Seattle's Jamal Crawford is a flashy, humble dreamer
November 3, 2013
Jamal Crawford stands on the dock behind his South Seattle home and peers out at Lake Washington. He points to a house across the water.
“My dream house,” he says, smiling.
As a teenager, Crawford used to fantasize about buying the house across the water. That was how he made his crazy aspiration tangible. If he made it to the NBA, he could afford it.
Money wasn’t the only motivator, though. There was something liberating about living on the other side of the lake. It was distant, yet close. He could make it without escaping.
He can’t swim, but he loves it out here.
“Funny that I’m at peace here, huh?” Crawford says. “There’s something about the water that has a calming effect. It’s so Seattle, and I’m so Seattle. Everybody who lives here on the water, we’re our own community. People might not be able to see your house from the street, but we all know each other out here. We all see each other. There’s a privacy, but there’s an openness that’s really cool.
“It might sound like a contradiction, but to me, it isn’t. I get it.”
Seattle’s greatest basketball ambassador dwells in duality. He’s covered from legs to neck in tattoos, but he’s also one of the most articulate people you’ll meet. He’s flashy on the court, but humble off it. He’s accessible, but a homebody. He’s rich, but still wears mismatched socks and shoestring belts.
He lives an easy jog from his old high school, but in a private, gated home you can’t see from the street.
Crawford is a chameleon with a crossover.
“People want to have this vision of what you’re like, and I don’t think I fit in any box,” the 33-year-old Crawford says. “It’s always kind of a struggle with people because they try to put you in a box.”
If Crawford succumbed to a box, he wouldn’t have begun his 14th NBA season last week. He would’ve become the cautionary tale that his back story suggests was likely.
He missed three years of high school basketball because of academic ineligibility. The poverty and crime of his adolescence nearly diluted his basketball talent. He shuffled between Seattle and Los Angeles, needing discipline.
Even after he made the grades and earned a scholarship to Michigan, Crawford lasted just 17 games because of NCAA rules violations. He still made it to the NBA, only to tear up his left knee the summer before his second season.
There are a dozen reasons to believe Crawford should’ve failed. Instead, he has made $80 million in his career and turned his fame into support for youth across the region.
As he continues to behold Lake Washington, Crawford searches for the answer to a question he hadn’t considered before.
Why did you make it?
Of all the NBA players Seattle has produced since the late 1990s, Crawford is unrivaled when it comes to his combination of accomplishment, longevity, accessibility and willingness to give back. Seattle hoops stars are taught to be civic-minded, and all of them stay connected to their city, but no one is as committed as Crawford, now a sixth-man scoring machine for the Los Angeles Clippers.
Crawford has averaged 15.4 points and 3.8 assists in his career. He won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award in 2010. He is one of only four players in NBA history to have a 50-point game for three different teams; the other three players — Bernard King, Moses Malone and Wilt Chamberlain — are in the Hall of Fame. And the four-point play should be renamed The Jamal; 37 times he has made a three-pointer while being fouled and sank the ensuing free throw, by far the most four-point plays in league history. Crawford has done this all despite the turbulence of playing for six teams and 17 head coaches in his career.
But Crawford takes the most pride in being a positive influence in his hometown.
“He probably wakes up every morning and checks what the weather is like here,” said former Washington guard Will Conroy, one of Crawford’s best friends. “He always dwells in Seattle, no matter where he is. If his team has two days off, he’s probably going to come home for a visit.”
On the night before he reported to Clippers camp in late September, Crawford played pickup hoops with high schoolers in an open gym at Rainier Beach. He stayed past midnight. When the Vikings advanced to the 3A championship game last season, Crawford hopped on a flight from Cleveland to be there.
ROD MAR / THE SEATTLE TIMES, 2007
Jamal Crawford faces off with Tracy Huffer, left, during a fundraiser at his house for his foundation that, among other things, provides athletic trainers for Seattle Public Schools.
He trades text messages with local prep stars. He has donated $100,000 for renovations to the Rainier Beach gym and funded projects for heart defibrillators and athletic trainers at Seattle Public Schools. And that doesn’t include the smaller deeds, from giving away backpacks to signing autographs without complaint.
“For as big a star as Jamal is, he’s one of the most humble guys I’ve met,” said Tavio Hobson, the founder and director of the A Plus Youth Program and the Lakeside School boys basketball coach. “He has a big heart when it comes to working with kids. He wants to mentor them and keep them on the right path. He definitely has a passion for it.”
Crawford’s motivation is simple: That’s what he longed for as a child. He can remember sneaking into KeyArena, or, when he was in Los Angeles, the old Great Western Forum where the Lakers played. When Crawford talks to former NBA stars, he often tells them about his vivid memories of seeing them the first time. His rare interactions with them were indelible treasures.
“At any point, you can change a life by sparing just one moment of your time,” Crawford says. “That’s the best part about being in the NBA.”
It’s a Sunday afternoon in late July, and Crawford is making an appearance at a small rally that Sonics fans are holding for the re-election campaign of Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn.
When McGinn sees Crawford, he jokes that he’s just keeping the seat warm. McGinn says Crawford will be the city’s mayor once he retires from the NBA. Crawford flashes a shy grin and asks about the campaign.
