Why an NBA Ref Challenged Tim Duncan to a Fight Then Got Suspended and Sent to Therapy

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Tim Duncan

In Tim Duncan’s 19-year Hall of Fame career, he got ejected twice. The most memorable incident happened late in the 2007 season. What happened after the ejection was more surprising as the referee who ejected Duncan was fined $100,000 and sent to mandatory counseling. Here’s a look at what happened.

Ref gives Tim Duncan technical for laughing

At the close of the 2007 regular season, in which the San Antonio Spurs would eventually win the NBA title, Duncan and the Spurs played a road game against the Dallas Mavericks. With a little over three minutes remaining in the third period, referee Joey Crawford, a 31-year veteran official, called a technical foul on Duncan who was sitting on the bench.

Two minutes later, Duncan reacted to a call made on the floor with a big laugh, pulling a towel up over his head. Crawford didn’t like the move and called a second technical foul and ejection of Duncan. The Spurs power forward later said Crawford had a beef with him that night for some reason and shockingly even challenged him to a fight.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Do you want to fight?'” Duncan told ESPN. “If he wants to fight, we can fight. I don’t have any problem with him, but we can do it if he wants to.”

NBA fines Duncan and suspends Crawford

Tim Duncan
Tim Duncan and Joey Crawford talks to Gregg Popovich. | Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

The NBA fined Duncan $25,000 for what it described as verbal abuse of an official. Then-NBA Commissioner David Stern viewed Crawford’s behavior as much more problematic and not only fined the official $100,000, but suspended him indefinitely. 

“Especially in light of similar prior acts by this official, a significant suspension is warranted,” Stern said in a statement. “Although Joey is consistently rated as one of our top referees, he must be held accountable for his actions on the floor, and we will have further discussions with him following the season to be sure he understands his responsibilities.”

At the time, Crawford responded somewhat defiantly, indicating he would eject Duncan again if the circumstances were the same. He also e-mailed the league saying, “if my employer does not think that was acceptable, I have a problem” working in the future.

Crawford took a more conciliatory tone later when he wrote to Bloomberg News suggesting the suspension might mean the end of his career. 

“Please do not be sad for me. I have had a great run and a great career and nobody will ever take that away from me.”

Joey Crawford gets counseling 

What wasn’t initially reported but revealed later, Stern also ordered Crawford to see a psychiatrist. Crawford told ESPN he was apprehensive at first but eventually relented understanding the move could save his career. 

“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.”

In the first session, the psychiatrist told Crawford he wasn’t crazy but overly passionate about his job. Eventually, Crawford started seeing another doctor in Philadelphia a couple of times a week who offered him tips on what to do when he felt the anger coming on.

“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.”

Crawford returned to referee the next season and continued for the next decade. He was forever linked to that one ejection of Tim Duncan in Dallas in 2007. Interestingly, Crawford retired in 2016, the same year as Tim Duncan.