After feeling lost during the lockout, former Rainier Beach High star brings his game to Portland.
PORTLAND — September melted into October, the leaves turned and Seattle got colder than Jamal Crawford remembered it. His body and his head told him it was time for training camp, time to awaken his game for another long, grueling NBA season.
This was the longest summer of Crawford’s life and as the days got shorter, he began to wonder if he was going to lose a year of his life, lose a precious season of his beloved game.
An unrestricted free agent, Crawford, 31, felt like a man without a country. His frustration began to build and his hope began to disappear.
“The summer was crazy,” Crawford said in the Portland Trail Blazers’ locker room an hour before Monday’s season opener against Philadelphia. “I wasn’t sure we were going to play basketball. It was so different. I mean, you’d still work out, but you started wondering, ‘What’s the goal?’ You had to play games with yourself to make you believe there was going to be a season.”
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Believe me, Crawford isn’t looking for sympathy. After signing a two-year deal Dec. 15 for about $10 million, he is happy with his contract and happy with his role as the new sixth man with Portland.
Crawford grew up under Blazers coach Nate McMillan’s eyes. In the summers, when Crawford was in high school, he hung out at the Sonics’ training facility across from the Seattle Center. He learned invaluable tips from McMillan, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp and Dwane Casey.
“Wherever basketball was being played, Crawford was there. He hung out all the time,” recalled McMillan, a Sonics assistant coach at the time. “He had a lot of talent. A lot of people call him a combo guard, but he played point guard in high school and I thought he had a great ability to lead an offense. Great court vision and an exciting player to watch.”
For Crawford, going to the Sonics’ practices was like going to grad school while he still was at Rainier Beach High School. Growing up in basketball-rich Seattle, he learned everything about the game, how to play it on the floor and how to live it off the floor.
“I think being around pro athletes at a young age, made me start thinking, ‘OK, if I ever get to this level, I want to act this way,’ ” he said. “I wanted to be someone the kids could look up to and feel comfortable around. I want to be approachable. I’ve seen a lot of guys come and go. I mean you’re not special just because you made it. I think it’s more special the effect you can have on people.”
Those days in Seattle now seem a small eternity ago. Crawford has played for Chicago, the Knicks, Golden State and Atlanta. He has won an NBA Sixth Man Award and has averaged 15.4 points and 4.0 assists in his 11-year career.
“I remember my first day, I struggled big time,” he said of his first practice at the Furtado Center. “The game was much more physical. I was playing against grown men and I’m in high school. It was totally different. I remember Rashard Lewis came up to me and said, ‘I was like that my first days as well.’ He told me to continue to play and I would be fine.”
Portland is a good place for Crawford, who turned down a better offer from Sacramento and a similar offer from Indiana.
The Blazers don’t glitter with big names, but they are deep, young and athletic. They play defense. They play together and the compacted, post-lockout schedule favors teams that come together quickly. They can be one of the Western Conference’s sleepers.
Crawford will give them game-changing offense and disruptive defense. He will distribute the ball to the Blazers’ stable of scorers. He will be solid in the locker room. As good a player as Crawford is, he’s a better person.
In his Blazers debut, Crawford changed the momentum in the fourth quarter, hitting a three-pointer, scoring on a drive, then driving and dishing to Gerald Wallace for a three during a 15-3 run. He finished with 12 points, four steals and four assists in 22 minutes.
A recent conversation with Brandon Roy, the former Washington Huskies and Blazers star who recently retired because of knee injuries, underlined how perfect Portland is for Crawford.
“He kind of hammered it home that this was the right fit for me,” Crawford said.
And now, after an uncertain summer, with his basketball life restored, it’s Crawford’s turn to follow Roy into Portland and lead the Blazers.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org.