Yelled at, spit on and insulted: Inside the life of an NBA ref

Joey Guidone

LAS VEGAS -- The job description never wavers: Stride into a building where thousands of screeching strangers are predisposed to loathe you -- even though they have never met you and often don't know your name. You cannot blend in, attempt to be inconspicuous, because that's counterintuitive to the job at hand, which is to resolutely wear the trademark stripes of a referee and maintain order in a hotly contested, highly charged NBA game.

This must be achieved while enraged fans spew venom about your mother, your face, your body, your sexuality, your profession. Coaches will bait you, players will defy you. Nobody is on your side except your fellow officials. It is a virtual guarantee that in the waning minutes of a tight game, you will make a call that will delight 50 percent of the crowd and incense the other 50 percent. And, seconds later, it's entirely possible the roles of those rabid fan bases will be reversed, leading the entire arena on a roller-coaster ride of heated emotions.

"Before you get hired,'' explains NBA referee Marc Davis, "they take a body scan, and right below your heart there's a little vacuous spot. That's where your feelings go. If it's empty there, then you are an NBA ref."

Dr. Joel Fish, a sports psychologist and director of the Center for Sport Psychology in Philadelphia, has worked with NBA referees and says the unique setting of their workplace leads to a cumulative level of stress that can have both short-term and long-term implications. "We're not talking about the kind of stress that goes away after a good night's sleep,'' Fish says.

The advance of sophisticated technology, along with two-minute reports released after every game, has only added to the scrutiny of the officials. Fish counsels the referees on how to control their emotions by determining three to five "trigger points" that may set them off. Maybe it's a player who constantly complains about calls or a coach who uses specific language to antagonize the official or a slur from a fan that a referee finds particularly objectionable.

"These people are humans, not robots,'' Fish says. "They have feelings. So we work on identifying what might set them off and how they can avoid that from happening. It's almost like a rehearsal, so when they are challenged, it's nothing they haven't anticipated.

"Sometimes it's a matter of positive self-talk. The fans are yelling, 'Ref, you suck!' and the referee is thinking, 'I'm having some self-doubt.' So you work on getting him or her to a point where they can say, 'I trust myself.'"

Fish talks with the referees about de-escalating potentially explosive encounters by relaxing their body language, taking deep breaths, or even lowering their voices and speaking more slowly.

Dr. William Parham, the newly appointed director of the players' union mental health and wellness program, has also worked with NBA officials and says the best way to help them is to examine their path to the profession. "You can't understand the environment [of a referee] without getting a sense of the person behind the stripes," Parham says.

"We're not talking about the kind of stress that goes away after a good night's sleep." Dr. Joel Fish, sports psychologist

Davis says the input of Parham and others has made a nearly impossible job more palatable, but it can't alter the landscape.

"It's going to come," Davis says. "And if it bothers you, you won't make it.''

Legendary referee Joey Crawford almost didn't. He was simultaneously one of the most feared, respected and controversial officials in NBA history. He was on the floor for 2,561 career games, 374 playoff contests and 50 NBA Finals appearances, yet, by his own admission, he was perpetually one step away from a career-ending implosion.

On April 18, 2007, commissioner David Stern took the unprecedented step of suspending Crawford for the remainder of the season -- and the playoffs -- for tossing San Antonio Spurs big man Tim Duncan because Duncan laughed sarcastically on the bench after a call Crawford made against the Spurs. One minute and 16 seconds earlier, Crawford had tagged Duncan with a technical for arguing an offensive foul.

As Duncan snickered on the bench, Crawford stomped angrily toward him. The two exchanged barbs, and Duncan later claimed Crawford challenged him to a fight. "He has a personal vendetta against me,'' Duncan said at the time.

Crawford's response to Duncan, coupled with previous incidents in which he lost his composure, left his career hanging in the balance.

Crawford tells ESPN that if not for his relationship with Fish, who started working with him in the wake of the Duncan incident, he likely would have lost his job.

This is Crawford's first-person account of his journey toward mental wellness.

MORE: Part 5 -- The future of mental health in the NBA

"I've been retired a while, but I'm still stunned by the insanity of [how people treat officials]. I'm involved with women's AAU basketball in Philadelphia these days, and we go to tournaments, and we see these crazy parents. Everyone is acting out of control over a game between 10-year-olds. We tell our parents, 'Don't holler at referees,' but clearly not everyone else is getting the message.

Back in the early days (1977), when I was first starting out in the NBA, we used to scream and holler at coaches, and the coaches would scream and holler back. You just did it. Players, too. That's how it worked. The older guys who were reffing at that time told us, 'You have to do it this way.' If you didn't, you were the exception. When I was doing a game with Earl Strom, I better act just the way he did -- or else. The next night, when I was on the floor with Jake O'Donnell, I had to be like him. If you didn't, they'd jump on you. You'd be ostracized. Besides, that other kind officiating -- you know, calm, reasonable -- didn't work back then. It just didn't work.

You go through a lot as an official. It's a pressure cooker, every game, every night. Everyone has a beef with you -- coaches, players, fans.

Once I was spit on. That was the worst. It was in Golden State, in the mid-'90s, back when it was called the Oakland Alameda Arena. I was working with Billy Spooner, and he made a big call in the last minute. I don't remember the specifics. I just remember as we were walking out, a guy spit at me. He hit me right on the side of my face. If I could have gotten to him, I would have killed him. The cops were escorting us out of the arena, so they kept me from having that chance.

I never really minded the name-calling all that much. I guess when we went through the tax-evasion thing [Crawford was one of dozens of referees who were investigated by the IRS in the mid-'90s for swapping first-class airline tickets for cash and avoiding payment of income taxes on the difference], I got a little sensitive when people called me a convict. That bothered me. I didn't show it, but there was something deep in my belly that got churned up by that.

