NAPERVILLE — This is a story about a man who's always seemed to be at the right place at the right time, honoring a man who was at the wrong place at the most wrong of times.
Danny Crawford, an NBA referee since 1985 who has worked at least one NBA Finals game each season since 1995, credits his incredible career to that mantra: right place, right time.
On Aug. 19, as he's done every year for decades, he will play a round in the Chuck Kane Memorial Golf Outing, a fundraiser that salutes Kane, the first athletic director and golf coach at Crawford's alma mater, Northeastern Illinois University. Crawford was one of the first recipients of the Chuck Kane Memorial Scholarship, and he was on the NEIU campus on June 29, 1972, when Kane was shot and killed by a student in a murder-suicide, leaving behind a wife and four daughters.
"I was there when their father was killed," Crawford, 59, said. "I think I just owe it to the family, to Northeastern, to go to the event every year."
From the West Side to the NBA
Crawford grew up on the tough streets of East Garfield Park on the West Side of Chicago. When he was 5 or 6, he recalls a man pulling a knife on him, trying to rob him of money he wanted to spend at a nearby candy store. Crawford was able to run away.
He attended Ryerson Elementary School when schools across the city were being integrated and fights between classmates were common. After Martin Luther King Jr. was fatally shot in 1968, Crawford watched riots destroy the department stores in his neighborhood and then realized those stores would never return.
"People didn't realize what they were doing to their community," said Crawford, who was a basketball star at the now defunct Cregier High School.
So by the time he enrolled at Northeastern, Crawford had been hardened into a man who could withstand and absorb the screams of thousands of angry fans focusing negative energy his way — a perfect mold for an official.
But Crawford, who was the crew chief for Game 7 of this year's NBA Finals — the highest honor in the game — had no intentions of reffing as a career. As a guard, Crawford played hoops for NEIU, averaging 18 points as a sophomore. He majored in physical education, with hopes of becoming a gym teacher.
Officiating was something he did on the side, for rec games and intramurals, to make a little extra cash while he was a student-teacher.
It turned out Crawford was quite good at his auxiliary occupation. After a rec tournament hosted by former Loyola University men's basketball coach George Ireland in which Crawford worked a few games, Ireland told him "he was the best ref he had seen this year, and that he had a future in officiating," said Crawford's longtime friend and former NEIU athletic department member Larry Bernstein.
That put a bug in the ear of Crawford, who eventually gave up on his teaching quest and put all his chips into zebra-striped apparel. He started with high schools, and gained enough kudos to work the city championship game at the University of Illinois at Chicago. There, a man named Bob Secres, who was in charge of assigning officials for a national junior college tournament in Kansas, watched Crawford and invited him to the college circuit.
Crawford would officiate the juco tourney's championship game, where he was noticed by Johnny Overby, who hired refs for the Missouri Valley Conference and promoted Crawford to Division I hoops.
"As a referee, you work hard every time you get on the floor. You owe it to yourself and you owe it to the game, but you also never know who's watching," Crawford said. "I was at the right place, and I was prepared for the opportunity. That is the key ... and just being lucky."
Crawford quested to become a Big Ten official, and he never even thought about the NBA until 1982, when he received a random phone call from friend Art White, who ran pro-am basketball events. White said there would be a camp at UIC looking for prospective NBA officials.
"If this camp had been in Detroit or Seattle, I wouldn't have gone and I wouldn't be an NBA referee to this day," Crawford said. "And this was before cell phones, and I didn't have an answering machine, so if I had missed that telephone call, I wouldn't have gone."
But the camp was in the Windy City and Crawford did pick up the phone. At the camp, he impressed veteran NBA ref Darell Garretson, who hired Crawford to officiate at NBA summer league games for three years before Crawford was made a full-time official in 1985.
He's been a part of some of the most important games in NBA history. He was on the floor for Michael Jordan's 38-point performance in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals — "The Flu Game" because Jordan had a severe case of stomach flu, and Crawford was told by security officials that MJ might need the refs' locker room before the game to throw up. He was back in Utah for Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, when Jordan's late shot sent the Bulls to their sixth title in eight years.
"He's a consummate professional," said Hales Franciscan High School graduate and fellow NBA official James Capers, who worked Game 3 of this year's NBA Finals with Crawford. "His play-calling is exceptional. Tough plays are easy for him."
