Six most famous referees in NBA history

Joey Crawford
Joey Crawford is as well known as any referee in NBA history. Photo from CBS Sports.

Talking about the best NBA referees of all-time can be a tricky subject, mostly because we actually don’t know that much about referees. If anything, not knowing an official’s name or his face could be a sign that he’s actually doing a pretty good job.

Most famous NBA referees

Even though an NBA referee’s salary is quite decent, it doesn’t make up for all the hate and scrutiny those guys have to deal with every single day of their lives. Not many of us would be willing to endure that much criticism night in and night out.

In all honesty, some officials left their print on the history of the league. Some because of their legacy and what they did, some because of how terrible they were. That’s why today, we’re going to talk about the people no one ever talks about, letting you know about some of the most famous referees of all time.

6. Darrell Garretson, 1967-94

Darrell Garretson paved the way for many other great officials who came after him. Not only he was one of the greatest NBA referees and a Hall of Famer inductee but he also later became an NBA Supervisor for Officials for 17 years.

Overall, he served the league for 44 years in both of his charges, officiating 1798 regular-season games, 269 NBA playoff games, and 39 NBA Finals games throughout his career. He became a Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame inductee in 2016, eight years after passing away.

5. Earl Strom, 1957-90

There haven’t been many characters like Earl Strom in sports history. Considered one of the best NBA referees of all time, Strom was also quite controversial. He never hesitated to get physical with other referees and even fans when they didn’t agree with his calls.

Despite multiple suspensions over physical violence, he still managed to become a perennial figure in both the ABA and NBA, officiating 29 ABA and NBA Finals, 295 NBA playoff games, and over 2,400 regular-season games. You didn’t want to mess with this guy, that’s for sure.

4. Dick Bavetta, 1975-2014

Dick Bavetta is one of the most famous non-player characters in the NBA, and for very good reason.


He set the standard for the NBA referee salary, making $200,000 per year. Also, he starred in quite some memorable moments, like kissing Charles Barkley and racing him in the 2007 All-Star Game.

Bavetta retired at 75 years old after nearly four decades of officiating, ranked as the highest in terms of performance evaluation. He officiated 2,600 straight games and 2,635 overall and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.

3. Joey Crawford, 1977-2016

Even though younger fans may not remember Joey Crawford with love for his final years in the league, there was a time where he was actually an outstanding referee. While he was pretty sound when it came to calls and no-calls, he was often criticized for his strictness and proneness to call technical fouls and eject players and coaches.

He even ejected Tim Duncan of all people for just laughing on the bench, an incident that led to his suspension. Crawford officiated for 39 years and was a part of the crew of every NBA Finals from 1986 to 2015 except in 2007 when he was serving his suspension. Crawford wasn’t much of a fan favorite towards the sunset of his career.

Even so, his toughness won’t ever be matched, and neither will the memes and hilarious gifs.

2. Mendy Rudolph, 1953-75

Mendy Rudolph was the ultimate example of professionalism and longevity. He became the first referee to top the 2,000-game plateau, serving as an official for 22 years.

Rudolph officiated 2,112 games, which was a record at the time. He also owned the mark for officiating every single game in the 1961 NBA Finals.

Rudolph was named referee in chief and worked closely with the league’s supervisor of officials to oversee referee’s techniques and rules interpretations. The league changed several rules thanks to his work, even though not many people actually know about his legacy.

1. Tim Donaghy, 1994-2007

And last but not least, we find the most infamous referee in all of sports history. Tim Donaghy doesn’t make this list for being one of the greatest NBA referees of all time. Instead, people remember him for fixing games, shaving points, and jeopardizing the league’s credibility, maybe forever.

Donaghy served as an NBA referee for 13 years. He was a respected figure around the league, officiating over 700 regular-season games before submitting his resignation. The FBI had been investigating him for allegedly betting on the games he officiated. He pleaded guilty to multiple federal charges and was sentenced to 15 months. However, after being released in just 11 months, he was sent back to jail for violating the terms of his release.

The FBI revealed that Donaghy had a gambling problem and had been working with low-level mobsters to fix NBA games. He gambled and point-shaved games he worked on during the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons. Eventually, the FBI caught up with him in the midst of a broader organized crime investigation. Needless to say, the NBA has never recovered from this scandal. Up to this day, Donaghy continues to be a popular figure around basketball culture.

Now that you know a little more about the guys responsible for keeping the game fair, perhaps you’ll see them with different eyes. Although, just like you, we’ll never be fully able to avoid cursing them out every now and then.

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