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Getting to know the real Joey Crawford

On Sports
by:  JOEY CRAWFORD

Through his 34-year career as an NBA referee, Joey Crawford has developed a reputation among fans, players and the media.

Tough guy. Hard-ass. As quick to whistle a technical as Clint Eastwood was to draw the six-shooter in 'High Plains Drifter.'

So I'm glad the NBA office is relaxing its grip on the league's officiating crew and allowing the refs to do more interviews.

Underneath Crawford's gruff exterior is a warm, funny guy with a heart of gold.

I've known Joey for more than 20 years. By that time, he was firmly established as one of the premier referees in the league. It didn't take me long to become in awe of how he controlled a game, how much respect he commanded from coaches and players. And, most importantly, how often he got the call right.

It was preordained that Crawford would become an official. His father, Shag, was a major-league umpire for 20 years. His older brother, Jerry, recently retired after 35 years as an umpire in the big leagues.

Growing up in Philadelphia, Joey always knew what his life's work would be.

'Isn't that weird?' asks Crawford, who has worked more playoffs and NBA finals than any current referee in the league. 'Because of my father, growing up with it, I gravitated toward (officiating).

'When my father took me to a basketball game as a kid, he pointed out the referees. 'That's Mendy Rudolph; that's Richie Powers.' I loved it from day one.'

But Crawford didn't join his father and brother in baseball.

'I grew up in a neighborhood where everybody played basketball,' he says. 'I wasn't a good player, but I loved the sport. We played basketball eight hours a day.

'I knew I wanted to ref. I tried to do baseball at the semipro level, but it just wasn't me. I was lucky somebody in the NBA liked me and gave me a job.'

If you liked sports as a kid, you may have held the likes of John Elway, Michael Jordan or Cal Ripken as a role model. Not Crawford.

'I absolutely idolized Joe Gushue,' he says of the Philadelphia native who refereed in the NBA and old American Basketball Association from the 1960s through the '80s. 'Joe was a teacher. He taught you not only on the court but off the court how to handle yourself, and that your family is part of this.

'He was just phenomenal. He told you about the rule book and case book, and about preparing yourself for the game. I emulated him. I see his face every night when I referee - every night - telling me, 'Joey, you should have done this.' I worshipped the ground he walked on.'

Since Crawford was hired by the NBA in 1977, the game has changed immensely. So has the job of a referee. There are three-referee crews now instead of two. And video analysis has become integral to the job.

'When we started with video maybe 15 years ago, the NBA would send us a tape of the game to review,' Crawford says. 'Now we have laptops in the locker room.'

Crawford says retired official Terry Durham - a Portland native who still lives in town - taught him how to review video.

'Terry was one of those guys who watched tape and was very critical of himself,' Crawford says. 'At first, I was really watching to verify my calls. But Terry and I would break down calls and the mistakes we made and the positioning we had. It's a big part of what we are today as referees. You have to be able to be honest with your tape breakdowns.'

And with your assessment of your work as an official. It includes constant repartee with the superiors in the league office.

'Our profession has totally changed for the better since I first came in,' Crawford says. 'Some people complain about the scrutiny, but I like it.

'You have to keep an open mind to growing every year and getting better. Once you stop trying to get better and thinking you have it made, you stop growing. You have to be able to admit - which is very hard to do - that you were wrong. You can grow from that.'

When I observe that there are no home games for a referee, he laughs.

'That's the worst part of the job,' he says. 'It's such a great job, I don't like complaining about it. You take the schedule, you work the games and you go. That's all you do.'

Crawford has brought his wife to Portland on the occasional road trip through the years. How does she handle sitting in the Rose Garden and listening to fans' catcalls directed toward her husband?

'She's good,' he says, laughing again. 'My kids are the ones I worry about. They're adults now and have that Philly craziness about them. If somebody's taking a shot at their father, they scream back. I tell them, 'Those people paid their money; leave them alone.' '

Crawford says 'it's not real wise' for a referee to have personal relationships with players.

'But our players are great guys, they really are,' he says. 'You're going to have problems with guys here and there, but usually it's in the heat of the game. And a lot of times, we're wrong. We don't really get to know the players in a social manner, but in a professional manner.'

Has Crawford ever let his feelings about a player affect a call?

'No,' he says. 'You're just looking at shirts. They bring a stat sheet into the locker room after a game. You see so-and-so had 40 points, and you didn't know he had four.

'The concentration of what you do for 48 minutes is trying to get the plays correct. That's your job.'

Are calls made differently near the end of a close game?

'No,' he says. 'We're graded on the calls and non-calls we make. What you're trying to do is stay consistent from the first exhibition game to your final game. That's what you're striving for.

'When are we supposed to start calling it different - with six minutes left? Five minutes? Four minutes? You're trying to call the play at the end of the game the same as you called it the first minute. Then you have consistency, and you don't have to worry about what you called at the end of the game.'

Crawford has officiated in the NBA finals every year since 1986. Four times he has worked a seventh game. He considers that the highlight of his career.

'They stand out,' he says. 'Every call, every possession of that game is so critical, because there are no more games.

'I've worked so many games over the years. I don't remember technical fouls I called. But I do remember those seventh games I worked. You're looking to be involved in those kind of games. They're perceiving me to be a pretty good referee if they're letting me work those games.'

Crawford turns 60 on Aug. 30. He knows the end of his career is coming.

'I want to do it as long as it doesn't become a chore,' he says. 'The last three years my brother was in baseball, his back was real bad and he was rehabbing to work. I don't want to do that. I want to be able to go out there and feel good. Once the injuries start, I'm going to retire.'

Crawford says he enjoys doing interviews, if for nothing else than to humanize the position of an NBA referee.

'I wish we could do them every day,' he says. 'People would find out we admit we make mistakes, and that we don't make them on purpose. And that we're not bad guys.'

Bad guy? The man with the perpetual scowl and the whistle in his mouth is a teddy bear.