Pointed in the Right Direction
They wear numbers one, two and three, and someday– say Jamal Crawford, Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler– they’ll have houses near each other and drive the same cars. “We’re going to grow together,” says Crawford, the sweet-faced, wide-eyed 22-year-old, who wears number one on his jersey. “It’s going to be fun.”
Crawford shined in the month of April, starting six of nine games and averaging 11 points while shooting .541 from the floor, including an incredible .615 from 3-point range.
While Bulls fans saw a lot of teen rookie sensations Curry and Chandler last season, they only caught a glimpse of Crawford, the gifted young guard who has learned the definition of patience while spending most of 2001-02– his second NBA season– rehabbing a torn left ACL. Crawford sustained the knee injury before the season started, while working out at Hoops the Gym (in Chicago) with Michael Jordan and other NBA stars.
The injury and surgery that soon followed came after a frustrating 2000-01 rookie year, when Crawford, who was picked eighth overall in the draft, didn’t get a lot of minutes and didn’t start until March. He started even later this year, but when it did happen, in April 2002 in a 105-100 Bulls victory over Boston, fans got a glimpse of things to come: terrific passing and beautiful, arcing three-point shots from a guy who’s barely had time to get his rhythm on the floor.
Aaron Jamal Crawford was born and raised in Seattle, Washington, the youngest child of Clyde and Venora. Everyone’s still back in Seattle, along with Jamal’s son Eric and his girlfriend, Ginnie. Crawford was two years old when he first picked up a basketball, he says, and he hasn’t put one down since. He started playing organized games when he was eight, and it came so naturally and easily that he thought then he’d play pro ball.
"He's a great kid, a likable kid... the kind of guy you like having around. It just so happens he has all this basketball talent."
Until the knee surgery, Crawford admits, he’s never really had to work at the game. But with the injury and surgery and all the other starts and stops in his first two years in the NBA, he’s learned a tremendous amount. The Bulls strength and conditioning coaches and athletic trainers taught him how to stretch, how to weightlift, how to cut and move and even, with the help of the Bulls on-site chef, how to eat right. He’s bulked up from a fragile 6’5”, 174 pounds to his current playing weight of 192.
With all the interruptions to his career, including just two years of high school basketball and only 17 games in college, it’s remarkable that he’s come this far at such a young age. Michael Jordan wanted him on the Wizards. The Bulls traded their number seven pick for him. So what makes him so special?
“First off, he’s a great kid, a likable kid,” says Bulls guard Jalen Rose. “And he’s a coachable kid, the kind of guy you like having around. It just so happens he has all this basketball talent.”
Assistant Coach Pete Myers says Crawford’s talent level is so high it’s scary. “He can shoot it and he can see the floor. We want him to lead this team.” But leadership won’t be handed to him. “I think the injury’s done a lot for him in terms of waking him up and letting him know what he needs to accomplish– that he needs patience. When he came in that first year, he wanted to start right away. Things just don’t work like that. The injury’s given him an overlook– he can see that the team’s made a commitment to him as the eighth pick in the draft. Now he has to show his teammates that he can be that leader. I think he’s up for the test.”
Crawford’s career first took a detour when he was a freshman in high school and his mother sent him to Los Angeles to live with his father, who at the time was a security guard at a Hollywood studio. The two had split up, and Venora thought it would be good for Jamal to be with his dad for a while. But he didn’t play basketball for two years. Crawford attended Dorsey High School in south central Los Angeles, in the heart of gang territory. “There was no way I could play,” says Jamal. “Sometimes I had to miss school because I was scared to go in because of gangs. There was a lot of stuff going on.” After two years, his older sister brought him home to Seattle, and things got back on track.
His junior year at Rainer Beach High School in Renton, Washington, brought a state championship, and Crawford was named the state’s high school player of the year. He wore number 23 in honor of Michael Jordan. “He’s still the greatest ever,” says Crawford. “I was in love with his game, the way he carried himself, the way he spoke, just everything about him.”
Senior year the team made it to the semifinals and Crawford was named a second-team Parade Magazine All-American. Throughout high school he worked out with Gary Payton and other SuperSonics players, and today Payton’s like a big brother to Jamal, giving feedback, encouragement and advice.
The potent combination of ex-Michigan Wolverines Jalen Rose and Crawford has Bulls fans excited about the future.
