In 2007, then-NBA commissioner David Stern suspended Joey Crawford after the referee ejected Tim Duncan for laughing on the Spurs’ bench. According to Duncan, Crawford also challenged him to a fight.
Crawford, via Jackie MacMullan of ESPN:
A few years before that [in Game 2 of the 2003 Western Conference finals], I had a problem with Nellie [Don Nelson] in a playoff game. I threw him out. Nellie didn’t really say anything. He just stood there with his arms folded. I thought he was trying to intimidate my crew. I told him, ‘You going back to the bench?’ He said, ‘No,’ so I hit him with a T. Then I said, ‘You going back now?’ He said, ‘No.’ So I threw him. Del Harris was his assistant, and he wanted to go. So I threw him, too.
The next day Stern called me to the offices in New York and unloaded on me. He called me every name you can think of — and I deserved all of them.
I just stood there and took it. Before I went up there, our union rep told me, ‘Joey, no matter what [Stern] says, just stand there and be quiet.’ So, Stern’s killing me, I’m saying, ‘He’s right, he’s right,’ but then finally I said, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute. What did you want me to do? Wait until Nellie called me a f—ing a–h— and then throw him?’ and Stern said, ‘Yes! Then at least I could have defended you, you moron!’ Stern told me, ‘Don’t ever do that again,’ and I said, ‘OK,’ but then, of course, I did.
Stern ordered Crawford to see a psychiatrist in the aftermath of the Duncan incident, a clear buildup for Crawford. Crawford then began seeing another psychologist, who helped him through his anger issues.
Increased attention on mental health in the NBA has focused on players and occasionally coaches and executives. But referees – nightly put in stressful, adversarial positions – should also be part of the discussion. Not only is caring for their mental health important for them as people, it also maximizes their ability to officiate. The best referees stay composed and focus on the job at hand.
That’s why Stern’s response to the Nelson incident seems imprudent. Crawford should have waited until Nelson crossed a line, not anticipatorily ejected the Mavericks coach. Stern could have turned that into a calm teaching moment. What did reaming out Crawford accomplish? It probably only added to his stress.
Stern sending Crawford toward therapy proved much more helpful, as Crawford detailed in MacMullan’s full piece – which also includes plenty of details about NBA referees and mental health.