(This article first appeared in The Eye.)
by Denis G. Campbell
On Wednesday, NBA referee legend Danny Crawford retired after 31 seasons. He was a perfect referee and an even better gentleman. When Danny and Joey Crawford (no relation) reffed together for the first time in Miami, I remember mixing their numbers up on the scoresheet (which was funny because Joey, another great ref, was white and Danny, African American). I remained friendly with both men long after I left the Miami Heat in 1990. After a tough game, the crew could be found at their hotel bar discussing the game they’d just reffed and, if I was in the same town, we would talk basketball until 2 or 3 am.
Cleveland Cavaliers star Lebron James just played in his 7th straight NBA Finals. He has nothing though on Danny. Crawford just completed his 23rd straight NBA Finals. He worked the blowout Game One in San Francisco. The closest referee to his streak is Mike Callahan with 14.
Players and teams are eliminated from playoffs over time. So are referees. Of 64 fll-time NBA refs, only the 21 best work The Finals. An LA Times poll anonymously asked 36 players and coaches, “who were ‘The Best NBA referees.’” They gave Danny Crawford 30 votes in 1st place, Joey had 25 at number 2, and Monty McCutchen was 3rd with 13. Danny knew it was time to leave on a high note, as did Joey.
It’s time for me also to hang up the sneakers and retire from a game I’ve loved since I was seven watching Bill Russell and Bob Cousy on a 12” Black and White telly. For 29-years I cherished friendships in four countries and tried to follow their example, temperament and advice: Be myself. Constantly improve. Love the game. Respect everyone playing it. Bring your best every night. And never, EVER stop learning.
Like poker, basketball is only mastered through failure. I treated every game and situation as if it was my last. As Phil Parry reported here, I was angry with serial favouritism, ageism and pure meanness of the selection process for Basketball Wales’ April Finals. I fought the good fight, then said ‘screw it.’
I debated dropping out, then went to Basketball England’s ‘Polly’ Referee Camp. It was liberating, grueling and the feedback superb. With nothing to prove, I immersed myself and enjoyed it fully. On the last day, I was one of five in a camp of thirty-two (GB Masters’ core officiating group who work all year got most of the slots), nominated to referee one of eight Final trophy games. It was an honour. This was MY NBA Finals. And what a great game. Fully in the moment, I enjoyed every second with former NBA stars running up and down the court for the Cup.
Back home I faced a choice. Begin training with a chip on my shoulder and fight Basketball Wales all season… or not. I could be former NBA ref Mike Matthis (whipping boy of Darrell Garretson, NBA official’s chief in the ‘90s) to the current BW leadership… or not. All summer the question persisted… “why, work my ass off to prove to a bunch of people who don’t think I belong, that I deserved to be there?” That was just masochistic and more than a little dumb.
So, adieu. It was a helluva ride down an impossible road to acceptance as a stranger in a strange land. I persisted, had no local team affiliation, never kissed an ass in my life and… was not about to start. Just let my on-court work speak for itself.
Only one question remained after Camp. “Leave the game on a high like Danny and Joey. Keep the great memories of 29-seasons… or spend another season fighting a closed system for relevance?”
It was a simple. I’d had a good innings. It was time to stop beating my head against a parochial slate wall.
I’m grateful to many of my fellow refs over the last dozen years in Wales and England, the coaches who work so hard and (mostly) keep their cool, the few super fans who love the game and bantered with me and, of course, the players who leave it ALL on the court every night.
They knew I’d be tough, but fair. They knew the game would be well-managed. And we all knew the single most important thing that night, was those next 90-minutes on court.
Thanks to Phil Parry and the team at The Eye for their efforts to expose cronyism, ageism and xenophobia inside Basketball Wales. I remain very grateful you thought there was a story there.
You can read Phil’s original stories here:
And Edwin Phillips’ satirical commentary:
A Load of Balls from July