NBA Referee with Passion – Interview with Joe Crawford

Joe Crawford officiated the second most games in the NBA history after Dick Bavetta, and he is the leader with around 300 games in the playoffs and almost 50 final games. He officiated 3 out of the 4 Game 7s of the last 20 years. And he says he is lucky.

Ladies and Gentlemen, meet one of the top referees of the NBA, Joe Crawford.

Mr. Crawford, we really appreciate you taking the time to share your experience. Please tell us about your background. When and why did you start officiating? How was the road to the top?

Joe Crawford at the age of 25 in his first NBA referees' camp

Joe Crawford at the age of 25 in his first NBA referees’ camp

I’ve been in the NBA for 37 years. I entered the league in 1977, and I started refereeing when I was 18 years old in the Philadephia, Pennsylvania area, and my goal was always to be an NBA referee. My father was a baseball umpire in the US, and I got interested in officiating obviously through him. I lived in a neighborhood where most of the kids played basketball all the time and, I just knew I wanted to referee, ever since I can remember. I cared everything I did to get to the NBA. I got there at 25 years of age, and it’s just been a fabulous run. Refereeing great players and great coaches, with great referees night in and night out. It’s hard work, you’re constantly work out and read rules to stay one step ahead of the game. It is something I always wanted to do and I’ve just been a very lucky guy that I’ve been able to make a living of this. It’s been fabulous!

Your father was a baseball umpire. Why did you choose basketball?

I grew up with basketball and I loved everything about it. I wasn’t a very good player and I was just gravitated to officiating. When I was a kid and my dad took me to a pro basketball game, I watched the referees. I just loved it, and to this day I love it. I can talk about refereeing 24/7. My wife gets bored with it, but it’s been my life. Again, I’ve just been really-really lucky.

How did you manage to get yourself accepted at the age of 25 when you started to officiate in the NBA?

Really hard. Initially they don’t accept anything you do when you come into this league, let alone you come at the age of 25. It was hard and I was a very aggressive guy, I called a lot of Ts, threw out a lot of guys, and when I look back on it, it was immaturity. I didn’t do a good job of trying to get along. It was “my way or the highway”, but the older guys taught me a lot. They really helped me, but I was on of those guys that wanted to do it my way. I struggled with my temper. Initially it was very difficult for me. Luckily I had good bosses that stayed with me and didn’t fire me. I was very lucky, Peter, very very lucky.

What did they see in you?

Talking to these guys years later, they saw my passion and they saw that I wasn’t afraid. And I wasn’t afraid! I don’t know whether it was because of stupidity (laughs), but I wasn’t, and to this day I’m not afraid. I just go and do it. The profession has changed a lot for its good. We have a lot of scrutiny. A lot of TVs everywhere. Everybody is watching everything, and it doesn’t bother me. I just go out and referee the game, and whatever happens, it happens. I guess my bosses saw that passion, and I was very lucky. Very-very lucky. I had great people helping me.

You are very modest. You tell me a lot that you were lucky, but I think it’s a small part of one’s success, and usually goes to the ones that work hard. You talked about passion. Do you think, individuality and personality is important in officiating?

Our bosses tell us that we have to be ourselves. You have to apply principals on the mechanics side and rules interpretations, or you get fired. But on the personality end of it, you have to be yourself. If you try to be somebody else, it won’t work. I cannot be Danny Crawford, who is one of our top referees. His personality is totally the opposite. His personality is placid, he rarely gets ruffled. We’re best friends and we are opposites. We talk about it all the time. The NBA wants individuals. You have to be who you are on the court.

You have to have personality on the court, because players and coaches need to become at ease with you. If you were some stoic statue that can’t be talked to, you’re not gonna be able to get through those minutes of the game. That was my major problem when I was a kid in the NBA. I wasn’t listening to them. Now I listen to them, and you know what I have found out, Peter? Sometimes the coaches are right! (laughing)

How should we imagine the life as a top NBA official? How is your day look like?