His best friend, former NFL back judge and line judge Richard Reels, said the key to Crawford's success has been his intensity and his precision on the court.
"Even being his friend, and I can say this in all sincerity, Danny is definitely the best official in the NBA, by far," said Reels, a Calumet High School and Chicago State University graduate.
Said Crawford: "I just truly know how blessed I am for being at the right place at the right time and doing the right thing."
Shot over a failing grade
Then there is the other, sadder sign of the coin.
June 29, 1972, was scheduled to be Chuck Kane's last day of the school year at NEIU. The next day, he was planning to take his wife, Virginia, and two of their children — 12-year-old twins Mary and Madeleine — to Europe in a drive around the continent.
He had stopped in his athletic department office to finish up some paperwork.
As he was wrapping up, a student he had failed in his adult swimming class, 38-year-old Nathaniel Allen, walked in and shot Kane twice in the head before killing himself with a gunshot to the head.
"It's so incredibly pointless," said Kane's daughter, Liz, now 62. "My dad wasn't even supposed to be there. The semester was over."
Kane had failed Allen because he hadn't come to class and didn't take any of the tests. After Allen received the "F," he had promised retaliation, but no one thought it would result in a murder-suicide.
Kane had grown up in Marquette Park on the city's South Side, was a basketball and baseball player at Chicago Teachers College (now Chicago State) and taught at Gage Park High School before coming to NEIU. In a tribute column in the Chicago Sun-Times on Aug. 11, 1972, legendary sportswriter Bill Gleason, who was a friend of Kane, said "we high school kids hero-worshipped Kane because ... we admired these guys who were determined to become teachers and coaches."
With two bullets in his head — there were no exit wounds, Liz Kane said — Kane lived for eight days before dying.
"That was eight days of hell," Liz Kane said. "He fought it as long as he could."
Bernstein, who was outside the athletic building when Kane was shot, still has a hard time talking about the incident. NEIU music teacher Elyse Mach, the last of the current employees who was there that day, said there "was a horror and disbelief that such a horrible thing could take place on our campus."
Crawford, who was also on campus and knew Allen — "he was a crazy dude ... boy," he said — could not believe a teacher had been assassinated.
"It was shocking that a student could do that to an instructor," he said. "When you grow up, you grow up to respect authority. Teachers are authorities and you fear teachers, which is why you do well in school and behave in school.
"When that happened to Mr. Kane, it was shocking that someone would disrespect an authority like that."
A "horrible" golfer having fun
Bernstein said the only positive thing to come from Kane's death was the yearly golf tournament that raised scholarship money for NEIU students.
The event began in 1973 and has awarded about 100 scholarships, one of the first going to Crawford.
"He's like the perfect Kane Scholar," Liz Kane said of Crawford. "This is somebody who's genuine and outstanding at what he does and committed to his craft and fun to be around."
Crawford is a self-described "horrible" golfer. Crawford's son, Drew, a star guard on Northwestern's basketball squad, says his dad prepares for the event each year by hitting the driving range, but it doesn't pay off.
"He tends to struggle with the golf aspect of things, but he always loves the camaraderie," Drew Crawford said jokingly.
Crawford has been a fixture at the Kane outing for at least 30 years. He always says hello and "thank you" to Liz Kane, who had a hole-in-one on the 16th hole of the 1995 event, and her sisters.
"He's so grateful," Liz Kane said. "I've heard he's not 'Mr. Golfer,' but he comes to the thing every year, giving back and telling us how important it was for him to get" the Kane Scholarship.
Crawford knows he has had a charmed life. He spends the offseason decompressing, spending as many as six hours a day gardening in the half-acre backyard of his family's Naperville home. He's thought of the outside possibility of having to ref one of his son's games in the NBA, which would be a first in league history.
He calls his experiences at Northeastern "some of the best years of my life." If it hadn't been for the school, he never would have been introduced to "this refereeing thing" and, in turn, never would have become one of the game's top men in stripes.
And, for Crawford, paying homage to Chuck Kane each year is always the right place to be, at the right time.
The Chuck Kane Memorial Golf Outing is Aug. 19 at Highland Park Country Club. For more information, call 773-442-4210 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.