Former referee Danny Crawford settling into retirement

Long time official gets honored at Spurs-Bulls game for his 32 years of service

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner


Oct 22, 2017 1:07 AM ET

CHICAGO – After 32 seasons running up and down the courts of the NBA, Danny Crawford finds himself at age 64 to be in the best shape of his life.

It doesn’t seem to make sense. Crawford, who retired this summer after working Game 5 of the Finals between Cleveland and Golden State in Oakland, spends his time now reconnecting with old friends. They go to movies together in the suburban Chicagoland,  and he meets up with different ones for breakfast a couple times a month.

And yet he’s more fit now?

“I weigh less than I did when I got hired by the NBA 32 years ago,” Crawford said at halftime Saturday of the San Antonio-Chicago game at United Center. He had been honored with a video tribute during a timeout in the first quarter, and was acknowledged by the crowd when he was introduced on the court with his family and some NBA executives.

“The reason why, I’m not spending all that dead time in hotel rooms and eating hotel food and eating at different times of the day. I’m on a better schedule now. Working out every morning, dabbling in the stock market and eating dinner at 5:30. I’ve got a routine going now and it’s really a wonderful thing. I can get to 12 o’clock every day with no problem at all. My goal is, what do I do between 12 and 5?”

Such is life for the retired. Crawford, who worked more than 2,000 regular season games, more than 300 NBA playoff games and in 23 consecutive Finals after being hired in 1985-86, left one year after Joey Crawford, who ended his 39-year stint in 2016. That makes this the first Crawford-less season, in terms of the whistleblowers, since 1976.

As the league did for Joey and Bennett Salvatore when they called it quits, the NBA worked with teams in the referees’ home market to stage a tribute. A video showed clips of Crawford working and interacting with some of the game’s biggest stars.

A bespectacled Crawford, looking studious, was joined front-and-center by his wife Claudia and daughter Lia (son Drew, who played at Northwestern, has been playing overseas). Also on the court with him: Bob Delaney, longtime NBA ref and until recently a VP for referee development and performance; Mike Bantom, NBA head of referee operations from 2012 to 2017; and Joe Borgia, senior VP of replay and referee operations.

Of the respectful applause Crawford got at the end of the brief ceremony, Crawford laughed and said, “All of a sudden they love you. ... I never won a game but it was always my fault.” 

Before Crawford left the floor, Spurs coached Gregg Popovich waved him over for a handshake and a hug, exchanging – no, really, unlike many of their other conversations – a few pleasantries.

Now that Crawford was a civilian, might Pop have a story or two he could share?

“I’m sure he’s booted me before – of course I deserved it – but he’s always been a class act,” said the San Antonio coach, known for getting a little combustible on the sideline. “Somebody who had great judgment and also a great demeanor. He knew how to handle coaches, when to tell you to go sit down, when to talk to you and not talk to you. Losing guys like him hurts, because it takes young referees a while to get as comfortable in their own skin as Danny did, for sure.”

Spurs veteran Pau Gasol explained why Crawford was considered one of the best and most respected game official during his run: “He always kept his composure. He was very approachable. He handled the emotions really well, not just from himself but also the players. Always, he just kept his poise. He might miss a call like anyone else, but he would tell you why he called what he called. It’s an intense game, for the referees too, but he was never out of line. He was an example, I think, for a lot of younger referees.”

Of course, refs are refs, something some players never let them forget. Consider Shaquille O’Neal’s teasing him when he learned in August that Crawford was leaving.

O’Neal arrived six seasons after Crawford and retired six seasons before him, which made the ref’s life a little easier down the stretch.  

“I think the game is an easier game to referee, because it’s a jump-shot shooting league now,” Crawford said. “Refereeing Shaq, Karl Malone, Buck Williams in the post, that would test your officiating ability. All the contact and deciding when to call a foul, when not to call a foul.

“Now a jump shooter either gets hit on the arm or the defender walks underneath him. It’s easier to referee. But it’s tougher in terms of the pace. One of the reasons I left was, the players are getting younger and faster and I’m going in the opposite direction. The pace is unbelievable.”

Crawford cited the dead time between games on the road and the 22 or 23 nights each month during the season he was away from home and family as reasons for tapping out. He didn’t blame the scrutiny that NBA referees face, both unofficially from fans and officially in league reviews, instant replay and last-two-minute reports. But he admitted that’s tough and getting tougher.

“Do we make mistakes? Yes,” Crawford said. “They’re seeking perfection, which is OK. But Danny Crawford, 32-year-vet, can tell you: ‘They will not find perfection.’

“I understand the data and the analytics and the technology, that’s where we are in this day and age. But from an officiating standpoint, you can only squeeze so much out of that lemon. I believe that what you’re seeing now [in accuracy] is what you’ll be seeing 10 years from now.”

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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