Basketball / Sports

Clippers' Crawford reaches for the sky

"Stay far from timid. Only make moves when your heart's in it. And live the phrase 'Sky's the Limit.' -- "Sky's The Limit" by Notorious B.I.G.

It could be a Bible verse, a parent's favorite phrase or something a teacher once told you. But someone, somewhere, has probably given you life advice that's stuck with you. Clippers guard Jamal Crawford won't ever forget the 19 words that move him most.

They're permanently inked on his arm.

"It means everything to me," Crawford said. "It's my favorite song ever. The lyrics always hit home."

The sky has been the limit for Crawford thanks to his unique talents on the court, something he almost squandered because of bad decisions and bad people.

Despite a late-season calf injury, Crawford, 34, is playing the best basketball of his career. His shot-making and spark off the bench have been a critical part of the Clippers' 57-win season and will be crucial in the team's postseason run.

Considering that Crawford's life almost ended before it began, it's an improbable story.

But before B.I.G. scribbled down the words to "Sky's the Limit," Crawford had been living that phrase.

"I don't know how any of this happened," he said. "I believe sky's the limit."

"Because the streets is a short stop. Either you're slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot" -- "Things Done Changed" by Notorious B.I.G.

There almost wasn't a Jamal Crawford.

His mother, Venora, already had two children. She was 13 when her first, Lisa, was born. Then came Lori, and for the next 12 years Verona wasn't sure she wanted another one.

"My mom was kind of done after those two," Jamal said.

Luckily, Lori wanted a baby brother.

"I begged her, 'Please, please, please. I will get up in the middle of the night with the baby. I will do everything,'" Lori said. "I promised. And every time he cried at night, I jumped up."

On March 20, 1980, Jamal was born in Seattle, a city he's loved since. Soon, Lori was watching her 3-year-old baby brother drain jump shots at the local high school.

With his mother feeling that her son needed a male influence, Crawford went to live with his father and grandmother in Los Angeles. Two years later, he was back in Seattle.

But when Venora couldn't keep her son under control, she sent him back when he was 13.

"He was miserable," Lori said. "He was scared of L.A."

The fear came from a very real place. The summer before Crawford started at Dorsey High, he got robbed.

"I didn't understand the whole situation with colors. I was from Seattle, I didn't understand in what you could and couldn't wear," Crawford said. "I had on the wrong color for where I was at. The guy asked me where I was from. In L.A., it means what gang are you from. I answered, 'I'm from Seattle.' They were like, 'He doesn't really know what's going on.' He just took what I had and left me."

The fear coupled with immaturity kept Crawford from playing basketball his first two years of high school.

"I didn't really go to school. I was missing class. I was shooting dice," he said. "I was running with the wrong crowd. Basketball was the one constant."

Crawford began to make a name for himself in the Los Angeles AAU scene, playing against future pros such as Baron Davis and Paul Pierce.

He still loved the game, but more than anything, he wanted to go home.

Lori, who was serving as a foster parent, decided she had to bring Jamal back to Seattle, sending him a plane ticket before his junior year.

Once he got back home, Crawford focused on getting eligible. He'd grown, too, becoming a 6-foot-4 ball-handling genius with chopstick-thin arms that dangled to his knees.

"My name had spread really fast," he said. "The buzz was huge."

"I can hear sweat trickling down your cheek. Your heartbeat sound like Sasquatch feet, thundering, shaking the concrete." -- "Who Shot Ya" by Notorious B.I.G.

It was clear Crawford had a gift, and people wanted to see.

"He would pack all the gyms," Lori said. "You would go to gyms and they wouldn't be crowded, but if someone said 'Crawford is playing Friday,' it'd be packed. If Gary Payton and the other Sonics weren't playing and in town, they'd be at the games too.

"And, yeah, he put on a show."

Cleveland Cavaliers center Spencer Hawes said watching Crawford play in high school was an experience every basketball fan in that city wanted to have.

"It was always a show," Hawes said.

If players in the NBA are worried about looking silly because of Crawford's crossover now (they are), it had to have been rough to guard him in high school.

Crawford developed a swagger and his natural showmanship couldn't be suppressed.

"You guys think I'm flashy now? You can ask anybody in high school. You wouldn't believe it," he said with pride.

"I'd walk up the court backwards dribbling through my legs, get to the 3-point line, touch the ground, throw the ball over my neck, shoot it, and start running back before the ball went in.

"The crowd would go nuts."

Jared Dudley said he believes Crawford wins around 80 percent of his one-on-one matchups each game. More often than not, the best-case scenario for a defender is Crawford gets a shot up and can't convert.

