Joe Crawford’s childhood neighborhood in Havertown, PA was big on basketball, so even though his father was a Major League Baseball umpire, there was no question what Crawford’s favorite sport was. Crawford caught the “basketball bug” at an early age.
“I loved basketball as a kid,” Crawford, now a 64-year-old Newtown Square resident, said. “We played basketball constantly.”
When Crawford and his friends weren’t shooting hoops themselves, they spent their time watching the pros play, marveling at the incredible talent on display in the NBA. However, while his friends were mesmerized by the star players of the day like Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer and Jerry West, Crawford had his eye on the officials instead.
“I was honing in on the old-time referees back then, Mendy Rudolph and Jake O’Donnell and those guys, just watching them and what they did,” he said.
It wasn’t that Crawford didn’t enjoy the efforts of the players, but he had a special appreciation for the officials.
“I was interested in officiating because of my dad—my dad made the Major Leagues when I was six years old—so I gravitated towards officiating,” Crawford said. “When you’re in an officiating family—especially a pro officiating family, like I was—you know that you can make a living on it, and that’s all I ever wanted to do.”
Crawford’s early interest and dedication to refereeing paid off. This June, he officiated his 50th career NBA Finals game, the most among active NBA referees.
“I’m a very lucky man,” Crawford said, reflecting on the latest milestone of many in an NBA career that’s spanned 38 seasons. “I think I have more playoff games than anybody ever, and I think there’s only one guy that’s ever gotten to do more Finals games than me, Mendy Rudolph, and I don’t even think they can prove how many games he had because they didn’t keep those records back then. I’ve been so lucky, honestly.”
Crawford may attribute the longevity of his career to luck, but it was his passion and drive that got him to the NBA in 1977 at just 25 years old.
“I wanted to be an NBA ref since I was 13 or 14 years old,” he said. “Weird, but that’s the truth.”
When Crawford would view NBA games on TV as a child or head to the Spectrum with his dad to see the Philadelphia 76ers play, he was always watching the officials. He studied their actions closely, learning rules and intricacies of the game that many casual fans would never notice.
“I was ahead of the game, because nobody started that young back then,” Crawford said. “Now, they start young, but back then they didn’t. I knew what everybody did. I knew the signals, I knew where the guys stood, so I stood out—especially as a young guy.”
Crawford started refereeing when he was 18 years old, and after honing his skills for a few years at the high school level, he earned his first professional opportunity.
“I got started with my first pro game down in the Baker League in Philly, when they played at McGonigle Hall,” Crawford said. “Then I got my tryout in the old Eastern League when I was 22, and I got in the NBA at 25.”
In the fall of 1977, a 25-year-old Crawford attended his first NBA officials training camp, and that October, Crawford officially made his NBA debut at age 26. While he achieved his goal of officiating NBA games relatively quickly, there was still a tough road ahead for Crawford. Just because he made the NBA didn’t mean he was going to stick there.
“It was hard, and I didn’t feel comfortable for at least five years,” he said. “I don’t know what it’s like to be a player, but you see the maturation of the players, and I think it’s similar for a ref. I didn’t feel comfortable at all coming into the league. I didn’t know how to travel, hotels, those kinds of things.”
Crawford credits the league’s veteran referees for showing him the way.
“I just hooked on to the older refs and I was so fortunate that those guys liked me—Joe Gushue and John Vanak and the Hubert Evans. Those guys, they really liked me and they taught me.”
Without their guidance, Crawford believes he would have had a much tougher time acclimating to the league.
“Today, you have instant feedback all the time,” he explained. “You’re getting plays every day, you can go on the computer and get your games, and you’re watching tape and you’re getting better. Back then, it was really hard because you really weren’t getting that much feedback on your performances and you really didn’t know what was going on. It was hard.”
Crawford feels much more comfortable these days, which is to be expected after spending more than half of his life working for the NBA, but those butterflies he got before the games he officiated as a 26-year-old rookie have never gone away.
“Oh my god, I’m nervous before every game,” he said, chuckling. “It’s that fear of failure, the fear of screwing up. And if you’re not nervous—if you don’t have that feeling—I’ll retire. You have to have that feeling. Once you throw that ball up, now you’re into the game, but that feeling starts the morning of the game.”
A normal game day for Crawford kicks off with a half-hour workout before an 11 a.m. meeting with his fellow officials.
“We go over tape and we go over our rules and things like that, trying to get prepared and get the crew on board for that night. Then, you eat lunch, catch a nap, go to the arena—you get there usually an hour and fifteen minutes, an hour and a half before the game—and then it starts in the locker room where you’re doing some preparation, doing your stretching, but you’re still talking officiating. You’re talking officiating the entire day.”