“Just making a last push for the Aug. 6 primary,” McGinn says.
“Fourth quarter,” Crawford replies. “You know what to do.”
Wearing a green Sonics sweatshirt and camouflage shorts, Crawford addresses the crowd with an impassioned plea to vote for McGinn, not just because of his efforts to bring back the NBA, but because McGinn supports several of Crawford’s grass-roots education projects.
The crowd nods, impressed by the diversity of Crawford’s speech.
Crawford was once an invisible star. He was the best basketball player that nobody saw because he was academically ineligible. Intelligence wasn’t an issue; maturity and discipline were.
His family was poor. His mother, Venora Skinner, couldn’t always handle him. Crawford roamed the streets of Seattle. He usually stayed out of trouble because his life revolved around basketball. But without the grades, without discipline, how could he realize his dream?
Skinner sent him to Inglewood, Calif., near downtown Los Angeles, to live with his father, Clyde Crawford (who played basketball for Oregon in the early 1970s) and his grandmother.
“I had rules,” Crawford said. “I had restrictions. I had chores. I had to go to church every single Sunday. I was thinking: ‘Man, they’re so mean. This is like I’m in boot camp.’ But I needed this. This was my last chance.”
Crawford attended Dorsey High School, which is full of students from rugged South Central L.A. He was robbed on his first day. He was ineligible as a freshman, then as a sophomore. There was a little buzz about Crawford from his play during the summer, but he wasn’t as respected as big-name L.A. prep stars such as Baron Davis and Paul Pierce.
Crawford met Pierce at a barbershop once and traded barbs.
“This is the Paul Pierce everyone’s talking about?” Crawford said aloud. “He’s not that good.”
“You’ve got talent,” Pierce shot back, “but you’re not even eligible.”
Crawford only had the backyard of grandma’s house. “If I make this shot, I’m going to Michigan,” he would whisper to himself.
“If I make this shot, I’m going to the NBA.”
His father admired his resolve.
“He never quit, and he had a desire to do it,” Clyde Crawford said. “People wrote him off. In hindsight, the character and integrity he had was mind-boggling. He has a great heart. He was determined to make his dreams pan out.”
L.A. was good for Crawford, but he longed to return to Seattle. He plotted “making my escape.” He hid a suitcase in the backyard, and every day, he would take off his outfit, sneak outside and put the clothes in his luggage.
Eventually, with discipline and determination, he convinced his parents that it was best to come home.
Soon, his legend would begin.
Gary Payton remembers hearing about a “tall, skinny kid with crazy handles.” When Crawford returned to Seattle, he played in Doug Christie’s summer league, the pro-am that Crawford now runs. He was a rare high-schooler with the talent to play against the pros. And Crawford averaged more than 20 points that summer.
He had to sit out another year of high-school ball, but he finally became eligible to play for Rainier Beach during the 1997-98 season. It didn’t take long before Beach started playing in front of crowds that marveled over Crawford’s fancy moves.
“It was unreal, man,” said Dave King, a Vikings assistant coach who was a star post player at Rainier Beach during that time and remains close friends with Crawford. “A 6-5 kid who could dribble like that took everybody by storm.”
Crawford had developed into the ultimate showman. Sonics players such as Payton and Nate McMillan started coming to Crawford’s games. He wasn’t just one of the best players in the nation. He possessed an unprecedented mix of height, shooting touch, street-ball flair and basketball savvy that translated to the organized game.
In a game against Cleveland High, he rolled on the floor, dribbled over his head, returned to his feet and hit a three-pointer.
The opposing coach exclaimed, “Man, this ain’t Harlem Globetrotters!”
Rainier Beach coach Mike Bethea chuckled.
In a game against Nathan Hale, Crawford made a defender “basically moonwalk on his back,” Bethea recalled.
“It was hilarious, man,” Bethea said. “It’s hot-dogging if you don’t do it in practice, but for Jamal, he did it all the time. It came natural to him. It’s just a gift.”
Crawford doesn’t work on dribbling. No drills, all instincts. He used to walk the streets and throw moves on people as they walked past him, and his counter to their reaction was the way he created new dribbling moves. His behind-the-back crossover dribble is his trademark, and it’s an NBA original. He’s like a rapper who comes to the studio and flows solely off the top of his head.
Ask NBA legend Isiah Thomas, who signed Crawford as a free agent in 2004 and later coached him with the New York Knicks, if there has ever been a ballhandler this good at 6 feet 5. Thomas laughs.
“No,” he says quickly. “You’ve seen people who have street game, so to speak. But they can’t bring that game into an NBA game. Jamal can do anything against real, live NBA players in front of 20,000 fans.”
Crawford and King led Rainier Beach to its first state title of the Bethea era. Bethea has six now, the most in state history.
“Jamal opened the floodgates for Rainier Beach,” Bethea said.
Long before Thomas signed Crawford to a seven-year, $56 million contract in 2004, he had tracked Crawford. After receiving a fifth year of high-school eligibility, Crawford had improved his grades and passed college-entrance exams. He decided to go to Michigan, the school he used to dream about in his grandmother’s backyard.
