A framed photograph of Michael Jordan’s iconic final shot as a member of the Chicago Bulls greets people as they step inside the home of retired NBA referee Danny Crawford. The clock reads 6.6 seconds, the ball has just been released and the reactions — not the relevance — are why Crawford chose to purchase the image. Utah Jazz fans are panicking, grimacing and covering their eyes and heads in anticipation of doom. A few Bulls fans are scattered in the crowd and already raising their hands, expecting Jordan to deliver as he so often did.
“It’s a nice conversation piece,” Crawford told Yahoo Sports in a recent telephone interview. “You’ve got some people, you can probably tell they’re yelling, ‘Oh, [expletive]!’ It was a heck of a game, that’s for sure.”
Crawford is nowhere to be found in the snapshot, but he was there 20 years ago Thursday — near the right baseline, a few feet back from the action — as part of the three-man officiating crew presiding over a game that remains unforgettable because of its significance in NBA history and the controversy that will never go away. Ask him what it felt like to be on the floor for Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, when Jordan flicked aside Bryon Russell, rose up and struck a pose for all eternity, and Crawford acknowledges that the environment wasn’t for the faint of heart.
“Those fans are some of the toughest fans in the NBA back then. They’ve mellowed out somewhat, but they’re still a tough group, they’re still a tough crowd. Back then, when Karl Malone and [John] Stockton and those guys were playing, that was one of the, if not the, toughest places to referee in. You can imagine how it was in an NBA Finals game,” Crawford told Yahoo Sports. “The way they screamed at the refs, they were not nice people, because they were crazy about their Jazz. So, you’ve got an intense game. You’re in a building that’s one of the toughest crowds in the NBA, and you’ve got a close game, and it’s Michael Jordan and the Bulls, and Utah played them in some tough, memorable Finals games. It would test your courage.”
The Bulls were staging their final run as a dynasty, and Jordan had been challenged like never before, carrying the team in unusually inefficient fashion with Scottie Pippen injured for a good portion of the season. Chicago arrived in Salt Lake City with a 3-2 lead, but the situation was tenuous with Pippen still nursing a bad back. Avoiding a Game 7 was imperative, so Jordan pulled off a one-man, mad rally in the final 42 seconds to set up what should’ve been the storybook ending to his legendary career. Jordan brought the Bulls within one with a layup, then stripped Malone and dribbled the ball up for the floor before the defense was allowed to fully set. Russell slid in front of Jordan to impede his drive, but the rest helped cement Jordan’s status as the greatest in the eyes of many. Jordan nailed his 25th career game-winning shot with 5.2 seconds remaining to finish with 45 points.
Only Crawford, the late Hue Hollins and Dick Bavetta had the power to ruin that moment by assessing Jordan with an offensive foul, but all three held their whistles as Russell stumbled clumsily out of the way. Hollins, who was under the basket, died in 2013. Bavetta, who had the best angle on the left side of the court, declined an interview through his spokesperson. So that leaves Crawford, who didn’t notice anything unusual about the sequence that led to Jordan getting a clean look at the rim in the closing seconds of the series-clinching jumper that secured the Bulls’ sixth championship.
“From my vantage point, I just saw Michael going hard and I saw him stop on a dime and Russell was retreating,” Crawford told Yahoo Sports. “An offensive player always has an advantage because he knows when he’s going to stop and he knows when he’s going to go real hard. The defender is trying to guess what the offensive player is going to do. Obviously, I saw Russell still going backwards a couple more steps and Michael pulls up and shoots the shot.
“You have one-tenth of a second or two to make a decision, and it all depends on if you clearly saw the whole play,” Crawford told Yahoo Sports. “That was in transition. So in a transition play, everybody is busting their butts to get up the court. So, your eyes are bouncing. It all depends on how early you got to whatever happened to determine if you’re going to blow the whistle on something you saw — not thought you saw — that you saw. And it wasn’t an egregious play where you thought, ‘Oh, no. You can’t do that.’ It was a tough play that could go either way.”
In the days and years that have followed, Crawford came to understand that the excessive boos and hot-tempered venom the officiating crew received as it exited the court was rooted in more than just Salt Lake City fans being more animated than others. They felt wronged by the non-call — a non-call that continues to frustrate Russell to this day. Crawford doesn’t believe that a mistake was made on that night, only that the decision to hold the whistle was debatable.
“It’s a controversial play, no matter what you do with it. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Crawford told Yahoo Sports. “That’s the beauty of being a referee. That’s our job. We’re put in the position where we’re going to be criticized, no matter what. Because of a play like that. That’s our job and we understand it, and we try to do the best that we can to be consistent and to be right.”
During his prime, Jordan was perceived by his peers and the fan bases of opposing teams to have an unfair influence over referees. Conspiracy theorists would contend that Jordan got all of the calls and was granted favorable treatment given his status in the game. Though he lived in Chicago and would later become one of the select few referees asked to handle Jordan’s fantasy camp in Las Vegas, Crawford experienced backlash from the other side as well.
“Every time I used to see Michael, he just said, ‘That’s the referee that never gave me any calls.’ He always thought that I screwed him,” Crawford said. “But that’s just Mike, talking in his competitive way. He never thought I gave him calls or that I was fair to him, believe it or not. I always said, ‘Mike, I only gave you what you deserve.’ It would be my response to him.”
Crawford doesn’t hear as much about that play as he did a decade or so ago, when he could hardly go anywhere without someone bringing up Jordan’s Game 6 shot. But he can’t avoid the conversation whenever someone enters his home for the first time and recognizes the photograph. That play still stokes passions on both sides. “Whenever I hang out with buddies of mine — and they’re all hoopsters — and that particular play comes up, there is a debate. Just like there is with anything that’s close. There is no right answer. If you look at that play, it’s no different than people saying who is the greatest player of all time right now. It’s up for debate and subjective. You can argue about it and nobody is right or wrong. … I think if you get a group in the room and talk about it, you’re going to have 50/50 on that play every time. So, try refereeing that? Get a group of referees in a room and you’ll get the exact same thing.”
The 1998 NBA Finals were the fifth in a string of 23 consecutive Finals appearances for Crawford, one of the more respected officials during his 32 years with the league. Crawford retired last summer and said he doesn’t miss the game, which is believable because this interview was conducted upon his return from a Mediterranean cruise. “I made a decision to walk away from it healthy. And not only healthy, on top of my game. I left not being run out,” Crawford told Yahoo Sports with a laugh. “That’s the ideal way. I had a nice run and I just felt it was time. The game is getting faster and I’m not getting faster. You can take that to the bank. I just thought it was an appropriate time to say, ‘I had a nice run. See you later.’ ”
And no matter what, Crawford will always be connected to one of the most memorable shots ever taken, and one of the most debatable whistles never blown. Before getting off the phone, Crawford had a question of his own about the play: “What did you think?”
More from Yahoo Sports:
• World Cup: Russian lawmaker discourages sex with foreigners
• ’He quit’: LeBron James gets ripped by ex-NBAer Stephen Jackson
• Hall of Fame coach, women’s basketball icon Anne Donovan dies at 56
• Maryland OL dies days after post-workout hospitalization