NEW YORK, Nov. 11, 2005 -- Gut-wrenching was the only term he could muster.

Joe Crawford, who just presided over his 2,000th NBA game, placing him in the elite company of Jake O’Donnell, Dick Bavetta, Earl Strom and Tommy Nunez, was remembering a particular time his chosen profession nearly got the best of him.

For 2,000 games, Crawford has kept order on the NBA hardwood.
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For a man with 252 playoff and 36 Finals games to his credit, including the last two Game 7’s in Finals history, such an exercise would seem to invite a trip down memory lane.

How about a trip to the previous evening?

“Those teams were really getting after it last night,” said Crawford of Sacramento’s 118-117 victory in Phoenix on Sunday night, number 1,998 of his distinguished officiating career. “It was one of those games, 118-117, they’re running up and down, and you have a couple of tough plays at the end of the game, and it’s gut-wrenching, because you’re going into the locker room and finding out if you were correct or not.”

Crawford, the son of former Major League Baseball umpire Shag Crawford, never experienced the same kind of uncertainty as a child growing up in Philadelphia. From the time he was 14, he knew he wanted to be an NBA official.

“I was just a basketball degenerate,” Crawford said. “In my neighborhood, everybody played, and I just love the sport and was drawn to it as an official because of my dad, and I used to go to games with him.

“I watched referees since I was a little kid. It’s kind of strange, but I did.”

Such keen observational skills led him to the NBA, where he eventually became one of the most widely-respected officials in league history.

“I love the fact that players and coaches respect me,” said Crawford, whose brother Jerry Crawford is now a Major League Baseball umpire. “But, what you’re looking for in this profession is for your fellow officials, when they see your name on the schedule, to say, ‘I really like working with Joe.’ And you also want your employer to say, ‘I can put Joe on any game, anytime, anywhere.’”

This, of course, didn’t happen overnight. The first five years in any referee’s career, according to Crawford, are pretty much make or break. Today, NBA officials who are on staff for three years or less are required to take part in a summer program while veteran officials serve as mentors. Development and on-going education are major parts of the NBA’s Officials Training and Development Program.

In Crawford’s case, he came along at a time when it was less structured, but the older guard still took young officials under their wing and got them through some of the tough times.

“Joe Gushue, Hugh Evans, Richie Powers, Ed T. Rush, Earl Strom, John Vanak. These guys taught you,” said Crawford. “We didn’t have it like it is now, where you can sit down and digest a tape and teach. We didn’t have that. These guys took their time. They screamed at you a little bit, but they taught you about plays.

“Joe Gushue taught me to read every box score, watch every game that’s on, and you’ll get better. And if you have a problem, just pick up the phone and call me. And if I had a problem, I would call him up and he would give me suggestions on what to do.”

These days, NBA officials undergo intense scrutiny on a nightly basis, in which all calls are reviewed, analyzed and graded. There is a Standard Observer assigned to each NBA arena and each is a part of the NBA officiating program. The Observers watch all NBA games both in-arena and via video; grade calls and gather information on game operations and report back to the Vice President of Officiating and the Director of Performance Analysis. Every call and non-call is graded correct or incorrect.

Crawford points to older officials who helped him develop into one of the game's most widely respected officials.
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The NBA officiating staff has four full-time group supervisors and two part-time group supervisors who report to the Director of Officiating. Their primary goal is to assess and diagnose each individual officials’ performance, report that performance to the supervisory staff and to the official, and enhance the specific training and development program for each official.

Crawford admits it adds more work to the job, but has made him a more competent official.

“I don’t mind the scrutiny. If I did, I’d quit,” Crawford said. “For me, it’s made me better, because now I know there are 65 eyes on you night in and night out. They’re judging your calls. Every night, you’re looking at that tape and you’re trying to beat the tape. You’re hoping that when you put air in the whistle, you’re correct.”

Putting air in the whistle has, of course, earned him a lot of hot air in return from players and coaches. Crawford has developed a reputation as a passionate official who’s not afraid to hit someone with a T.

He insists such a reputation is over blown, and points to his relationship with Charles Barkley through the years as the barometer for a player/referee relationship.

“Charles got a lot of technical fouls, and I gave him a lot of those and ejected him,” Crawford said. “But there was something about Charles that after it happened, it was over. I respect that, because I’m the same way.

“When the game is over, the game is over. I understand that it’s competition, and players and coaches get caught up in competition. But Charles, to me, was just a good guy. You could see that he loved the sport, and as much as he would give you a lot of crap out on the court, there was a part of him that made you think that he really was a good guy. There was something about Charles I really admired.”

Fittingly, Crawford call his 2,000th game in Philadelphia on Friday night, an 85-81 Sixers win over the Lakers. He still works 2-3 games per week, which calls for him to be on the road for at least 20 days out of each month during the season. In the offseason, he does “nothing, which is the great thing about the job.”

Actually, he’ll work some camps for the NBA and assists other referees at their instructional schools. When asked how much time he had left in the game before whistling for his final timeout, Crawford yielded to a higher authority.

“I read where David Stern said he was going to stay for a minimum of five years, so I will say a minimum of five,” Crawford said. “And that’s only if he wants me.”