressure from the home crowd. A Crawford-reffed game usually does not stand out as especially poorly called over 48 minutes, which is as big a compliment as NBA officials can expect.
Yet it's difficult to call Crawford a categorically good referee, because his reputation is dominated by his penchant for making himself a primary attraction of a game that's supposed to be about the players. He's almost assuredly the only referee with a nearly six-minute highlight video:
And then there are singular events like the time he ejected Tim Duncan for laughing on the bench:
McCaffrey's column features a discussion of that incident, which resulted in Crawford being suspended for the rest of the season and playoffs. He expresses regret and says that he "learned a lot from it," but it's still discussed as one of the worst decisions by an official in recent basketball history. No matter Crawford's level of competence, he is the sort of referee whose mistakes have eclipsed everything he's done right. That's not typically considered a positive for someone who is supposed to occupy a secondary position to players and even coaches on the floor.
Crawford will likely receive some attention and perhaps a few acknowledgments from the league over his final few months on the job. But let's hope he doesn't take on a primary role in any arenas during the stretch run of the regular season and playoffs. Because, no matter how much energy Crawford puts into a traveling call, basketball is at its best when the officials are most inconspicuous.
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