A day after the worst day of his life, Joey Crawford couldn't talk.

Reached on his cell phone yesterday, Crawford - the best basketball ref walking the planet - declined, under orders, to comment on the sudden, seismic change in his life.

It isn't life and death, but for the 55-year-old Crawford, it might as well be.

In a normal year, Crawford wouldn't be sitting in his Newtown Square home, waiting for the phone to ring, hoping against hope that this isn't how his 30-year career as an NBA referee is going to end, with a public suspension and a news release. But it may well be. And that would be a shame.

Crawford was sent home for the end of the regular season and the playoffs by NBA commissioner David Stern on Tuesday, after he ejected Spurs forward Tim Duncan with a second technical foul in the third quarter of Sunday's game against the Mavericks.

The circumstances - a nationally televised game involving two marquee teams, a superstar thrown out while laughing on the bench, and Crawford's having been warned by Stern before about not upstaging big games - are all working against Crawford. So is the feeling around the league that Stern is determined to change the perception of many non-fans that his league is powerless to handle bad actors.

Sheriff Stern's office has handed out big fines and suspensions to players, coaches and teams alike in the last few months. From Mark Cuban to Carmelo Anthony to Michael Jordan to Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant, Stern has popped 'em all for various transgressions.

So leniency for Crawford - who had been dressed down by Stern for famously ejecting then-Mavs coach Don Nelson and his top assistant, Del Harris, in the opening minutes of a playoff game in 2003 - was probably out of the question.

An e-mail sent by Crawford to the league office and to his fellow refs that was leaked to Bloomberg News on Tuesday didn't help, either.

In the e-mail, which obviously was not sent out with Crawford's blessing, he told colleagues that he would throw Duncan out of the game again under the same circumstances, and "if my employer does not think that was acceptable, then I have a problem."

Those words seemed as if Crawford was drawing a line in the sand and daring Stern to cross it. But the words offered no context.

For example, I have it on very good authority that on Sunday, when Crawford asked Duncan, "Do you want to fight?", it wasn't a pugnacious dare; it was more of an exasperated sigh after Duncan had repeatedly questioned a foul call. And Duncan used profanity, I'm told, which is why he was relieved of 25 grand by the league.

And I have it on equally good authority - my own - that Duncan can whine about refs with the best of them. His irritation with how the international game is officiated is at the heart of why he no longer plays for U.S. teams in Olympic and world-championship competition.

But Crawford knows in his heart of hearts that he has brought much of this on himself. He has been warned and warned about his temper and told to do something about it. Anger-management classes don't seem to have stuck, and tales of Crawford's beratings are legion. So Crawford doesn't get much sympathy from many around the league, no matter his skill at calling a game.

"It's no different than a talented player that keeps having issues with the league," a club executive who did not want to be identified said yesterday. "You can't point to Joey's abilities as a ref and justify his actions because he's one of the better refs."

Said another team executive: "I'm not surprised by it. I personally witnessed Jake O'Donnell," the legendary referee whose well-known feud with Clyde Drexler and other players led to his career-ending suspension in 1995 after officiating the most games in league history.

"Clyde gets jacked [by O'Donnell] for no reason, and that was the last time we saw Jake," the executive said.

Crawford does not want to go out that way. He's a lifer, having grown up on Palestra basketball in the 1960s and '70s, realizing quickly that his playing talents were probably destined to lead no farther than Cardinal O'Hara High School in Springfield, Delaware County.

Few love the game as much as he. And his whole package, including the temper, is what got him out of the Eastern League and into the NBA in 1977, and made him the best.

But Crawford knows he didn't change. And it has finally caught up to him.

Stern should give him one last shot, beginning in November, to make the necessary adjustments.

Contact staff writer David Aldridge at (215) 854-5516 or daldridge@phillynews.com.