Joe Crawford relaxing on the court

Joe Crawford

My life is a great life. The NBA has afforded me to be able to have my kids educated, and my wife and I live very well. Life is fabulous. I never envisioned that I could be living the way I do. What I have to do is to take care of myself physically and mentally. I tell people that I’m not angry with anybody, I’m a happy guy. NBA has afforded the Crawford family a tremendous life. I have nothing to complain about, and that’s way I give back so freely. I’m such a lucky guy. It’s been a wonderful life.

My day in the middle of the season is hard. We are on the road 20-25 days a month. On game-day, I usually get up early, I go to the gym and work out half an hour, read some rules, about 40 question in our case book every game-day. The crew meets at around 11 am at the hotel room. We go over some tape, we look at some plays, talk about the game at night, we get ourselves mentally set, get some lunch and a nap, and it’s game-time. On game-day I don’t do too much.

We have 30 teams and we are flying all over the US and Canada, and it’s tiring, but you have to take care of your body. If you don’t do it, you wear down. For example, because of the time differences, when I fell tired, I just lay down. I don’t care what time is it, I just lay down.

We have 82 games, it’s a lot. You have to be a certain kind of person to do it, and you need to have a very understanding partner. We’we just received our November schedule and I’ll be in my house 5 nights in November. It’s not an easy life. It’s a weird life, but it’s a good life, as far as I’m concerned.

I’m sure of it. What was your most memorable game? Please tell us about it.

I’ve been again very lucky. I’ve been working in the NBA Finals since 1986 and in the last 25 years there have been four Game 7s in the Finals. I have refereed three of them. Those games are the ultimate. If you are working on the 7th game of the NBA Finals, there are no more games! (Laughs) The first one was the Knicks at Houston, the second one was the Pistons at San Antonio, and the third one was Boston against the Lakers. I’ve worked on almost 50 Final Games, but these three stand out. You remember those games. When your bosses talk to each other and say: “you know what? Joe can handle that game”, it makes you feel really good about what you have accomplished in your professional life.

Unbelievable, I have goose-bombs as you say it!

You know what, Peter? I do too! Every time I say it, I get goose-bombs! I keep asking myself; did it actually happened to me??? Did I do those games??? It’s really amazing when you look back on those.

Maybe it doesn’t make much difference, but have you been crew-chief on these games?

I was a crew-chief on the last two of the three.

I know you’ve talked about it before, but what more do you do to prepare for a game mentally?

I have to read the rules and case-book stuff. We are so lucky in the NBA that we can look at tapes and it’s fabulous! We usually watch our fellow referees ref. If I see something, I write down the time of the play and I download it from our website. I can use it as a self-teaching tool. I can look at it on the TV in the hotel room, and analyze the situation. It’s fabulous. It helps me to focus on what I’m supposed to do that night. And that’s a wonderful thing about the system we have today.

By the way, Zsolt Hartyáni works a lot on this in Europe, I’m sure he told you about this.

Yes, we were together in the Clinic in Iceland, and listening to Zsolt, I learned a lot. I really learned sitting and listening to him.

Cool, I will let him know. Do you consciously prepare yourself about the players and coaches? What do you consider around this topic?

Well, it’s a tough topic. You go into a game with an open mind. Certain things happen during a game with competition. Our players and coaches are fabulous. Of course you have some problems here and there, that’s officiating. It’s competition, people lose their cool occasionally. But you don’t go in and say this guy is that kind of guy, or we have to do this and that. We go in trying to take care of the situation that is presented to us. We’re trained on the situations. You are surely criticized sometimes! That’s our bosses job. But we don’t go in with preconceptions, that’s not part of what we do. We take care of situations.

Who was the most difficult player and coach to control? How did you deal with them?

A guy that was tough to handle was Charles Barkley. He was hard, but he also was one of my favorite people to deal with, and I tell you why. Charles used to get a lot of technical fouls, but he was the kind of guy that wouldn’t hold a grudge. This is a fabulous trait for a player or a coach. You could eject him and the next month when you had him, it wasn’t a big deal. He was just playing the game and he is a very honest and upfront guy. That’s why I always appreciated him, because he wasn’t doing it behind your back. He did it right to you. That why I always liked the guy and I still do.

