Reaction in and around San Antonio to the news that NBA commissioner David Stern suspended referee Joey Crawford for the entire run of the playoffs seemed universally gleeful.
Spurs fans should think twice before starting Fiesta a few days early in celebration of what seems like a victory for Duncan and the Spurs over the referee.
See, the officiating in the playoffs just got a little worse. You don't take one of the league's best refs out of the playoff rotation without diminishing the overall quality.
Keep that in mind when a Spurs player — Duncan, say — is whistled for a questionable foul in crunch time during the Spurs' first-round series against the Nuggets.
A basketball executive from a Western Conference team — not a Spur — phoned me Tuesday afternoon and began our conversation with a reminder and a warning: "If Tim thinks he had a hard time staying on the court in Athens (during the 2004 Olympics), wait until two or three of those Philadelphia refs show up to work one of the Spurs' playoff games. (Spurs trainer) Will Sevening had better make sure Tim doesn't catch a cold, because if he sneezes in one of those refs' direction, he's apt to get a tech."
Philadelphia-born-and-raised Crawford has been something of a godfather to several NBA refs from the Philly area who came into the league's officiating pool with his encouragement and tutelage. Some of them annually work deep into the playoffs, including Steve Javie (18 NBA Finals games) and Mike Callahan (five NBA Finals games).
More than a few NBA executives were shocked by Crawford's suspension. None was willing to risk Stern's wrath by speaking on the record. One of them could not believe Stern would make the officials the center of attention just as the playoffs were about to begin and wondered what form of protest the referees might choose to show Crawford they support him.
Crawford is very popular among his peers, who can't be happy with Stern's harsh punishment. If the refs, as a group, were willing to wear former referee Michael Henderson's number on their uniforms one night as a show of support after Henderson was suspended for making an obviously wrong call that changed the outcome of a game between the Lakers and Nuggets in 2004, imagine their outrage now.
After all, Henderson is to Crawford as Jason Collins is to Duncan.
This isn't the first time an excellent referee has gotten himself in hot water for what seemed a personal feud with a player. In 1995, Jake O'Donnell, who was regarded as the league's best, threw Houston's Clyde Drexler out of a playoff game in the first quarter.
There was a history of enmity between the two that had reached a point at which neither would shake the other's hand at the pregame captain's meeting. Drexler did not like O'Donnell, and O'Donnell considered Drexler a chronic whiner.
After that quick ejection, the league took the same action against O'Donnell it has taken against Crawford. The ref who had called 23 consecutive NBA Finals did not work another playoff game that season. Then, the league did not announce that O'Donnell had been suspended. Rather, suspension took the form of not assigning O'Donnell to work any more games. He was paid for working the first three rounds, though he did not work past the second.
The league could call it whatever it liked, but it was a de facto suspension, and plenty of writers pointed out the inconvenient truth.
O'Donnell retired not long after, never to work another NBA game. And while all parties, O'Donnell included, insist the league did not push him out the door, his permanent departure remains suspicious.
Now there are inferences, including from Stern and from Crawford himself, that Crawford will retire. Crawford has communicated to colleagues that he would treat Duncan the same way were Sunday's situation to repeat itself in the future, and that if his employer doesn't like that, then he has a problem returning to refereeing. He told his colleagues not to feel sad for him, according to ESPN.com, which got copies of Crawford's e-mails.
Sounds like a guy resigned to resignation.
Say it ain't so, Joey.
Even Duncan prefers you to whichever muscle-bound automaton from the NBDL is apt to replace you.