Joe Crawford: The Quest for the “Right” Officiating Style

We like Joe Crawford. Pretty much. He is definitely one of the greatest referees and the nicest guys ever. We love to talk to him, so sometimes we ask this and that. And share what we find out.

With you.

Let’s begin the season with one part of our last talk. More of them coming soon!


Ever wondered how the accepted officiating style changed through the course of decades? Even so, is there such a style?

As everyday life changed greatly in the past half a century, so did refereeing. When Joe Crawford started officiating in the world’s number one basketball league back in 1977, at the age of 25, verbally, and sometimes even physically supported enforcement of the rules was not uncommon.

In the 70s, the referees had a confident style, ready for interactions with players and coaches.

recalls Joe. “Officials were a little more forceful back then. Now, you really have to be careful with what you say. Everything gets picked up now.”

“Back in the days, you would get into a quarrel with the players and coaches, but now it is not accepted. Referees are a little more reluctant to talk that much today, and that is a good thing in my opinion.”


Earl Strom

Strom officiated with his partner Rudolph all five games of the 1961 NBA finals as the two teams only accepted them. This was the only time it ever happened in the NBA.

To get an even better understanding of how top referees managed games back in the days, we asked Joe about Hall of Famer Earl Strom.

Earl is credited as one of the greatest referees in the history of the NBA, working numerous game 7s. He had a flamboyant style and an ability to control the game. In addition to calling fouls with flair, he also ejected players with style, sometimes supporting his rulings with physical force.

Sports commentator Roy Firestone remembered Earl Strom as

a throwback, a reminder of the days when the refs had colorful personalities

and for good reason. Earl was the only referee ever to eject a coach in an All-Star Game, but the Chicago Bull’s mascot faced a similar fate when trying to mock Strom back in a 1974 playoffs game.

This was the first time in NBA history that a referee ejected a mascot.

He was a fabulous referee

remembers Joe, as he told us stories about how Earl challenged Kansas City’s 7 feet 2 (218 cm) center player to a fight. Strom would sometimes even go to the stands to settle disputes with fans.


When Crawford got into the league, he didn’t have the experience to know how to handle certain situations so he emulated what others did – as most of us do when we are beginner referees, trying to find an „optimal” refereeing style.
„Be yourself” – that is how they taught him in the beginning.

You can’t be Joe Crawford; you have to do what your personality allows.

Although it is hard to find your own style, your interactions can’t be fake: players and coaches smell it out real quick.

Referees need to have certain personality traits, like being strong, and being good communicators,

“It is more important to be in alignment with your own personality than looking for the ‘right’ personality. From the 70s to the 90s, people didn’t complain as much about referees as they do today.

Some players are more sensitive now, and you have to know how people like to be talked at. Luckily, there is a standard to everyone now.

Your interactions changed with players & coaches, but it’s good because you have to keep and stay in control of yourself.”

There’s a huge responsibility on veteran referees to tell the younger to be themselves. It is important to not force them to act their way.

You can emulate the best by other means, for example by imitating their signals.

But as Joe goes on, he reveals that being a good referee takes more than just having a style: you have to know and constantly study the rules, you need to keep in shape.


Veteran referees Dick Bavetta and Joe Crawford.

Veteran referees Dick Bavetta and Joe Crawford.

When we asked how both him and Dick Bavetta with such different personalities were successful, Joe laughed:

“Dick Bavetta’s style was definitely different from mine. But it is not a problem if there are different personalities within the refereeing crew as long as you work the same system, the same mechanics.”

You can read more about Bavetta here.

Our conclusion might surprise you, but trying to copy someone you like may not be the perfect way to carve your own style. It’s more beneficial to find a ref who’s personality is close to yours.

Find out who you are first, look for a role model next.

Joe adds:

My superior always used to tell me: In order to become a successful referee, you have to take some of your off court personality and take it to your on-court personality.

Interested in how to improve as a referee? Come back for part 2 of our interview series with Joe Crawford!

Share the wisdom before you read further!


About David

David Szots is an aspiring young basketball official who is passionate about studying the world’s top referees and is looking for quality content all over the web to help others and share information


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