"Once I was spit on. That was the worst." Former NBA referee Joey Crawford

My problem was my anger. I was trying to deal with why I was getting so angry on the court. [Retired veteran official] Wally Rooney told me, 'Joey, they're not hollering at you, they're hollering at the shirt.' I couldn't get that in my head. It used to bother me that some guy was screaming at me when he didn't know anything about what we did.

But my biggest issue was when I made a mistake on the court. I knew when I blew a call, and I was so angry at myself, I'd lose it. It was weird. I'd watch myself afterwards on film, and just put my head in my hands, because I couldn't believe how I behaved.

One of the worst ones I ever had was in Minnesota on the way to the locker room at halftime. [Coach] Flip Saunders, God rest his soul, was screaming at us, and I just lost it. I unloaded on him. I walked into the locker room with [referees] Bennie Adams and Luis Grillo, and I asked them, 'What did I just say?' They looked and me and told me, 'It's not good.'

I screamed at Flip, and I don't even remember what I said. That's obviously very bad. What happened back in those days was they kept it very, very quiet from the public and the media, but I was fined. David Stern was so ticked at me. He told me, 'Joey, I'm not going to stand for this. You better figure this out.'

It led up to the Duncan suspension, because these incidents were building up in my file. 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.

The Duncan incident was in 2007. Duncan was sitting on the bench laughing. And I threw him. That laugh bothered me. I thought it was incredibly disrespectful. But I knew the minute it happened I was gonna be in trouble.

[The suspension] was a big deal. It really shook me. That's when I realized, 'I gotta do something about this.' I had to talk to a professional to help me deal with all the anger.

Stern suspended me for the rest of the season. I thought there was a good chance my career might be over. Stern orders me to go see a Park Avenue psychiatrist. He tells me to go twice -- two hours each session. This guy is going to make a determination on whether I'm crazy or not. I go up, and I'm scared to death. I've already been fined $100,000. I'm in a suit, and I've got sweat all the way down to my belt. So, this psychiatrist didn't know a basketball from a volleyball. After two hours, he says, 'OK, we're all done.' I said, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa! I'm supposed to come another day for another couple of hours. Have you already decided I'm crazy?' He said, 'You're not nuts.' I said, 'Well, what am I? What's my problem?' He said, 'You're overly passionate about your job.' I thought, 'OK, I can live with that diagnosis!'

"If you have something going on, why not talk to a professional?" Former NBA referee Joey Crawford

The problem was my aggression. I took it to the ninth degree. I was too wrapped up in it.

It was affecting my family, too. I was taking it home with me. I wasn't a beater or anything, but my family was one of the reasons I went [to counseling]. When I got suspended, my family was so upset. It made all the papers; it was all over the place. People were talking about it. It was incredibly embarrassing.

It was a really tough time, but my fellow refs got me through it. They knew I wasn't working the playoffs, and they knew how horrible that was for me. They knew how nuts I was.

I ended up going to see Dr. Joel Fish in Philadelphia. Everybody in Philly in the sports world went to see him when they were having problems. The guy saved my career. I started seeing him a couple of times a week.

He would tell me, 'Joe, if you feel [the anger] coming on, just do something with your hands. Put them by your side or behind your back.' He told me, 'Keep reminding yourself, calm down, calm down. If somebody was getting on me about a bad call, he'd remind me, 'Slow your breathing down. Remind yourself you're a good ref.' Those things helped me get through my last 10 years in the NBA.

I've been retired since 2016, but I still have Joel Fish on speed dial. He's one of those guys that really grounds you. I can say anything to him. He knows me.

I've always fought that temper demon. When I was a kid, I'd strike out, I'd throw the bat, have a temper tantrum. Joel was the only guy who could talk to me in this voice, this calm voice, and tell me how insignificant the thing that I was getting angry at was. In my mind it meant a lot, but Joel made me realize in the grand scheme of things, [a blown call] isn't that big of a deal.

Whenever I had one of those blow-ups, I was never happy with myself. I would come down quick, back to being myself, and I'd say, 'Why did I say that to my wife? Why did I say that to my daughter?' I wanted to know why I did those things. Joel really helped me understand. He showed me a way to get through it.

I admire these players who have come out and shared their stories about their issues with anger, anxiety, depression. I really do. My mom was a depressed person. She tried to commit suicide a couple of times. She was a great lady, but she really struggled.

When you look back on it as an adult, you say, 'Wow, that was serious stuff. That was a real thing.' But when I was in my teens and my 20s, I didn't get it. I used to think, 'What the hell does she have to be depressed about?'

My mother was a very private lady. She stayed with my father, even though their marriage wasn't the greatest in the world, and I'm sure that contributed to her depression. She went through a number of bad years. She tried to kill herself with pills.

I honestly don't know if she ever got help. I know one thing -- she was overmedicated. That's how they handled it back then. They threw the pills at you. When I was a kid, I used to walk down to the pharmacy and pick them up for her. I never knew what she was taking because the pills were in a paper bag, always stapled. My mom was an awesome lady, but her life was hard. My father was a major league baseball umpire. He was old-school; he didn't give a f---. His way of dealing with it was, 'You're freaking nuts, I gotta go on the road. I'll see you in six months.' And off he'd go.

I tell people all the time, 'If you have something going on, why not talk to a professional?' There's no shame in that. Better to deal with it head on. Talking to Joel Fish was the best decision of my life. I wish I had done it 25 years sooner.''

Part 5: The future of mental health in the NBA