His opening game with the Clippers was long over. The locker room was emptying and for a short time the Los Angeles media, waiting for the team’s instant Sixth Man of the Year candidate, seemed to wonder if he would arrive at all.
Anyone who knows Jamal Crawford, even the slightest, knew he would be there.
Crawford, a slender 6-foot-5 shooting guard, emerged from a backroom with the same comforting look he seemingly always greets people with. He smiles, makes eye contact, shakes hands, and puts others at ease.
“My mom, dad and grandparents were always like, ‘Just treat people the way you want to be treated,’” Crawford said. “I just have respect for people. Really truly, I respect people.
“It’s not something that’s fake or something that’s intentional, it’s just how I am.”
Who Crawford was against the Memphis Grizzlies on Halloween night was exactly who the Clippers brass thought they were getting when they signed him to a multi-year contract as a free agent in July.
“He’s a very good pick and roll player and a much better passer than people [think],” said Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro, who was among the initial members of the organization that courted Crawford over the summer. “But he’s put up numbers his whole career, so people look at that. I think he’s more of a well-rounded player than people probably give him credit for.
“He opens up things a lot for us offensively. And I think he’s actually done a pretty good job defensively, kind of locking into what we want to do and that’s been important.”
In the locker room, Crawford told the media his first official game with the Clippers was a “dream” debut. He put in 29 points against Memphis to lead all scorers and along with his superstar running mate, Chris Paul, effectively wrapped the game up down the stretch. He kept the Grizzlies at arm’s length with a corner 3-pointer after Paul broke down the defense and made a layup on the next possession when Paul corralled a loose ball and heaved it over the top to Crawford. The layup, which was goaltended by Memphis’ Jerryd Bayless, put his team ahead by eight with 1:33 to go.
Crawford’s performance may have been a luminous signal of things to come in his tenure with the Clippers.
Within the first week of his regular-season debut in Los Angeles, he ruthlessly crossed over Lakers forward Metta World Peace, used a stutter-step that caused Rudy Gay to stumble and fall, and “nutmegged” Spurs rookie Nando De Colo with a ball he put between De Colo’s legs out of a crossover.
Twelve years and now six teams into his career, Crawford has made countless numbers of wrap around, behind-the-back moves that freed him for mid-range jumpers or crossed a defender to earn driving lanes for layups. It is almost as if he’s inculcating defenders into the world of @JCrossver, his Twitter handle. Yet, according to Crawford, the moves come as naturally as would breathing for anyone else.
“You know what’s weird, my best friend in the world, he knows everything about me, Will Conroy, he said, ‘Jamal, there’s one thing that you do that I can’t explain to anyone.’ And I’ve been with him since day one. I was like, ‘What?’ He said, ‘The way you dribble.’
“I’ve never practiced it in my life, never,” he continued. “I’ve never once practiced it. I just always kept a ball with me. From the time I was 2 [years old] there are pictures of me with a basketball. It’s always been as natural as breathing to me. The moves I do, I can see them develop before the defender does. I can see them develop, so I know they’ll work, but I don’t practice them. I just dream them up in my head and then I see it.”
Clippers All-Star Blake Griffin, who is often on the bench when Crawford enters the game, has been captivated by the dribbling exhibition.
“It’s fun to watch him play,” Griffin said of the 2009-10 NBA Sixth Man of the Year. “Just watching him dice people up out there is unbelievable.”
Asked how to stop or at least slow Crawford, his teammate for one season in Portland, Wesley Matthews, said, “Just make him uncomfortable. He really gets into his game when he’s free to dribble. A lot of people are scared to get crossed over and all that kind of stuff, but if you can stay sound and disciplined, be active with your hands. You just want to make it tough on him.”
But Crawford explained that once he receives the ball, halting him can be a problem.
“[A defender is] going to give up something. They have to. You want to send me right, okay, I’ll go that way. Oh, you want to send me left, no problem. But they’re going to give up something. You can’t guard everything.”
In a way, Crawford’s on-court demeanor lets him lead a dual life. As genuine and pleasant as he is to everyone off the court, from a stranger he meets on the street to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, with whom Crawford routinely does charity work in his hometown of Seattle, he has somewhat the mentality of a killer on it.
