Over 20 years ago, Doug Christie and Gary Payton decided to take a teenager under their wing as he tried to turn his NBA dream into reality.
Christie, who was born and raised in Seattle, and Payton, who starred on the Seattle SuperSonics, met Jamal Crawford when he was just a talented kid trying to elevate his game. Little did Christie or Payton know, their act of kindness would start a cycle that would impact Seattle’s basketball scene for decades to come.
“I remember feeling like, ‘I get to train with you?! I get to see what the pros do?!’ That was all I needed,” Crawford told HoopsHype. “After Doug Christie did it for me, after Gary Payton did it for me, I felt it was my duty to do it for the next generation. I wanted to do it for everyone who came after me.”
Crawford became determined to help as many young players from Seattle as possible. He has trained with countless players. He inherited Christie’s pro-am, which is now called The Crawsover, where local high-schoolers take the court alongside NBA players.
Crawford, Zach LaVine, Dejounte Murray, Marquese Chriss, Martell Webster, Spencer Hawes and Tony Wroten are among the pros who suited up at the pro-am in Seattle Pacific University’s gym in recent weeks. But there were also 15-year-olds living out their dream, just as Crawford once did when he trained alongside Christie or played pick-up with Payton.
But Crawford has taken things to another level. When Isaiah Thomas was in high school, he lived with Crawford for a period of time. Nate Robinson crashed at Jamal’s place in New York for the first month of his rookie season with the Knicks. Many other players who aren’t household names have also counted Crawford as a roommate over the years (take Abdul Gaddy, for example).
“That’s what it’s all about,” Crawford said. “When you’re a kid, you think it’s all about you making it. Then, as you get older, the real joy, the real fulfillment, comes from seeing someone else make it. How can I tell someone like Isaiah Thomas or Brandon Roy or Nate Robinson or Tony Wroten or any of these guys to go help the next generation if I’m not doing it? It all goes full circle. That’s the payback. I don’t want anything from those guys, I just want them to do it for the next generation.
“It’s not just guys who make it to the NBA either. It’s not like it’s NBA or bust; you can still be successful and be a huge inspiration for our community even if you don’t make the NBA. Even if a guy from the next generation isn’t going to the NBA, you still pay it forward. There are probably more guys who didn’t make it to the league [who stayed with me] than guys who made it… Before looking at their talent, I like to see how good of a kid they are and what kind of character they have. That’s No. 1 for me. Once I see that, I’m willing to help to the moon and back. I want to work with them and show them that this [lifestyle] is attainable.”
Crawford’s peers in the Seattle have embraced the same pay-it-forward mentality, and it’s no coincidence that the city has produced some extremely talented prospects over the last two decades.
“Jamal is just, like, the best human being,” LaVine said. “He’s a great person. I try to be the same way; it’s just how you’re supposed to be, how you’re supposed to treat other people. I thank my parents [for instilling that]. I remember being in high school – or even right before I entered high school – getting little invites to their pro runs. To be a high-schooler going up against Brandon Roy, Jamal, Nate Robinson, Tone [Wroten]? You keep getting better and better. You can see the progression, and they can see that you’re part of that group of players who will carry on Seattle basketball. You start from a young age and then once you get there [to the professional level], you just pass it down the same way.”
“Jamal is kind the godfather of the Seattle hoops scene,” Hawes said. “We have a strong basketball culture out here. Whoever is coming up, they had someone from the previous generation help them. For me, when I was coming up, I was a late bloomer physically. I’d go to the University of Washington and try to get in those runs, and Jamal would always make sure [I got to play]. He’d be like, ‘Hey, who is that skinny white kid? Make sure he’s getting in next!’ Everyone wants to see everyone else do well; that’s kind of the root of it. We don’t view the others as someone who will steal your thunder. Just like someone put their arm around you, you want to do the same thing for the next group of kids who are coming up and instill whatever it is in them so that they also pay it forward down the line.”
“All the guys want to pull each other up, it’s not crabs in a bucket here,” said Sylvester Dennis, the commissioner of The Crawsover. “Everyone helps each other. You hear guys saying, ‘Hey, I’ll be at UW tomorrow to work out,’ and, ‘Hey, let’s play at the pro-am together.’ We all float around together rather than everyone doing their own thing.”
“Most of the kids realize that we have a special thing going on here,” Crawford adds, “and that they have to continue that legacy and tradition.”
After playing 18 NBA seasons and helping countless up-and-comers, Crawford has reached the point where his mentees have mentees. Crawford points to Isaiah Thomas mentoring Ahmaad Rorie, who was the leading scorer at the University of Montana last season, as one example.
