He's known as the miniature czar who presides over the National Basketball Association. The commissioner too eager, too inclined to flex his muscle, especially toward subordinates he deems insubordinate or inept in public view.

To referees who have experienced his wrath in years past, incompetent isn't a label placed upon them as much as it is a characteristic, an adjective David Stern would qualify as a compliment compared to how he really feels about the Joey Crawfords of the world during moments of anger.

So now that the NBA playoffs are upon us - at a pivotal time in the league's quest for prosperity - it's worth wondering if retaliation is on the minds of officials lamenting the absence of one of their own.

Knowing they could easily officiate this postseason into a viewer's nightmare.

How would you feel if Kobe Bryant suddenly finds himself plagued with foul trouble? If too much time is spent watching Kurt Thomas, Eric Snow or Francisco Elson instead of stars like Amare Stoudemire, LeBron James and Tim Duncan playing on their respective teams? Because, while professional integrity and fan interest take precedence, so does protecting one's own - specifically, an official like Crawford who was suspended for the entire 2007 postseason after 31 years of service, having worked the NBA Finals every year since 1986.

As the playoffs jump-started yesterday, with New Jersey and Chicago both winning thrillers over Toronto and Miami, respectively, there was no evidence, whatsoever, of such malcontent, but it's difficult to imagine officials were devoid of such temptations.

If Crawford can be so easily dismissed, what could happen to the rest of them? Why even talk to players or coaches at all, knowing words can be misconstrued? If officials really want to make things ugly, all they have to do is keep their mouths shut. When called on the carpet, they can simply say it was a judgment call.

"Anything's possible," one coach told me days ago. "Egos don't just stop at the players, you know. In professional sports, everybody has an ego."

Whether Crawford made the wrong call in ejecting Duncan during San Antonio's visit to Dallas last Sunday isn't subject to interpretation, regardless of what Crawford contends. Just because Duncan laughed on the bench after one of Crawford's calls, possibly using it to antagonize the venerable referee who had issued a technical against him minutes earlier, Crawford wasn't justified in going overboard with the ejection, telling Spurs coach Gregg Popovich that Duncan was "making a mockery," knowing Duncan hadn't said a single word to him.

A punishment was necessary, particularly when you consider the league is just six months removed from imploring referees to crack down on player petulance, seemingly by any means necessary.

But two months? Possibly more, since indefinite has been attached to Crawford's suspension?

Forgive the cynicism, but something doesn't seem quite right here.

"It almost seems personal," one team official told me last week. "Two months is a long, long time over something like this. I really don't know, but it gives the impression there's more to this story."

"There is," the commissioner told me last week. "This is not the first time we've had to address this issue with Joey Crawford."

Stern was alluding to the spree Crawford went on in issuing technical fouls in a playoff game four years ago in Dallas. The league, privately, has told a few folks that Crawford was working under a zero-tolerance policy.

The thing is, referees have been feeling they've been working under similar conditions for years, with Crawford being the latest example.

What they intend to do about it remains to be seen.

Years ago, several referees irked the league office by getting slapped with felony charges for downgrading airline tickets from first class to coach then pocketing the money without reporting it to the IRS. They further exacerbated their relationship with the commissioner when they reacted to one of their own getting yanked from games and summoned to the league office by turning their jerseys inside-out, publicizing their disdain for what they deemed a Stern tactic.

Now, 12 years after Jake O'Donnell, another referee known for his no-nonsense, flamboyant style of officiating, retired - following a league-imposed suspension after he refused to shake hands with Clyde Drexler before tip-off of a 1995 playoff game, before ejecting him, it seems like déjà vu all over again.

O'Donnell retired months after that suspension prohibited him from working the NBA Finals, ending a string of 23 straight appearances. Crawford, by some accounts, is likely contemplating doing the same since he was quoted as saying, "Don't cry for me."

Stern is not about to, of course. But where does that leave the rest of us?

Especially if, in their zest to make Stern weep, they cause us to weep instead.

Contact columnist Stephen A. Smith at 215-854-5846 or ssmith@phillynews.com.