The Crawsover is a reflection of the laid-back nature of Seattle
The pro-am is a labor of love for NBA veteran Jamal Crawford
SEATTLE — It’s midway through the third quarter, and the sight of Jamal Crawford beginning to high-step as he starts his dribble means one thing: He’s ready to attack.
The defender, however, is not ready to be embarrassed and uses his right arm to poke the ball toward half court. Both players instinctively chase the ball and dive, with the defender getting there first and nearly rolling up the back of Crawford’s leg.
To the couple of hundred fans watching from the stands at Royal Brougham Pavilion on the campus of Seattle Pacific University, it’s a basketball play.
To the people who understand that Crawford is an NBA free agent —and some of the people close to him would prefer that he sit the summer out until he gets a new deal — it’s a play that could have yielded some serious consequences.
Watching that scenario reveals two things about Crawford:
He loves basketball.
He loves his home city of Seattle even more.
Fourteen years ago, Crawford took on the responsibility to run the Seattle Pro-Am, which at the time was under the direction of Doug Christie, the Seattle native noted for being a defensive standout during his 14-year NBA career.
Last year the league was rebranded “The Crawsover,” a name that borrows from the signature, ankle-breaking move that Crawford’s perfected throughout his NBA career.
This isn’t an event to which Crawford, 38, simply attaches his name. Crawford is involved year-round, and he’s been known to call to Crawsover staffers from NBA locker rooms just before game time to offer suggestions on how to make the league better. He’s responsible for everything from arranging visits by NBA players to a city that hasn’t had a franchise since the Seattle SuperSonics left in 2008 to the selection of the public address announcer who keeps the crowd entertained.
“Jamal is a hall of fame person,” said Rashaad Powell, a good friend, longtime player and former commissioner of the pro-am. “He cares about this league so much because it’s something we’ve grown up with, and he has an understanding of the importance this league has in the community.”
Where the Drew League in Los Angeles is ultracompetitive and the Brunson League in Baltimore showcases the edginess of the people in Charm City, The Crawsover is a reflection of the laid-back nature of this Pacific Northwest city.
“You won’t find any fights here, and this is a good place to bring your family to watch basketball,” said Robert Upshaw, who at one point during his season at the University of Washington led the NCAA in blocked shots. “We know Los Angeles attracts the top players because of where it’s at, and might have better competition. But as far as the entire league, this is the best in the country.”
Some would say that’s debatable.
What may not be debatable is the Seattle area supplanting New York City as the top birthplace of great guards, as the region has produced a long list in recent decades that includes Crawford, Christie, Zach LaVine, Aaron Brooks, Jason Terry, Isaiah Thomas and Rodney Stuckey.
“This is the place where guards are born,” said a man who identified himself as Smitty, who was selling T-shirts in the lobby of Royal Brougham Pavilion. “And if you look at the state, you can include Dan Dickau and the greatest point guard of all time, John Stockton.”
A decade after losing the Sonics, Jamal Crawford makes sure Seattle remains NBA-connected.
Three of the recent area players to emerge in the NBA, Dejounte Murray (San Antonio Spurs) and Marquese Chriss (Phoenix Suns) and LaVine (Chicago Bulls) have already made appearances in The Crawsover this summer, as well as homegrown former NBA players Martell Webster and Spencer Hawes.
Over the years, Crawford has also been responsible for bringing in Kevin Durant, John Wall, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge and even Kobe Bryant.
“If I hear you’re going to be in Seattle for any type of celebrity event,” Crawford said, “it’s my job to get you here.”
That’s how he got Bryant, who was in Seattle attending then-Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman’s 2014 celebrity softball game. When Crawford ran into Bryant at the softball field, he had a request. “I was nervous, but I went up to him and said, ‘Kobe, man, everybody thinks you’re coming to the pro-am,’ ” Crawford recalled of the conversation. “He asked about it, and then he said, ‘I’m coming.’ ”
One of the reps working with Bryant tried to interject, explaining they had a plane to catch back to Los Angeles. But Bryant pushed the private plane back a couple of hours and made the trip to the gym.