The worst-case scenario ends up on YouTube, where Crawford crossovers get hundreds of thousands of views.

Crawford swears his style of play was never a conscious choice. He grins when he recalls going through practice as an 8-year-old, doing backward reverse scoop shots while coaches shook their heads in amazement.

"No one taught me," he said.

"Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, when I was dead broke I couldn't picture this." -- "Juicy" by Notorious B.I.G.

In 14 NBA seasons, Crawford has earned nearly $80 million, changing his life and the lives of the people around him. He has cars, clothes, jewelry and his dream home -- a mansion on the banks of Lake Washington in Seattle.

He shares a neighborhood with the city's richest men -- Bill Gates, Paul Allen and John Nordstrom.

He's the face of a start-up sneaker company, BrandBlack.

Crawford thought this was all possible; he just didn't know how.

"I would've believed it, but I wouldn't have known how to get here," he said.

The best route turned out to be the one that was most natural. Crawford never backed away from the player he was, even if his game was unorthodox.

"I'm not trying to do it. It's just who I am. I'm not trying to be fancy. I'm just playing basketball," he said. "... I don't play like anybody. I used to be mad about that when I was 15 or 16. I wanted to play like somebody. I wanted to play like a Penny Hardaway or Grant Hill. Now, I accept it."

Crawford's more than accepted it; he's embraced it.

Using his deep bag of moves, Crawford has become one of the NBA's premiere scorers. Since joining the Clippers, Crawford has averaged 17.5 points and shot 43 percent from the field and 37.2 percent from 3-point range, operating as the team's sixth man.

"For his type of game, usually those guys aren't that efficient," teammate Jared Dudley said. "That's what surprised me, how efficient he is."

Crawford has surprised his critics this season, showing improvement on defense and on the boards. While he'll probably never undo his reputation as a one-dimensional player, he has developed into a key piece for Coach Doc Rivers and the Clippers.

"Defensively, no matter what I do, that label is going to be there," Crawford said. "But my coaching staff would tell you that I've been solid on defense. I've been better this year than I've ever been."

The major criticism of Crawford offensively is that he's a volume scorer, someone who takes bad shots and makes too few of them.

"I don't care about my reputation on defense. It used to really bother me before. The shot selection critics used to bother me too," he said. "I've never taken a shot I can't make. I think that's a gift and a curse."

"While we out here, say the hustla's prayer: "If the game shakes me and breaks me, I hope it makes me a better man..." -- "Sky's The Limit" by Notorious B.I.G.

Inside the visiting locker room at Staples Center before a recent game, Hawes overheard Crawford's name mentioned, and he couldn't help himself from jumping in the conversation.

Hawes, who like Crawford starred in the Seattle high school scene, said Crawford's impact is immeasurable on basketball in that city.

"The mayor of Seattle plays in Jamal's summer league," Hawes said "so he's higher up than him."

After being tutored by professionals from the city such as Doug Christie, Crawford became a mentor for the city's young stars.

"He took me under his wing, even when people said I was terrible and just a sophomore in high school," Hawes said. "If I wanted to get a run in, he'd make sure I got in a game. Whatever you needed growing up, advice or whatever, he took care of guys.

"It was big for me."

Stories like this don't surprise players around the NBA.

"He's one of the best dudes in this league," Hawes' teammate, Jarrett Jack, said. "He's a real cool dude and really talented. He probably has the best ball-handling skills in this league."

Jack knows what Crawford is really like, but if you judged him just on what you see, you might come away with a different opinion.

Crawford is covered in tattoos, plays with a style that defies convention and has suited up for six different teams, He's heard the whispers.

"It's out there," Crawford said. "I have friend of mine, one of my best friends in the world, who works for a NBA team. And, he's said the same thing. I asked him what the feeling was about me, before people get to know me. It's that I'm a street guy, flashy, a lot of tattoos, all that."

He is those things; he'll admit it.

But he's more.

Crawford has big plans post-NBA (he says he'll retire after five more seasons). He wants to continue his charity work, continue as an ambassador for Seattle and continue to stay close to the game by maybe coaching a high school team. The dreams are big, just like they've always been.

"I want to be president of a team, our team, when Seattle gets a team," he said. "Now that I've come this far, now that I've gone 95 yards on a 100-yard field, I can get the last 5."

Like everything in his life, it comes back to his creed.

"It's a life lesson, really," he said. "Stay far from timid. Only make moves when your heart's in it. You shouldn't do something unless you're fully invested and your heart is fully in it, and then, you won't second guess it no matter what the outcome is."

Based on how the first 34 years have gone, the outcome will probably work out. Why? For Crawford, the sky's the limit.

(c)2014 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

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