Crawford’s work day continues even after the final buzzer sounds.
“I’m a crew chief, so I have to put a game report in,” he said. “You’re putting in certain plays that happened in the game that you think you might have screwed up or the crew screwed up, and in a lot of cases, you’re going back and you’re watching some of the game back at the hotel—maybe a quarter, maybe two quarters depending on how the game went.”
Crawford typically officiates roughly 60 NBA regular season games each season, plus another dozen or so in the playoffs.
“It’s a constant,” he said. “Once the bell rings October 27 to open the season, you’re talking or doing something about officiating almost every day until your last playoff assignment. It never leaves you. Once that season starts, every day you’re thinking about something about officiating. You never really get away from it.”
It would be understandable if he wanted a break from basketball on nights he wasn’t working, but Crawford can’t get enough of the action.
“I hate to say this, but during the basketball season, if the NBA is on, I watch it all the time,” he said. “I love the NBA game.”
“If I’m on the road, say it’s 4:00 in the afternoon and I’m in Portland, I could get on my computer, I could get a game that’s starting at 7:00 say in Cleveland, and I’ll sit and watch the game on the computer before I go to eat dinner,” Crawford said. “I’m constantly watching the pro game.”
In addition to the entertainment value of basketball, Crawford also uses his off night viewing to prepare for his upcoming assignments. He looks at the tendencies of teams he will be officiating and the calls that are being made or missed.
“When I know the teams I’m doing, who’s shooting from where, what they’re doing, it prepares you for your game,” he explained. “It just makes you better as a ref.”
Crawford’s dedication to the game doesn’t go unnoticed; there’s a reason the league chooses him to work so many postseason and NBA Finals games.
“I worked my first Finals game at age 34 and I’ve stayed in the Finals ever since,” he said. “As far as the basketball is concerned, you don’t remember many games, but I think those are the games that you do remember.”
In particular, Crawford cherishes the memories he has from the Game 7 matchups he officiated in the NBA Finals in 1994, 2005 and 2010.
“In the last 25 years, maybe the last 30 years, there’s been only four Game 7’s in the Finals, which is hard to believe,” Crawford said. “There’s only been four of them, and I’ve worked three. When you’re working Game 7 of the NBA Finals, it’s the ultimate.”
Crawford can’t contain his enthusiasm, nor should he try to, when discussing those Game 7 assignments.
“It’s the ultimate stuff,” he reiterated, the excitement building in his voice. “The feeling when you go out there—‘It’s the last game! It’s the last game!’” he shouts. “You want to be perfect. It’s a great feeling.”
Of course, there’s no such thing as a perfect referee.
“You never are perfect, believe me,” Crawford said. “I’ve never had a perfect quarter. I’ve had numerous embarrassing things happen on the court. You’re not trying to make mistakes, but you do.”
Crawford says the most embarrassing moment of career was his 2007 altercation with Tim Duncan. Crawford ejected Duncan from a game for laughing at and mocking the officials, while Duncan claimed Crawford challenged him to a fight in the process of the ejection. The NBA suspended Crawford indefinitely, causing him to miss the remainder of the 2006-07 season and playoffs. As a result, Crawford’s streak of 20 straight years officiating in the NBA Finals was broken. Duncan didn’t escape unscathed, either—he was fined $25,000.
“I think I could have handled that better,” Crawford admitted. “It was embarrassing. When you look back on my career, I could have handled that in a better way. I’m not really proud of that.”
He said the incident with Duncan impacted him immensely, and he worked with a sports psychologist to control some of his anger issues.
“I try to do things differently now,” an older, wiser Crawford said. “When you look back at the situation, instead of confronting Tim Duncan, I could have went to his coach and asked him to intercede. Now, I try to do that a little more, go to the coach versus confronting the player.”
While it was an unfortunate incident, Crawford is glad to have learned from it—just as he learns from every mistake he makes, no matter how big or small.
“When you screw up, that’s when you learn,” he said. “I learn all the time, every game. They’re the things that stay in your head. For example, one night, I gave the ball to the wrong team to start the quarter, going the wrong way. To this day—and I must have did that 20 years ago—I check it, and check it, and check it and check it. When you make that mistake and you’re embarrassed by something, you try not to do it again, because it not only embarrasses you, it embarrasses your family, it embarrasses the league. It’s not what you want to do when you go out there.”
Considering the fact that Crawford has been called upon to officiate over 2,500 regular season and nearly 350 playoff games, it’s safe to say he’s doing something right.
“It’s been such a fabulous career,” Crawford acknowledged. “I’ve been so lucky.”