“I watched Isaiah make it and then do the same things for Rorie [as I did for him],” Crawford said. “And Isaiah won’t want anything from Ahmaad, except for him to do it for the next generation. That’s what it’s all about: paying it forward. That’s truly what makes our basketball community special.”
Another example is Will Conroy letting Tony Wroten live with him and mentoring him.
“Just like Isaiah lived with Jamal, I lived with Will Conroy,” Wroten said. “My best friend and I lived with Will for a while. When you get into high school, you think you’re too cool and all that. But Will made sure we were taking care of business, taking care of academics. I had my mom, my pops and Will was like my brother. He wanted to see me do better than he did and he always checked up on me because he loved me like a brother. When we lived with those guys, Zeke and I didn’t have a dime to our name. Most of us came from poverty. We didn’t have any money to give them, and they weren’t doing it for that. It was just to better our future, to help us get to where we’re at now. It’s pure love.
“And for some, like myself, we were going down the wrong road. I’m so thankful that I had guys like Jamal Crawford and Brandon Roy and Will Conroy to come pick me up and make sure I was always in the gym. Things could have really went a different way if I didn’t have them. (Long pause) It means a lot. Now, it’s like a domino effect. As they get older, we get older and we want to do the same thing. If you look at where Seattle basketball is right now, you see how much of an impact those guys had and how much their way of doing things works. You see how much it’s helped the younger guys. Now, guys like myself, Dejounte Murray and the other young guns are looking after the next high-schoolers and college kids coming up from our city. We gotta make sure they turn their dream into reality too.”
When Crawford thinks about his career, this ripple effect he’s created in his hometown is one of his proudest achievements.
“It’s great because it means the person I helped got it,” Crawford said with a smile. “He got the message, figured things out and passed it along to the next person. Then, it’ll just keep going!”
Not every city is like this. In fact, talk to NBA players and you quickly realize that the culture in Seattle in a rarity. Not all veterans are eager to help young players (who are often seen as a threat).
Los Angeles has produced a ton of pros and many NBA players play pick-up or pro-am games in L.A. each offseason (which we wrote about last year). However, former NBA player Pooh Jeter and others have admitted that the city’s players need to do a better job of coming together and mentoring the up-and-coming talent from Los Angeles, as chronicled by Marc J. Spears for The Undefeated. Jeter recently spoke to Paul Pierce’s AAU team and one of the kids told him, “We are trying to be where y’all at, but we can’t find y’all.” As a result, Jeter and fellow L.A. native Bobby Brown started the Los Angeles Basketball Skills Clinic, which featured pros from the area helping college and high school players.
When Crawford was drafted by the Bulls in 2000, he arrived in Chicago and expected their local talent to be a tight-knit community. Instead, he recalls that Antoine Walker, Tim Hardaway and Michael Finely “would play together, but that was kind of where it stopped.” They all did their own thing off the court.
“I’m not saying they weren’t all friends, but for us, if Nate Robinson has a softball game, we’re all going to be there. If Spencer Hawes has a bowling event, we’re all going to be there. Without a doubt,” Crawford explained. “That’s just the way we do it here. It’s special.”
“That inclusiveness and desire to see others do well, it’s not something you see everywhere else,” Hawes said. “That’s something that’s really cool about Seattle.”
“In the majority of cities, it doesn’t happen like this,” Wroten said. “That’s because people go about it the wrong way. They think, ‘Oh, that young guy is gonna take food off my table,’ or, ‘I’m the best in the city, so I need all the pub.’ But us? We feel like we can all get this bread, we can all have this life we dreamed about. We want to help each other make it, so we can all represent our city and make them proud… I just feel like we have a different mindset [from players in other cities], to tell you the truth.”
Two weeks ago, NBA legend Bill Russell showed up to watch The Crawsover’s action. Crawford found out just hours before that the 11-time NBA champion would be in attendance and freaked out.
“I took over this pro-am 14 years ago when Doug Christie was getting later into his career,” Crawford said. “He told me, ‘You’ve come up with this since you were in high school, so you’re the perfect person to make sure it keeps going forward.’ It’s amazing how much we’ve been able to grow. We were at random YMCAs at one point. Now, Bill Russell is calling me and saying he wants to come watch?! That’s unbelievable. He doesn’t go anywhere! That kind of thing is just incredible. To continue to grow the pro-am is just a dream come true.”
“We’re talking about a legend, someone as big as Bill Russell,” Wroten exclaims, “just pulling up to watch some pro-am games!”