Word spread fast. Bryant didn’t play. And the people didn’t care. By the time Crawford introduced Bryant, the Royal Brougham Pavilion was packed.
“He just came and watched, but I was like a little kid with the fact that he showed up,” Crawford said. “He showed everybody love. I scored 63 and hit the game-winning shot. With Kobe in the building, we had to make something special happen.”
Crawford is all about making special things happen in Seattle. At 5 p.m. on the day before his wedding, Crawford announced he would have a bachelor party in the form of a midnight basketball game and suggested it might be wise to get to the gym early.
The line to get in the gym was seven blocks long by the time Crawford arrived, and the fans lucky enough to get in saw the likes of Crawford, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, Griffin, J.J. Reddick and Aldridge put on a show.
Crawford gives back so much now simply because he was given so much when he was a rising basketball star growing up in Renton, a community just south of Seattle.
The man giving back to Crawford then was Christie, who in 1992 was the first prominent player out of Washington to be drafted into the NBA in more than a decade. When Christie launched the “All Hoop, No Hype” Pro-Am league in 1996, he invited Crawford to play.
Crawford was just 16.
“I still remember how nervous I was putting on that pressed uniform for the first time,” Crawford said. “I was playing against guys like Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton, Damon Stoudamire, and Terrell Brandon and guys who were playing professionally overseas.”
Christie mentored many of the young kids who played basketball in Seattle but took a particular liking to Crawford, who played at Christie’s alma mater, Rainier Beach High School.
The mentoring Christie provided was instrumental in Crawford’s development as a basketball player and made him determined to do the same if he ever made it big.
Crawford was good enough to earn a scholarship at Michigan, and in 2000 he was drafted with the eighth overall pick by the Chicago Bulls.
As his career launched and took off, his success allowed the youth Seattle to realize the dream of making it the the NBA was obtainable.
Rashaad Powell had just completed his first year playing at Chemeketa Community College in Oregon when he got his first taste of the Seattle Pro-Am.
Seattle wasn’t quite known as a hotbed for talent at the time. But for Powell, there was one player around his age who could provide a barometer for where his talent was.
“Every time he came home, I used playing against Jamal as my benchmark,” Powell said. “My goal and my passion was always to play at the highest level in the NBA. I knew each year that if I could compete against Jamal, that made my year.”
Powell, now 37, emerged as the guy Crawford hated to play against.
“A Bruce Bowen type, he has a never-back-down, junkyard dog type of game,” Crawford said. “I knew when I played against him that I would have my hands full because he would pick me up full court, and I knew I would have to have a lot of energy to compete against him.”
For Rashaad Powell, the Crawsover summer pro-am allows him to test his ability against the NBA’s finest event.
After playing two years of junior college, Powell was a walk-on at the University of Idaho, where his career numbers (6.2 points, 4.3 rebounds) don’t jump off the page.
But he made an impact. His tenacious effort earned Powell starts in 53 of the 63 games he played at Idaho, where he played every position from guard to center. As a senior, Powell, who stands only 6-foot-4, held the position down enough to earn the Big West Conference Player of the Year award. Former Idaho coach Leonard Perry said at the time: “I couldn’t be prouder if he was my own son.”
After Idaho, Powell suited up in North American leagues including the American Basketball Association, International Basketball League and Continental Basketball Association and North American Basketball League, some of which paid as little as $25 a game. He played internationally in Chile, Indonesia, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates. Every new uniform he put on while playing in different leagues never diverted him from his ultimate goal: to play in the NBA. “It’s a dream I could never let go,” Powell said. “I’ve always had love for the game.”
When it came to basketball, the one constant in Powell’s life was the pro-am each summer. “More NBA guys started to come in, and each summer was a chance to play against them,” Powell said. “It allowed me to test where my game was at. Those games were always my NBA Finals.”
Twelve years ago, Powell, then in his mid-20s, was shooting baskets at a gym in his hometown of Renton when an older gentleman invited him to play a game of horse. Powell was so decisive in winning the game that the man asked for his phone number. “I’m going to call my friend Jack Sikma,” the man said of the then-assistant coach with the Seattle SuperSonics. “I’m going to get you a tryout.”
