COURTESY: NBA PHOTOS - Veteran NBA referee Joey Crawford hopes to return from knee surgery in time to finish his 39th season.Philadelphia native Joey Crawford was doing an interview with the local Delaware County (Pa.) Daily Times as recipient of the newspaper's "Sports Figure of the Year" award.

The writer, Jack McCaffrey, casually asked if Crawford, 64, expected to continue his long career as an NBA referee for "at least a couple more years."

"I'm done," Crawford replied, meaning he intends to retire after the current season, ending a 39-year career.

The revelation started a firestorm of publicity that Crawford said was not intended.

"So Jack writes a separate article on my retirement," Crawford says from his home in suburban Newton Square, Pa. "And all of a sudden, it's on ESPN. I had no idea it was going to go like crazy like that. I'm totally taken aback by it. It's insanity."

It shouldn't be surprising.

Crawford remains the most high-profile figure on the NBA officiating staff, and has to be considered one of the greats ever in his business. It's big news when a referee of his status decides to hang up his whistle.

The man has worked 2,561 regular-season games, second all-time behind only Dick Bavetta (2,635), who was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame last September. Crawford has called a record 374 playoff games, including 50 in the NBA finals, the latter figure trailing only the late, great Mendy Rudolph.

Crawford is on the mend from Dec. 4 surgery for a meniscus tear on his right knee, but that's not the reason for his impending retirement.

"I was going to retire at the end of this season, anyway," he says. "I wanted to get one more year in."

Crawford sat out six weeks of the 2014-15 regular season to rest the knee, which is affected by advancing arthritis.

"Should have had surgery then," he says. "But I rehabbed all summer, rehabbed hard, and it felt great going into this season."

Crawford worked the preseason without pain, but the first week of the regular season, "I got off the plane and thought, 'Uh, oh, this isn't good,'" he says. "Worked a game in Boston and I could tell something was wrong. I couldn't bend the knee."

Crawford has set a target date of March 1 for his return, and says the knee is getting better, but not as quickly as he'd hoped.

"All the years of running has taken its toll," he says. "I'm trying to get back. I'm hoping it responds, but I don't know."

Crawford's reputation as a hothead and as the "quickest technical in the NBA" is earned, though he has softened his approach in recent years, partially as a result of a suspension through the 2007 playoffs following a run-in with Tim Duncan.

I'll choose to remember Crawford, though, as a referee of great integrity, as a guy coaches and players could count upon to have the courage to make the tough call, and to get it right the great majority of the time. He cared deeply about his craft, the product of a family that includes father Shag and brother Jerry, both legendary former major league umpires.

Crawford was working a Los Angeles Clippers game last season when the knee problem emerged.

"He was running along the sidelines and fell into my arms," Clippers coach Doc Rivers says. "His knee gave out, and it scared the hell out of me. I literally thought he was having a heart attack. He kept going through the season, which shows you how tough that son-of-a-gun is.

"He will be missed. People can say what they want about Joey, but he's the best in big games because he's not intimidated. What I've loved about him, you know what you're getting. He's consistent in how he calls it, and he's not scared to make the big call on the road. As a coach, you want that guy in a big game."

Portland coach Terry Stotts says he hopes Crawford will be able to come back and work some games before the end of the season.

"Joey has been such an integral part of the league," Stotts says. "He is held in such high regard as one of the best officials in the league today, if not in the history of the game. It would be nice if he can come back and get on the court at least one more time before he retires."

Either way, it's the end of an era. A Crawford has worked either the major leagues or the NBA for the past six decades.

"It's been fun," Joey says. "I've been lucky. The greatest thing about my business is the people you meet. It's been just a great thing for me."

I've known Joey since I began covering the NBA more than 25 years ago. We've shared the occasional post-game adult beverage and had a lot of laughs. He is a wonderful, caring person with a quick wit and a great personality, which may surprise fans who know him through his an on-court scowl or snarl.

After he calls his final game, Crawford would love to join an NBA front office staff that includes executive vice president/referee operations Mike Bantom, vice president/referee operations Bob Delaney and director/referee operations Mark Wunderlich.

"It's like a team up there," Crawford says. "Those guys are great people. I hope the league hires me. I think I have something to offer. I just want to be a part of it."

I hope the league hires Crawford, too. And, soon enough, he'll join Bavetta and Rudolph with his enshrinement at Springfield.

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