Charles Barkley

Charles Barkley

I don’t think there is any way to handle a player, Peter. I think that you only have to handle the situation that is presented to you that particular night. The rules give you some tools to defend yourself. You, as the referee, can’t be the one that goes out and causes the problem. You let the player and the coach cause the problem, and then you rectify the problem. When you have to make a report on the game, it’s better read that you were a part of the solution, not part of the problem. Earlier in my career I was part of the problem. Through the years I had to be able to get better with my people skills. I think that’s very important. You have to work on it. Your body language, the way you talk to people, how you react. You have to be able to discipline the game, but in a way that you are not antagonizing the players and the coaches.

I think I know what you mean.

Hope so.

How about the coaches?

When I got in the game, coaches were tough. Today, David Stern, our commissioner doesn’t really like players and coaches out of control, so he fines them a lot of money. It’s not bad. When I first started, coaches didn’t believe anything that I did and I was probably wrong a lot of times (laughs), because I didn’t know what I was doing.

Cotton Fitzsimmons was an old coach who was a very difficult guy to deal with and we used to fight like crazy. But today, I find them nice. I mean, I just say, “that’s fine. You can have your problems. You can have a technical foul and then an ejection.” But most of them are very fair, and like I told you, Peter. Sometimes they are right!

By the way, do you admit when you know that you had made a mistake?

Because of the tape, I’ve learned to say to them: “coach, you could be right!”. I watch the tape at halftime, and I go to the them and say: “coach, you were right, I was wrong.” I think when you don’t admit, you lose credibility. The coaches see the same tape. You are wrong sometimes. It doesn’t mean that you are wrong on purpose, but you are wrong sometimes, and you have to admit when you are wrong.

How much do you think, a referee has to talk to the players? I used to talk a lot, and I have found that when I do, they think I’m always open for a conversation, and they kept coming to me to chat, and at the end of the day I lose my focus. How should a referee keep the balance in being approachable and keep the focus?

I’ve learned through the years that the less you talk to coaches and players, the better off you are. All you have to do is get the plays right. They don’t care about your personality, what you know, and all that crap that referees talk about. Just keep you mouth shut. When they ask you a question, answer them professionally, and answer them on how the rule is. Tell them what happened. “The defender got there before you did.” That’s all! Don’t start going into long dissertations about what you did and what you know. They don’t care! Players and coaches want you to get the plays right. That’s all. The less you talk, the better off you are. Keep it very professional.

How do you keep focus during the game?

I constantly talk to myself. I don’t care about the time and the score. If the score is 20 points, I talk about the subs and where I position myself on the court. On a 2-point game, I keep telling myself, “stay caaalm, Joe! Stay caaalm!” “Keep your focus!” I never stop talking to myself. When I lose my focus, I get in trouble. It’s a constant battle and I constantly talk to myself. Our games are long, but the key is to keep your focus on that 48 minutes. There nothing else going on in the world as far as I’m concerned.

When you notice that you’ve lost focus, how do you come back? Do you come back by self-talk?

Yes, you do find yourself out of focus sometimes, and what I do is to walk up to my partners and say, “listen, do me a favor. If you see me that I’m out of focus, just tell me.” It’s part of your pre-game. I have no problem with it. That’s how they can help you.

The next question is on conflict management. What do you think the key is about this topic?

I struggled with conflict management, so I asked for professional help. I went to a sports-psychologist and asked why I got mad and why I did certain things. Some guys can naturally deal with conflict. I admitted to myself, that I needed someone to help me, and it was probably the best thing I’ve ever done.

How did he help you?

I need to catch myself when I feel I get angry. I put my hands behind my back or just put them on my stomach and talked to myself: “Joe, Joe, Joe… it’s not you, it’s the shirt that they are quarreling at.” Once you lose control, the game is in trouble. You need to constantly remind yourself, that it’s not about you, it’s about the game. I still struggle with it, but I’m a thousand times better than I was 10 years ago.

Tim Duncan whining to Joe Crawford

Tim Duncan and Joe Crawford

How is your relationship with Tim Duncan?