Many of the pro-am players and staffers share stories about how much NBA stars love Seattle. LeBron James, who traveled to face the Sonics on road trips early in his NBA career, has talked to local players about missing the city. Several people point out that Kevin Durant loved Seattle when he played there as a rookie and raved about the place when he returned in 2013. When Blake Griffin participated in the pro-am, it was his first time in Seattle and he told Crawford that he “might buy a house here” because he enjoyed himself so much. When Kyrie Irving came through, he told Wroten that he “loved it.” Other NBA stars like Chris Paul, John Wall and Paul George have made appearances as well.
Without question, one thing that brought the Seattle basketball community together was the SuperSonics’ move to Oklahoma City after 40 years in in the Emerald City. When someone mentioned how upset Sonics fans were (speaking in past tense), Commissioner Dennis interrupted.
“We’re still devastated, still crushed,” Dennis stressed. “We have the Seahawks and the Mariners. We have Boeing, Starbucks, Microsoft, Amazon – all these Fortune 500 companies. But we don’t have an NBA team? It doesn’t make sense.”
Each of the players who talked to HoopsHype brought up the Sonics’ departure as a big reason why they participate in the annual pro-am.
“When I started my career, the Sonics were still here so these fans had a team that they could reach out and touch,” Crawford said. “When I was a kid, I could reach out and touch Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp. These kids don’t have anybody else. To see basketball, they either see it on TV or play video games. That’s why every year, I ask the kids, ‘Who do you want to see?’ and I try my best to go get that guy. I hate asking anybody for anything, but that’s why I had to get all those players. Once the guys come and experience it, they realize, ‘Wow, these kids don’t have a team here, so this is the closest they get.’ I think it really hits home and resonates with them. We have an average of 700-to-800 people coming out every weekend, just to watch a pro-am! These fans are amazing.”
“The fans are crazy,” Wroten said. “When the Sonics were taken away from us, it hurt. We lost something that was really important to us. We didn’t deserve to have our team taken away like that. I have no doubt in my mind that we are going to get our team back. [In the meantime], the pro-am is the closest these fans are going to get. But we have so many pros from Seattle, or Washington in general, that you may see five, six, seven NBA players in the pro-am at one time. Some days, you may see 10 pros in three or four hours. That’s everything to these fans.”
Hawes, like all the local players, believes “it’s an inevitability” that the Sonics will return. “When they get the building done, it’s going to be really hard for the league to say no,” he added.
“Now, you see kids walking around in a Steph Curry jersey, a Kevin Durant jersey, a LeBron James jersey. When we were kids, you wouldn’t be caught dead wearing another team’s jersey. You better be wearing a GP jersey, a Detlef [Schrempf] jersey or a Reign Man jersey!” Hawes said. “It kills me a little bit because you realize that there are some kids who are going into high school soon and they don’t have any memory of the Sonics.”
Zach LaVine, 23, and Dejounte Murray, 21, are two of the younger players to recently emerge from Seattle and make a big impact in the NBA. LaVine is a big believer in Crawford’s approach. He benefitted from it as a youngster in the area and he sees plenty of talented kids to choose from as he looks to pass the baton.
“The future of Seattle basketball looks great,” LaVine said. “We have so much talent coming out of this city. I was just in Seattle with a couple of my boys like Al Snow, Glen Dean and Mark McLaughlin who I grew up with, who played overseas or in the G League, and now they’re coaching. They’ve been putting on little runs [that include Seattle pros]. We may not have the Rico Hines runs [like Los Angeles] or the runs that New York has with all those stars, but we have a lot of NBA talent from here. We invite the young guys to our runs, and there are a lot of talented high school and college players coming up right now. Seattle basketball is like this big fraternity. It’s beautiful to see how the basketball talent continues to grow.”
After a long day of games, Crawford wonders whether a future NBA player was in the stands that afternoon – a kid who would someday talk about seeing Bill Russell in the flesh and being mentored by a ton of veterans from his city.
“Before the late ‘90s, a lot of our athletes gravitated to football,” Crawford said. “More of our athletes were going Division I in football than basketball. I think it took some of us breaking through and saying, ‘Hey, this is trail! This is the way we need to go!’ I think once you do that, it becomes easier for others to go down the road. You’re giving other people hope. Suddenly, other kids are thinking, ‘Maybe I can do that too…’
“There could have been a kid in the crowd today who ends up playing in the NBA. He can say, ‘If they did it, I can do it.’ And then that kid can inspire a 2-year-old who’s out there. It just keeps going.”
Thanks to Jeremy Mills for the main image of Crawford and Russell.
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