A few weeks later, Powell was walking in downtown Seattle, where he worked with an insurance brokerage, when he answered his cellphone and heard, “Hi, this is Jack Sikma.”
Powell froze in his tracks and nearly dropped the phone as Sikma invited him to work out with the team. “Just thrilled beyond belief,” he recalled. “This was my big chance.”
The summer workouts started at 10 a.m., but Powell would show up at 9 a.m. Ray Allen liked his work ethic and took him under his wing.
“I played against Ray, Rashard Lewis, all those guys,” Powell said. “Based on that, I knew I could play in the NBA.”
With less than a week remaining in the monthlong workouts, Powell found himself alone in the locker room with Rick Sund, who was the Sonics’ general manager.
The two spoke briefly, and you can hear in Powell’s voice today how much he regrets that encounter.
“I didn’t shoot my shot,” Powell said. “I didn’t let him know who I was and what I wanted to do — which was to play in the NBA. I’d just gone toe-to-toe for an entire month with Ray Allen, and I had already proven I could compete against NBA players.
“If I could rewind the hands of time and do one thing over in my life, it would be to take advantage of that opportunity.”
Powell’s professional basketball career ended three years ago, and today he’s coach at his alma mater, Renton High School, where he is also the dean of students.
These days Powell is older and a bit slower, and he was never really that athletic.
But he suits up every week at The Crawsover.
And still gets buckets.
“I never got a chance to live my dream of being in the NBA,” Powell said. “But no matter how old I get, I will still love the game.”
In 2004, with his NBA career coming to a close, Christie reached out to Crawford.
“I want you to run the league.”
Without hesitation, Crawford accepted.
Crawford was the logical choice, having been by Christie’s side since he was first asked to play in the league in 1996.
“When he worked out, he’d call to see if I wanted to join him at the gym, and he’d call me if he needed help with the league,” Crawford said. “At the time, I didn’t have his phone number and was too nervous to ask for it. I was like a student, and all along, he was checking on my work ethic and whether I was responsible.”
After accepting to run the pro-am, the task for Crawford was easy: provide a league and provide the same guidance to the young, up-and-coming players of the Seattle area that others gave to him.
“You know how much it meant to a kid to have someone in the NBA believe in you,” Crawford asked. “Doug believed in me, Gary Payton believed in me, and they gave me all the confidence in the world. So if I could do that for the next generation, that’s what it’s all about.”
So each summer, Crawford plays the role of showman and teacher, providing thrills to the fans who come to see the games (admission is free) while offering guidance to the players who are talented enough to make it to the professional level.
“He tells me what he’s been through to make it, and it’s great advice from a guy who’s been in the league as long as I’ve been alive,” said Jaylen Nowell, a Seattle native who as a freshman was the leading scorer at the University of Washington last season. “I talk to him on the court and off the court. He’s the best thing to happen to the players in this state.”
While Nahziah Carter (rap mogul Jay-Z’s nephew) isn’t from the region, the University of Washington sophomore still gets the same kind of guidance from Crawford. “He’s always talking to me, telling me ways I can improve my game,” Carter said. “I appreciate his advice.”
A commercial accounts manager by day, Vance Dawson spends his weekends as the announcer of The Crawsover where he brings flava to the mic.
At the conclusion of each day of games at The Crawsover, Crawford makes his way to the corner of the gym with many of the young fans in hot pursuit. As he takes up position in the corner, the fans line up to say hello and take pictures. One teenager from Australia has stopped by as part of his family vacation.
“He has always done great things in the community, and the fact that so many NBA guys come back to Seattle to participate in this is awesome,” said James Dyer, who lives in Chicago and became friends with Crawford during his year with the Bulls. “Seattle is the home to a lot of great basketball players. I think Jamal has been a big part of that.”
When it comes to being a champion for a city, what Crawford has done for Seattle is as good as it gets.
“A lot of people believed in me, guided me and made themselves available to me,” Crawford said. “When Doug handed the league to me, he said, ‘I know it’s in good hands and I know you’ll help it grow.’ I just want to continue to do that.”