We have no problems. I think people outside of basketball have made a bigger deal of it than Tim Duncan and I. I have admitted that I was the one that made the problem there. It cost me a lot in my professional career. It happened, that’s part of history, but I had to move on. I have no problem with Tim Duncan.

What do you do off-season?

We have a place down the Jersey Shore and we just hang out with our grandkids. We have our ninth on the way. And you know what I do off-season? I prepare for the next season. I work out every day and hang out with my family. It’s a great life.

How many more years do you plan to officiate?

I asked my bosses to let me know when they see I’m going in the opposite direction, and I will retire. If they see I can do it, I want to do it. When they tell me I can’t, I’m gonna leave. I’m a realist and I am grateful for the great run. I still feel great, so I plan a couple of more years, but you never know. I just keep one year at a time.

What else do you do to be mentally fit?

I try to stay in touch with a lot of referees, talk about plays. I talk to my bosses what they want from me. I try to stay hungry and passionate and I am still passionate.

I can hear it in your voice. Can we say that you are constantly looking for feedback?

Yes, we can. I don’t if it’s from insecurity, but I do look for feedback all the time. I even ask young refs who never officiated in the NBA about my plays. I’m trying to learn all the time. Sometimes you can overdo that a little bit, because you need somebody to say: “Joe, that was really good.” We talk about negative things all the time, the mistakes we made, but we also need the strengthen ourselves with positive feedback.

How do you handle failures?

I don’t handle failures well. I think a lot of us have the fear of failure in our head. It stays with me, that’s why I love replay so much. I don’t deal with the fear of making a failure that costs somebody a game, and replay eases this fear a lot. I guess that’s why I prepare so much for games. If I screw up a rule, it stays with me in my whole career. I’m not very good with dealing with failure.

Maybe I can help you with this. At the moment, what is the biggest challenge for you?

I want to stay hungry. I want to stay at the top of my game. I want to have the same mental approach for every game that I had when I was 25 entering the NBA. That’s my challenge.

How do you deal with it?

I want to be a good partner. That drives me every night.

What has been your biggest challenge?

It was obviously family life. Being away from life is a major challenge. I have to deal with it on a daily basis. I asked my kids and my wife if I did the right thing, and they assured me that I did, so that makes me really happy. But it still eats at you.

Joe Crawford at Game 2 of The NBA Finals 2013

Joe Crawford at Game 2 of The NBA Finals 2013

How do you keep the balance between personal and professional life?

I started to send roses to my wife about seven years ago, maybe 5-7 times during the season. I wish I did it earlier in my life, but I didn’t. I found seven years ago that I had to do some more about this. I don’t think you ever overcome in this job, because my wife and I know it; I LOVE refereeing in the NBA. I mean I LOVE it. Sometimes I prioritized that over my family. I’m not proud of that, and later I tried to correct it. I think I’m a much better husband now than 7 years ago.

I’m sure referees need to do some extra in this field also.

Oh yes!

What do you consider the most important characteristic of a top referee?

I would say passion, integrity and professionalism. Passion is the most important. Top referees are very passionate about their profession. You can talk to them at midnight or at 4 am about officiating. Sometimes referees get caught up in the monetary end of officiating. What the profession gives you vs. you give it. I think those top guys give a lot to the profession, but this is only a personal opinion.

If you could give only one advice to a young and ambitious referee, what would it be?

Care about being a good partner. Try to approach it as the game, the crew, and then yourself. I think if you look at it in that order, you always be fine. I think the problem sometimes is that some referees do it in the reverse order. Always put the game and the partners above yourself.

I have a bonus question. What would you ask yourself? Is there anything you want to tell our open minded referee readers?

Just referee what you referee. Do what you do. Don’t care about what games the others get, don’t care about politics, just enjoy what you do, referee your games. Stop worrying about everybody else’s games and enjoy YOUR GAMES!

Thank you for letting me saying that.

Mr. Crawford, thank you very much, it’s been a real pleasure talking to you.


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About Peter

Peter Papp is an enthusiastic supporter of open-minded referees, international basketball referee (FIBA) and NLP Master Practitioner. Peter is the founder of RefereeMindset.com.

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