By Dan Bernstein– senior columnist

(CBS) Referee Danny Crawford made an old, crotchety coach do something I had never seen him do.

We were waiting as we often did in the terminal at O’Hare, bleary-eyed and ready for the next leg of our trip to wherever in the middle of our Continental Basketball Association season, the Rockford Lightning on the move to the next mid-sized city. Mauro Panaggio was our 65-year-old leader, the league’s all-time winner working without any assistants as coach and general manager.

He didn’t like referees, much at all. His nights were spent stomping in front of the bench to get any edge he could, cajoling and groaning — never swearing, notably — often holding out his arms after a whistle and staring up at the rafters as if beseeching some benevolent basketball god for a call, just one that could give his team the edge with a needed possession or a couple free throws. When we crossed paths with a ref on the road, he’d rarely give more than a nod or a cursory wave.

So when I saw him bolt from his seat to track down an athletic-looking man with a black briefcase, stop him to shake hands and wish him well, I was surprised to learn who it was.

“That was Danny Crawford,” Panaggio said. “He’s the best referee we had in this league. Great at his job. Very professional and very fair.”

By then, Crawford had graduated to calling NBA games from the CBA feeder program and was already getting merit assignments for his work. And by the time he retired Wednesday, he called 23 straight NBA Finals in his 31 seasons, a total of more than 2,000 regular-season NBA games and more than 300 playoff games.

I found out after becoming an NBA beat reporter that his reputation among coaches and players around the league was the same as had been described to me that one day, and that continued up through Game 5 of the most recent NBA Finals in June. The Chicago native is a sure bet for Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement, as one of the very best ever to do a difficult and often thankless job.

Dan Bernstein is a co-host of 670 The Score’s “Bernstein and Goff Show” in afternoon drive. You can follow him on Twitter  @dan_bernstein and read more of his columns here.

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