SEATTLE —It’s a Friday afternoon in his offseason, and Jamal Crawford is on a basketball court at the Rainier Vista Boys & Girls Club, surrounded by grade-school children.
Basketballs are flying. Limbs are flailing. In the middle stands Crawford, shooting set shots with his rambunctious crowd.
“How’d you make that half-court shot?” one boy asks.
“Did you ever play football?” another randomly wonders.
Crawford, the former Rainier Beach High School star and two-time NBA Sixth Man of the Year, grins as he answers each question. And when he tells the kids he must leave, there’s a chorus of “Bye, Jamal!”
“Nothing like home,” Crawford says. “It’s good to be back.”
Though Crawford would rather be playing in the NBA Finals right now, this is a much-needed homecoming after the wildest of his 14 pro seasons.
What happened this year? What didn’t happen? Crawford played perhaps the best basketball of his life. He debuted his signature sneakers. He fought through a late-season injury. And then, in the middle of a playoff run with the Los Angeles Clippers, he came to understand that his team’s owner is an unapologetic racist.
“At 14 years in the NBA, I thought I had seen every situation,” Crawford said. “But this was a whole new challenge. This was something you couldn’t prepare for.”
Crawford, 34, has played for six NBA teams. He has had to follow 17 different head coaches. He has been traded twice and experienced negotiations for four contracts. He has played for underachievers and overachievers, and he has been criticized and praised. But this Donald Sterling firestorm was too crazy and complicated for even his veteran savvy.
When TMZ released a racially insensitive conversation between Sterling and a female companion six weeks ago, it rocked the Clippers. They had team meetings and all-out vent sessions. They protested by turning their warmup shirts inside out and then dumping them at halfcourt before a playoff game at Golden State. Then they watched the entire league, led by new commissioner Adam Silver, feel their pain and take a stance against Sterling, who was banished from the league and pressured into selling the team. Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer bid $2 billion on the franchise, and he will be the Clippers’ new owner unless Sterling wins a lawsuit against the league.
Crawford can look back less emotionally now, but even when he discusses the Sterling controversy, you realize the toll it took.
“Disappointed. Hurt. So many emotions,” Crawford said. “I remember that I was trying to take a nap after it all went down, but I couldn’t sleep. My mind was racing. Family and friends were texting. People were on Twitter telling us what we should do. We were all torn in so many different ways.”
Crawford wondered how such an incredible season had turned so quickly. He won the league’s sixth-man award for the second time in his career, averaging 18.6 points and playing a variety of roles as the Clippers managed to win despite injuries that cost starting guards Chris Paul (20 games) and J.J. Redick (47 games) major playing time. So there was Crawford, shuffling between both guard positions, dazzling the crowd and proving that his brand of basketball influence can help keep a team together. He was an ideal fit in new coach Doc Rivers’ system. The Clippers won a franchise-record 57 games.
“For sure, it was the best season of my career,” said Crawford, who thrived despite missing 13 games in the second half of the season because of a calf injury. “No question. To average almost 19 points off the bench on a championship-level team, it shows you’re pretty good. To do it at this level, when a team is that good, I think that says a lot.”
After Crawford’s shoe contract with Nike expired, he was lured to represent a start-up sneaker and apparel company called Brandblack. Few NBA players venture outside longtime giants Nike, adidas and Reebok for their footwear, but Crawford wanted to be different. Brandblack gave him his own shoe, the J. Crossover, and it still blows his mind to see his initials “JC” on a pair of sneakers. He has a Twitter account (@JCrossover), and when fans send messages and pictures to tell him they bought his shoe, Crawford saves the images.
“That’s crazy to me,” Crawford says, shaking his head. “I mean, how many sixth men have their own shoe? I’m 14 years into my career, a time when some guys are playing small roles and just fortunate to have a job, and I’ve got my own shoe? It’s an incredible blessing.
“I wanted to be different. I think my game is different. This is perfect. I used to get mad, as a kid, when I’d ask who I played like, and people didn’t have an answer. But that’s what makes you special. I embrace that now.”
Crawford is also an enthusiastic endorser of Ballmer as the Clippers’ next owner. The two have been friends for years, and Ballmer has supported several of Crawford’s causes.
“He’s someone who has really supported me, this community and my foundation,” Crawford said. “We’ve always stayed in touch. He has such a passion for basketball. It’s unbelievable. If he ever is officially approved as owner, he’ll be a great one, one of the best, no question.”
For now, though, Crawford waits. He waits for the official end of Sterling’s controversial reign. And he waits for another opportunity to chase a championship with a Clippers team that keeps maturing.
“We definitely were a special group,” Crawford said. “We leaned on each other. We learned valuable lessons about dealing with adversity. We’ll be better for this.”
That’s the most endearing thing about Crawford. No matter what difficulty he endures, he always comes back better.