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Crowley reflects on legendary officiating career

For 35 years, Mickey Crowley ran up and down the basketball court as a referee, officiating in some of the biggest college basketball games in the country.

Mickey Crowley stands in a room in his house that highlights the accomplishments in his officiating career. He is standing in front of pictures of Crowley with Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan, Bob Knight, John Chaney and Mike Krzyzewski.
Now, the 83-year-old sits in his Carolina room at his home in Crow Creek and watches a squirrel run back and forth in the backyard.
Crowley, a native of Queens, N.Y., is a member of six halls of fame and is widely regarded as one of the best college basketball officials of all time.
He spent his adult years rubbing elbows with some of the game’s finest coaches and players, including Patrick Ewing, John Thompson, Grant Hill, Mike Krzyzewski, Chris Mullin, Lou Carnesecca, P.J. Carlisemo, Rollie Massimino and John Chaney, among others, and that wasn’t even his full-time job.
For many years, his full-time gig was as a Nassau County administrator who assigned officials for hundreds of high school, college and junior college sporting events. He also recently released an autobiography, “Throw the Ball High,” which he wrote with Ralph Wimbish, a former assistant sports editor of the New York Post. Now, Crowley enjoys his beautiful home in Crow Creek and cherishes the time he gets to spend with his wife, Pat.
“God gives everybody a certain talent,” Crowley said during a July 14 interview. “He didn’t give me good looks. He certainly didn’t give me a good body. He gave me the gift of gab.”
That gift is what made him a successful college basketball official, Crowley said. “What makes a great college basketball official,” Crowley said. “What makes a great official is what you’re doing right now. That pen or notebook doesn’t make someone a good reporter. It’s how you handle people. It’s how you talk to people. It’s how you get the best out of people. I had the gift of gab, or the gift of bull (expletive), whatever you want to call it,” he said, smiling.
Throughout his career, Crowley didn’t issue many technical fouls, but he did get in some trouble of his own as a youngster.
On one occasion, Crowley was caught climbing up an apple tree and stealing fruit. A city policeman walked him back to his parents’ house and down a long hallway into a back room where his father was stationed every night. “My father was a big, tough ol’ Irishman,” he said. “The cop brings me home by the collar (of my shirt). My dad gave me such a good shot, he hit me so hard it knocked me back to the apple tree.” He attended LaSalle Academy, a New York City high school, and later went to Fordham “for three-and-a-half hours,” Crowley said jokingly.
He had a rather inauspicious beginning in the officiating world. “At the end of the school day, at 2:15 p.m., the principal would announce the names of the kids who would report to detention in the school gym after school,” Crowley said. “I was always the first name on the list.” The school official who manned the after-school detention would host basketball games in the school gymnasium, so one day he threw Crowley a whistle.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” Crowley asked.
“You’re going to referee,” the teacher said.
“That’s how it all began,” Crowley said. “All the way up through the college ranks.”
Humble beginnings
Crowley wasn’t officiating the marquee, nationally televised games from the beginning. In fact, he also umpired baseball games during his early days as an official. He remembers one game in particular, a contest between Fairleigh Dickinson and Fordham that lasted four-and-a-half hours in 90-degree heat. “They paid me $1.50 per game,” Crowley said. At the time, Crowley was working for a company that delivered nails.
“We’d deliver nails, 100-pound kegs of nails,” he said. “When I left the Army, that’s what I did. I’d carry a 100-pound keg of nails up three flights of stairs, and now I can’t go up one flight of stairs with nothing on my shoulder.” Nineteen years later, the company went out of business and Crowley lost $95,000 in his pension fund.
“Gone, just like that,” he said, snapping his fingers. “I had to get a job. Pat and I had three or four kids at the time.” Nassau County schools hired Crowley as its assistant executive director of officiating. “I got off to a rough start,” he said. “I had one situation (in which) an umpire got in a car accident on his way to a baseball game and this was 20 minutes before 4 p.m. So I got on the phone and called another official and told him to get to the school. This guy gets there and my phone rings. It’s the official and he tells me he has a problem. I said, ‘What’s the problem?’ And the official tells me he’s a lacrosse official and this is a baseball game. You know what I told him? ‘Call the bases. You’ll be fine.’”
A rise to the top
Through his connections in the New York high school basketball ranks, Crowley began officiating junior college games and games at the Division II and III levels. He eventually became one of the nation’s premier referees and was a fixture on the hardwood at Big East games in the 1980s.
“If you’re working with guys like John Thompson, Louie Carnesecca and P.J. Carlisemo, you better have the gift of gab,” Crowley said. “Let me tell you.”
As great as Crowley was as an official, he’s nearly as gifted as a storyteller. “I go to referee the Great Alaskan Shootout (in Anchorage) and I’ve asked them to hire me a bush pilot to take me to and from the tournament,” he said. “They had to blow an air horn when we got there and I wondered what that was all about. They blew the air horn to get the caribou off the runway. True story.” Crowley has officiated thousands of college basketball games, but he’s worked more St. John’s games than anyone.