With his senior year complete, Crawford was off to play for Michigan. “That was a dream. I’d been watching Michigan ever since Jalen went there. He was my favorite player, along with Chris Webber.” When Crawford went on his recruiting visit, he was promised Rose’s locker because the team knew how much he admired Rose. But he played just 17 games in college because of an NCAA suspension. Still, he led the Wolverines with 16.6 points per game, 4.5 assists and 2.8 rebounds. In Crawford’s short college career, he was second on the team with 16 blocked shots and made 78.4 percent of his free throws.
After his freshman year and the suspension, he decided to put his name in the NBA Draft. “At first I thought there was no way I could crack the top 10,” says Crawford. But he played well at the NBA predraft camps, and afterward he knew he’d be a top pick. He even heard a rumor that his hero, Michael Jordan, liked his game. “I didn’t really believe it, but then my coach at the predraft camp, who was an assistant with the Wizards, told me.” It was flattering for Crawford but even better was playing with MJ during the summer, where he could see how Jordan carries himself, how hard he competes and how much he hates losing. “He’s just a good person,” says Jamal. “He doesn’t look at it like, ‘I’m Michael Jordan.’ He’s just one of the fellas.”
Crawford was picked number eight by Cleveland and then traded to the Bulls for their number seven pick, Chris Mihm. Despite the high praise and admiration from other teams, Crawford’s first year as a Bull was frustrating. “I worked hard at practice, and I thought I did well enough to get playing time, but it didn’t work out that way. I love basketball more than anything, and that’s what I wanted to do.” B.J. Armstrong and Pete Myers counseled him, and Payton also told him to be patient. “Gary said: ‘Your time is going to come. You’re young, you’re 20 years old.’” But Jamal wanted to show people what he could do.
The following season was even more frustrating, and scary as well. On August 7, 2001, after tearing his left ACL while working out at Hoops, Crawford underwent the first surgery of his life, in Birmingham, Alabama, by Dr. James Andrews. He was accompanied by Bulls Assistant Athletic Trainer Eric Waters, “I couldn’t even walk the first two weeks; then I could use one crutch. Every time I stood up the blood rushed to my knee because you don’t have the muscle to push it out. It was painful. I hated it,” recalls Crawford. Then it was weeks of painful electrical stimulation treatments. “But when I got off the table, I actually started doing weights and the rehab took off,” he says. “Eric Waters, Erik Helland (the Bulls strength and conditioning coach), Fred Tedeschi (Bulls head athletic trainer) and Jeff Macy (Bulls assistant strength and conditioning coach) were great. They pushed me and when I was down, they picked me up.”
“It’s frustrating for anyone with that injury not being able to do the things he wants to do, and then seeing everyone else do it, on top of it,” explains Waters. “You also come in here knowing you’re going to have a grueling [rehab] schedule. Jamal likes to play basketball. No one likes to rehab.” But Crawford worked hard and he returned to play in March 2002, several months ahead of schedule.
Known primarily as an offensive player, Jamal vows that his No. 1 goal over the summer is to become one of the team’s best defenders.
During the whole process, Payton and Jordan called him and told Crawford to keep working and do whatever the rehab people said so he could return to playing. The staff let him pick some of the exercises because having a part in the decision making makes the whole thing more palatable, explains Waters. There were days when he was sent to Birmingham to work with physical therapists. “Other times, we sent him to Seattle to work with people there and on his own a little bit to get refreshed and take a break from us,” says Waters.
Crawford then moved over to the strength and conditioning coaches, who worked on improving his leg strength and balance, his flexibility and speed and his overall general conditioning. “We had to teach him how to cut and decelerate, and then how to have confidence and jump off that leg,” explains Helland. “You’re reteaching him to run, accelerate and change direction.” Before he was injured, Crawford was fast but didn’t have the strength or stability to stop, and that’s what led to the injury.
“I’d never done weights, but now I like lifting,” says Jamal. “My girlfriend notices my muscles,” he says smiling.
When Crawford’s not playing or practicing, he’s at home watching tapes or talking on the phone to Ginnie or his family. A self-described homebody, he also likes to hang out with Chicago Bears David Terrell and Anthony (A-Train) Thomas, who also attended Michigan. Crawford goes to their games when he can, and they come watch Crawford, too.
“David helped me get through Michigan when times were tough with the NCAA,” says Crawford. “He talks so much trash, telling the whole world he’s beat me one-on-one. But I tell everyone I can catch better than him.”
Meanwhile, he’s looking forward to his third season as part of the young Bulls nucleus. “All the pieces are in place with this team,” says Crawford. “You can actually see it, like a vision.” Adds Curry: “We definitely want to stay together for a while, that’s the whole reason why we got one, two and three, to show people that we want to be together for a long, long time. I feel that we have a great future together.”
- By Anne Stein