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Third Sixth Man Has Special Meaning For Crawford

Rowan Kavner Digital Content Coordinator

PLAYA VISTA, Calif. – The moment didn’t seem comprehensible to Jamal Crawford, walking up to the podium to deliver a speech after winning an NBA-record third Kia Sixth Man of the Year trophy, which stood on a table behind him next to the other two he brought back from his home in Seattle for the occasion.

“It’s surreal,” said Crawford, usually more comfortable with attention on the court than off it. “Even when I got the call, it didn’t seem real. Today, I bought a suit just for this. I had to put the suit on and went, ‘This is really happening.’”

Typically, national recognition is reserved for the five players who start a game. To be one of the select few off the bench recognized with a Sixth Man award, a player must be elite enough to start and have the humility and willingness to turn that down to win. 

For Crawford, that mindset began in 2009. He knew being an elite scorer on a bad team meant little. A decade into his career, he sacrificed.

And, on Tuesday afternoon, he etched his name in NBA lore, voted the best to do it three of the last seven seasons.

“I’m such a student of the game, so it’s unbelievable,” Crawford said. “It really is, to know that you have a small part of history with so many great players that have come before you.”

In some ways, this was a familiar spot to Crawford, who’d won the award in 2010 with the Hawks and then again in 2014 with head coach Doc Rivers and the Clippers. Physically, even at age 36, he looks basically the same as he did two years prior, when he first became the oldest player to win the award at 34.

Crawford, who doesn’t like to talk about his age, joked that he still looks young because his wife makes him drink water all the time and "put down the Capri Suns." But as modest as he wants to be, he knows he worked to put himself in the position he’s in at 36 years old, not only sitting at the end of a bench in the NBA but still playing and performing at a superior level.  

He’s scoring in double digits on a nightly basis, and amazingly, in his 16th season in the league, Crawford’s gained steam as the year’s gone on.

Crawford scored 32 points in a spot start against Oklahoma City on March 31. Called upon to start again with the regulars resting, he scored 30 points and hit the game-winner in Utah. Two nights later, he dropped 22 points on the Mavericks. 

“It’s more about not cheating the game and being in love with the game,” Crawford said. “If I took off three months or two months to try to recover, it’s almost like if you leave your house for nine months, and then you come back and try to turn on the lights and they start popping, or the car may not start.”

Not that Crawford would know.

He won’t allow himself to stop playing, whether he’s in the middle of a playoff push or the middle of the offseason. Crawford dribbles a basketball every day of his life, and that won’t change even when he decides to eventually hang it up – something far from the mind of the veteran guard, who believes he could still play another five years.

“Even the day I retire, I’ll be playing at L.A. Fitness somewhere,” Crawford said. “I’ve never cheated the game, and I think that’s a part of having longevity.”

It’s that drive that had him standing at the podium at the Clippers’ training facility in Playa Vista. In that respect, Tuesday night’s feeling was similar.

But, that was about the only way.

Of all seasons, this seemed, at least initially, the least likely for Crawford to end up accepting an award. During the summer, Rivers had a long talk with Crawford.  

“I said, ‘We’re going to have to change not only the way we play, but the way you play,” Rivers recalled. “We’re going to move the ball more. We’re going to have more movement. You’re still going to get shots, but that second group will grow more.”

The bench did grow eventually, but it took time and didn’t go the way anyone initially planned.

Changing rotations and new faces throughout the early portion of the year meant ebbs and flows in production. Then, everything started to click, partially because of production from lesser-used players such as Cole Aldrich. For Crawford personally, he credits a Christmas chat with Rivers.

“Doc said, ‘I need you to be more aggressive,’ and that’s what I needed to hear,” Crawford said. “He’s the best at that, he knows the pulse of the team – not just for me but for all of our guys. He knows exactly what buttons to push or when we need a pat on the back or when we really need to turn it up. He kind of felt that, and it paid off for us.” 

Since Dec. 25, Crawford has the most games in the NBA with at least 15 points off the bench – doing it in a way unlike the past. Yes, Crawford still thrives in 1-on-1 situations.

But with this group of reserves, surrounding Aldrich with a handful of players with size who can move the ball and attack the rim, Crawford needed to tweak his game. And, he did, as he makes room in his house for a third Sixth Man trophy.

“This one may be more significant than the other two because nobody could have predicted they would have won it like this,” Crawford said. “From an age standpoint, nobody would have said that, and then from the point of us revamping our bench and me kind of taking a step backward.”

Rivers credits Crawford for moving more without the ball this year – and for being willing to tweak and improve almost two decades into his career.

“I think that just tells you who Jamal is,” Rivers said. “Whatever’s good for the team, he’s going to do it, and he did it.”

It’s a funny spot for Crawford, Rivers says. The Sixth Man Award is an unselfish award, yet here Crawford finds himself alone in the NBA record books as the only player with three of them.

Crawford hopes the way he got there can impact kids watching the game and their view of stardom.  

“I’ve never made an All-Star Game, but I’ve always had my peers' and coaches' respect around the league,” Crawford said. “For me, at the end of the day, 10 years from now, 15 years from now, I’ll just wonder, ‘Will the new fan remember me? Will they remember what I did in the game?’

“Hopefully, it's in a positive nature and hopefully this is one of those things for the kids that are coming up that are 9 or 10 years old to say, ‘Hey, I don’t have to start. I can still have an impact on the bench.’ Obviously, starting is the cool thing, and everybody wants to do it. Hopefully, this can inspire a new generation of players.” 

Some of those players may be his own kids.

As Crawford finished up his final interview Tuesday afternoon, he picked up and cradled his daughter, London. One of his sons, 5-year-old JJ, shot hoops at the far end of the court, something Crawford said he brings JJ to the practice gym to do every so often.

“I didn’t force it upon him,” Crawford said. “I always ask my mom, I’m like, ‘Mom, was I…’ and she was like, ‘Yeah, you were pretty good, but you weren’t as good as he was at that age.’”

The last time Crawford won this award, JJ couldn’t comprehend it. He still doesn’t fully understand, but he knows his dad received a trophy for his skills. And Crawford said his oldest son, Eric, now in his late teens, was ecstatic – just another way this year and this award in particular perhaps means even more than his first two.

His two boys were old enough to realize, to a degree, what their father means to the game, something those who play with Crawford have realized for years.

“My teammates, they were so excited,” Crawford said. “(DeAndre Jordan) was like, ‘Man…’ – and he had tears in his eyes – and he was like, ‘I feel like I won it.’ Just to see your teammates and your peers feel that way about you and about what’s going on, it makes you feel good.”