But despite averaging 16.6 points and 4.5 assists, Crawford lasted only 17 games with the Wolverines.
The NCAA suspended Crawford twice during his short college run. He was alleged to have broken NCAA rules for accepting gifts, lodging and use of cars from Barry Henthorn, a Seattle businessman. Crawford argued that Henthorn was serving as his guardian during his fifth year at Rainier Beach, but the NCAA thought differently. The NCAA ordered Crawford to repay Henthorn $11,300 if he wanted to regain his eligibility.
Instead, Crawford left Michigan and declared for the NBA draft.
“I came to find out that the NCAA had banned me — banned me! — and then I was reinstated,” Crawford said. “It was so crazy. I just wanted to play basketball. I didn’t think I did anything wrong. After that, I was like: ‘You know what? I’m just going to put my name in the draft.’ ”
The consensus was that Crawford was crazy. Even the late Marty Blake, the NBA’s longtime superscout, called Crawford and said, “Jamal, you’re not ready.”
Crawford, who is listed at 185 pounds, was even thinner back then. Thomas saw a young man with an NBA game and a child’s body. Until he gained strength, he would struggle. But Thomas saw the potential.
Determined to prove he was ready, Crawford committed to basketball like never before and kept his mind on the house across the lake. He shocked many by rising to the No. 8 pick in the 2000 draft.
But there’s a difference between getting drafted and making it in the NBA. Crawford averaged just 4.6 points as a rookie. Then, while playing with Michael Jordan and other pros in July 2001, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
Crawford made a full recovery, but in the 2002 draft, the Bulls selected another star who played Crawford’s position, Duke point guard Jay Williams. The next year, Crawford was essentially in a platoon with Williams, who was hyped as the Bulls’ next great superstar.
But after the 2002-03 season, Williams was involved in a motorcycle accident that ruined his career. Still, the Bulls selected another point guard in the next draft, Kirk Hinrich of Kansas. Crawford was left again to wonder about his standing with the team. But the Bulls had decided to move him to the shooting guard position. Crawford thrived, averaging 17.3 points per game. After the season, Thomas and the Knicks pulled off a sign-and-trade deal to bring Crawford to New York.
Crawford wore No. 11 to honor Thomas, who became his mentor.
“Everything you thought he was as a person, he exceeded that,” Thomas said. “He was all the things that you want a professional athlete to be. His scoring was electric.”
Crawford runs Doug Christie’s summer league now, and he has made it nationally significant. During an all-star game in July, New Orleans star Tyreke Evans came to the pro-am as a special guest. Evans’ team beat Crawford’s team, but in the final seconds, Crawford grabbed a microphone.
“We’re going to play for real now,” Crawford told the crowd. “We’re going to give you guys five extra minutes.”
In the closing seconds of the bonus basketball, it came down to Crawford guarding Evans. Evans’ team led by two. If he made the shot, the game was over. If he missed, Crawford’s team would have one last chance.
Crawford challenged Evans’ fadeaway jumper. The ball clanged off the rim. Crawford grabbed the rebound with the clock winding down.
He weaved from right to left and launched a 32-foot shot for the win.
Nothing but net.
The crowd rushed the court, and Crawford signed autographs for the next half-hour.
Jamal Crawford, making a layup during an Oct. 31 game against the Golden State Warriors, has come to terms with his NBA identity as a flashy scorer, but he chafes at being labeled selfish.
Crawford says he doesn’t feel like a 14-year veteran in the twilight of his career. He enters this season feeling healthier than he has in his career.
He doesn’t smoke. He doesn’t drink. Candy is his only vice. Throughout his home, you can find the evidence — in a drawer downstairs, in his gym bag, everywhere.
As a player, he is sensitive to two criticisms: that he’s a poor defender (he’ll admit he can improve his defensive intensity), and that he’s selfish.
He can’t stand the selfish label.
“It’s the worst thing anyone has ever said to me,” Crawford said. “If you know me, then you know I’m a people pleaser. Early in my career, when someone would say I was selfish, I wouldn’t shoot the next game. It would get in my head.”
Now, though, he understands who he is. He’s a scorer who has the quickness and athleticism to get off his shot whenever he wants.
“It’s a gift and a curse,” he says.
A gift because Crawford can score at will. A curse because, whenever he exhibits poor shot selection, he receives the nastiest label he can imagine.
You’ll never be able to cram him into that box.
“He’s one of the trailblazers of the current era of Seattle basketball,” Conroy said. “No question about it. Because you can reach out and touch him, because he lets you reach out and touch him, he made it believable to all of us that we could make it. Everybody looks at him like, ‘That’s Jamal.’ He’s the big brother. Everybody embraces him for that.”
Big brother now has an answer to that question he hadn’t considered.
“Why did I make it?” Crawford says. “I think God knew, if He put me in this position, I would give back and help other people. Life isn’t just basketball. I’m not special because of what I do on the court. To me, I owe Seattle everything. It helped raise me. I always want to fill a void and do stuff that Seattle can be proud about.”
He points at the house across the lake again. Four years ago, he had the chance to buy it.