“The old joke is that I won more games for St. John’s than (Hall of Fame coach) Lou Carnesecca,” Crowley said. The longtime official remembers one instance when he returned from an out-of-town tournament and he forgot his black referee pants. “I had a game at St. John’s and all I had were my gray dress pants and my striped shirt,” he said. “We walk onto the court and Louie asks me, ‘What the (expletive) is that?’ I said to him, ‘You didn’t get the directive?’ Louie says, ‘What (expletive) directive?’ So I told him, ‘The league just issued a new directive that the lead official will now wear gray pants.’ Louie says, ‘Great idea,’ and walks away. His next game, he walks up to the lead official and asks him where his gray pants are.”
Of course, there was no directive and Crowley was pulling one of nearly “thousands” fast ones on Carnesecca, one of the coaches he respects most.
“Those are the guys that I loved, the ones I had fun with,” Crowley said. “Tommy Penders, Bobby Knight, Ricky Pitino, John Chaney, Carnesecca, Bill Raftery, Jim Boeheim and Rollie (Massimino). I loved those guys.” There was no doubt Crowley was one of the best officials in the game.
Tim Higgins called hundreds of games with Crowley through the years. In “Throw the Ball High,” Higgins wrote about Crowley and the impact he made.
“Mickey was one of a kind,” he wrote. “There was never one like him; there never will be one again. He was just a great, great referee…When I was a young official, Mickey would get me through the games. When you were with Mickey, you were in good shape. He had a way with coaches. They trusted him, which is the key to officiating. No matter what he was selling, people bought it. He could do anything he wanted because you knew it would be good for the game.”
Crowley’s jokes were legendary in the college basketball world.
Massimino was giving Crowley a particularly hard time during a Villanova game in the 1980s, so Crowley walked over to the longtime head coach and asked him, “Rollie, how many people are in the Palestra right now?” “How the (expletive) do I know, Mickey? Twelve thousand, I don’t know.”
Crowley replied, “I wouldn’t want to yell at the referee in front of 12,000 people with my fly open.” Massimino checked his fly, saw that it was zipped shut, chuckled, cursed at Crowley and walked away.
He only issued “five or so” technical fouls in a long career of officiating. He would’ve whistled more “techs,” but he’d strike deals with coaches before the game got out of control. “Bill Raftery is coaching at Seton Hall and he throws his jacket off,” Crowley said. “He dressed like a millionaire. The inside of the jacket has all these colors. This thing is red, green, purple, yellow, all kinds of colors. I’m about to hit him with a tech and he starts pleading with me, ‘Please don’t give me a tech. Come on, let’s make a deal.’ I tell him to put his jacket on and sit there for the rest of the game without saying a word and I won’t give him a tech. He starts to turn the jacket from inside out to its normal way and I say, ‘No. No. You’re going to wear the jacket the way you threw it down. Raftery coaches the rest of the game with the lining of his jacket on the outside. He didn’t say a word the rest of the night.”
The key to officiating is “letting the players play,” Crowley said. “The game of basketball was not made for the referees,” he added. “You are not the main attraction It’s the players. The players are the main attraction. The coaches aren’t the main attraction, despite what they may think.” Crowley’s reputation in the coaching world earned him several trips overseas to officiate in international ball games, including stops in Puerto Rico and Yugoslavia.
“These guys think officiating is tough,” Crowley said. “Try calling games in Puerto Rico in front of the ‘fanaticos.’”
Going out on top
In the twilight of his officiating career, Crowley earned the profession’s highest honor. He was selected to officiate the 1989 and 1991 national championship games. Michigan won the ’89 title game when Rumeal Robinson drained a pair of free throws at the end of the game on a controversial call by John Clougherty, who officiated the game with Crowley. Crowley was the head official for the ’91 title game between Duke and Kansas.
“That was the easiest game of my career to call,” Crowley said. “It’s a fairly simple game to call. You have two great coaches who basically leave you alone.”
Crowley, more than 25 years removed from the last college basketball game he ever officiated, reflected on a legendary career.
“When I got assigned the ’89 title game, it was in Seattle,” he said. “The NCAA had a meeting before the games and it asked all the referees if they had any trouble getting (to Seattle). One guy says his flight got delayed and he was almost a full day late arriving. Another guy says he had to book a connecting flight and it was inconvenient. They ask me and I tell them, ‘I don’t know what you all are talking about. It took me 28 years to get here.”
Two years later, he was officiating another national title game and the ’91 tilt would be his last.
“I had already decided that I wanted to go out on top,” Crowley said. “That’s what I did.”
Sam Hickman is sports editor of the Beacon. Reach him at 754-6890 or