“I am totally different on the court than I am off it,” Crawford said. “It’s weird because people that don’t know me, they see me on the court and they see a lot of tattoos and how flashy I am and then when they talk to me it’s like, ‘Hold on, this is two totally different people.’ I think on the court I kind of transform into something different.”
Off the court, Crawford has used his platform to help transform lives.
Through the Jamal Crawford Foundation he runs a free basketball camp every summer in Seattle, and follows that up with a “Back to School Camp” in the fall that includes free haircuts for the boys in attendance and backpacks filled with school supplies.
Much of Crawford’s work in the Seattle community takes place during the offseason and holidays. He hosts a 4th of July barbeque in Green Lake Park that is open to the public, provides a “Christmas Giving Tree” which allows school-age students who are doing well in class but do not have financial means to receive Christmas presents, and along with Conroy, Brandon Roy, Spencer Hawes, Kam Chancellor, Isaiah Thomas and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, helped feed nearly 10,000 people at Thanksgiving last year.
He’s been presented the key to two cities: Seattle and nearby Renton, and helped fund a program to get athletic trainers at every school as well as defibrillators for all athletic events. “I remember being in high school playing and if somebody gets a rolled ankle or something, parents in the stands want to run out on the court. But having a registered trainer there puts everybody at ease.”
He has also worked with Mayor McGinn on a project called “Be Here, Get There” that rewards students in Seattle public schools for consistent attendance. According to the West Seattle Herald, more than 20% of middle school students in the city missed 18 or more days of class with the number increasing to 25% by the time they reach high school.
“All the kids are smart, it’s usually just being in class,” Crawford said. “If you’re in class, you’re like, ‘Okay, I’m going to do the work.’ But getting them there and on-time, that sets the whole tone.”
Crawford has long had a fervent connection to his hometown. It’s obvious, and permanent. A tattoo of the space needle is inked on his right hand and even while spending his first eight NBA seasons in Chicago and New York, he kept his watch set to Pacific Time as a reminder of where he came from.
To some extent, he never knew how much he loved Seattle until he twice had to leave. Both times he was sent to live in Los Angeles with his father, who worked on television sets for shows like “Family Matters.”
“My mom thought I needed a father-figure in my life,” Crawford said.
Crawford lived in L.A. in fourth and fifth grade, went back to Seattle for two years, and then had to return as a 13-year-old eighth-grader. A year later, he entered Dorsey High School in South Central, where he did not play basketball.
“My grades weren’t good enough [to play]. I wasn’t in class enough,” Crawford said. “I think me not going to class was being defiant and hanging with the wrong crowd because I never wanted to move from Seattle anyway.”
His sister knew it, too. That’s why she bought him a secret plane ticket to help him get back to the Northwest.
To prepare, Crawford said he would shed clothes he wore to school and put them in a hidden suitcase in the backyard. By the time he arrived back on his mother’s doorstep in 1996, Crawford said, “My mom knew I was back for good.”
As a junior and senior at Rainier Beach High, about six miles south of downtown Seattle on the edge of Lake Washington, he quickly established himself as a student and nationally-ranked basketball prospect.
“I buckled down,” Crawford said. “I knew it was time to mature. And then I come home, I’m like there are no excuses, I’ve got to make it happen if want to get serious about college.”
Coincidentally, basketball brought Crawford back to Los Angeles. He signed a multi-year contract with the Clippers in July, following a meeting over lunch with team personnel.
“When I came here, they told me I was their first option,” Crawford said. “And I told them at that same lunch that they were my first option. My agent probably didn’t want me to say it but I was just being honest. They were my first option and we made it happen.”
Since arriving, Crawford’s been asked countless times about how he has fit in. He’s never wavered. After playing for five teams in the last five years, Crawford says he feels at home for the first time in at least half a decade.
He’s back in L.A. And this time, in no hurry to leave.
Note: The following article appears with the title “Crawford takes L.A.” in the latest edition of Game Time magazine available at all Clippers home games.