James Crawford a fixture in state tournament games

Published 11:53 am Tuesday, July 29, 2008

HUNTSVILLE (AP) – His weight’s gone down. He doesn’t make it up and down the court as quickly as he used to. His foot still drags, and his right arm needs more strength.

But four months after the stroke, James Crawford still arrives for summer league basketball games at least 15 minutes early, same as always.

“My kids say, ‘Dad’s going to die on the court,'” he says. “If you die happy, that’s great. You enjoy what you know you can do, and I know I can do this.”

He’s 65, a high school basketball official since he was a student at Alabama A&M University. This year, he’s preparing for his 46th year as a referee, more than anyone in North Alabama.

By his estimate, he has officiated more than 100 state tournament games, tops in the state.

In officiating circles, he is perhaps best-known as the first black referee after the mid-1960s integration of the Alabama High School Athletic Association.

But among players and fans, he is famous for his humor, energy and compassion.

“If you haven’t seen him referee before, he’s hilarious,” says Leroy Walton, the recreation director of the Scruggs Community Center. “Everybody loves him. The kids might say something when another official makes a call. But with Mr. Crawford, they say, ‘It’s OK, Coach,’ and then they go on about their business.”

On a Monday night, Crawford and two other officials have come to Scruggs Community Center near downtown Huntsville for a 17-and-under game.

In the hallway, Crawford passes a player before tip-off, and they exchange fist-bumps.

“From the west to the east, they know James,” says Luther Johnson, a member of Crawford’s officiating crew. “He keeps everybody laughing.”

Crawford, Johnson and Butch Jones are officiating the Monday night game at Scruggs.

“You called my games in high school,” Jones tells Crawford about five minutes before the game.

Jones is a graduate of Huntsville High and played there from 1973-75.

“You called mine, too, and I’m 56,” says Johnson, who played at Sparkman in the early 1970s.

“And you didn’t say nothing on the bench, either,” Crawford says.

“I was not on the bench,” Johnson says.

Crawford and others refer to him as “Coach,” a nickname he earned during his childhood in northwest Huntsville.

When he was 12, he coached three youth baseball teams in his neighborhood, including his own, as he recalls.

“I had three teams — a Little League team, a Babe Ruth team and an 18-and-under team,” he says. “I played on one and coached the other two. That’s why they call me ‘Coach’ — and they still call me ‘Coach.’ ”

A lifetime in athletics has resulted in a long list of achievements: two-year starter on the Alabama A&M football team in the early 1960s; president of the Tennessee Valley Officials Association, the association for black officials during segregation; first black director of a YMCA in Alabama.

Crawford’s career in officiating began in 1962, when he was 19. Louis Crews, the legendary A&M football coach, got him his first officiating job, at Morgan County Training School near Decatur.

Since then, he officiated games that have featured some of the greatest players in state basketball history: Charles Barkley of Leeds and T.R. Dunn and Andrew Toney, both from Birmingham, and John Drew of Beatrice — all stars later in the National Basketball Association.

Later this month, the Alabama High School Athletic Association will present him with a Distinguished Service Award in Montgomery.

In another ceremony later this month, the city is planning to name a youth baseball field in his honor, he says.

“I can’t think of one game I didn’t enjoy,” he says.

So when the stroke was diagnosed in mid-March, he told himself that he would return to officiating this year, no matter what the doctors said.

“They told me, ‘Maybe you can get back on the floor in a couple of years,’ ” he says. “God said different. I said I was going to leave straight from the hospital and call games. I said, ‘Watch me.’ ”

The first signs came in early March. He dragged his right leg, then had trouble writing his name at the bank.

He went to the hospital for tests. Nothing, said the doctors.

A couple of days later, he was feeling worse.

“That sounds like a stroke to me,” his ex-wife told him.

When his daughter checked on him, she told him to schedule an appointment with a neurologist. The diagnosis was a minor stroke.

He was in the hospital for about two weeks.

“During rehab, I was doing double what they told me to do,” he says. “They told me overdoing it was as bad as not doing it. That deflated my ego.”

By early April, he was out of the hospital. By early June, he started receiving calls from people asking him to officiate.

“I knew I could survive it,” he says. “I used to feel bad if I didn’t beat everybody to the other end of the floor. But with age, you learn you don’t have to do that to know Little Johnny was traveling. But at one time, I was blessed to have it all.”