jamal crawford

by Lang Whitaker / @langwhitaker

On Sunday night, May 8, the Atlanta Hawks won at home against the Chicago Bulls to even the Eastern Conference Semifinals at two games apiece. Less than 12 hours later, Hawks guard Jamal Crawford arrives at a diner around the corner from Philips Arena to grab some breakfast. His booth is maybe 15 feet from the door, yet on the short walk across the restaurant, Crawford is greeted by daps and pounds and waves, as though he’s running for mayor.

He may not start for the Hawks, but for the last two seasons Crawford has been one of their most important and popular players, coming off the bench every night to energize the team and the crowd with a carefully curated collection of mixtape dribbles and rainbow threes. Switching between both guard positions, Crawford has shown an uncanny knack for getting buckets. Last season, he broke Reggie Miller’s career record for most four-point plays (though Crawford did it in 744 fewer games).

Crawford is a genuinely friendly guy, and fans in each city he’s called home have embraced him. Despite Crawford’s popularity in Atlanta, with free agency looming this summer there’s a chance Crawford could be wearing a different uniform next season. “Honestly, I haven’t really thought about it,” Crawford says, sliding into a booth. “Right now, I’m in the Playoffs, on a team that has a chance to do something. I’m just trying to get lost in the moment.”

SLAM: So you’re originally from Seattle, right?

JC: I was born and raised in Seattle. Then I went and stayed with my dad, in Los Angeles, in fourth and fifth grade. Then I went back to Seattle until eighth grade. Then, from when I was 13 to 16, I went back to L.A. and stayed with my dad. But my whole family is from Seattle.

SLAM: When did you start playing ball?

JC: My parents said I had a ball in my hand since I was 2 years old. I didn’t start playing organized basketball until I was in eighth grade. I played on my little rec league team before that. I was the center, I was taller than everybody else—I was doing all kinds of fancy layups and stuff back then like it was natural. When I was younger, I just always had a basketball with me—always, always, always, always. When I first thought I could really make it was when I was 16, I was playing in Doug Christie’s summer pro league. Playing against pros all the time—Shawn Kemp played, Cliff Robinson, Damon Stoudamire, Yinka Dare. Doug, of course. At first I was nervous, I was the youngest kid out there—these were pros, I was 16! I was playing on Doug’s team and he got hurt, and I averaged like 35 against all those pros. That’s when I was like, I can do it.

SLAM: So how’d you go from the West Coast to end up at Michigan?

JC: Fab Five—I grew up watching them. I didn’t even know how I was going to get there: I was on the West Coast, Michigan was way over there. There was also the opportunity to play right away, because Lou Bullock and Robbie Reid were leaving, and the Fab Five, those guys went there. I didn’t think about how cold it was going to be until I got there.

SLAM: And you were only there at Michigan for one season?

JC: I only played half a year. I played the first half, and the second half I was suspended. They said I was receiving gifts in high school. But it wasn’t against any rule—it wasn’t an AAU coach, it wasn’t a booster, an alumni. So they reinstated me. But I missed a whole half of the season. And it wasn’t like I was getting clothes—I had a tutor to help me with my grades, help me study for the SAT.

SLAM: So after one year at Michigan, you knew you were ready to go to the NBA?

JC: Honestly, if all that didn’t happen, I think I would’ve stayed two years. We had the second-best recruiting class in the country that year behind Duke. They had JWill, Boozer, Dunleavy, that class. My class was myself, Kevin Gaines, Gavin Groninger, LaVell Blanchard—who was actually the Gatorade Player of the Year that year. So I would’ve stayed another year. I just put my name in the Draft to see what would happen.

SLAM: But then you were the No. 8 pick and got traded to Chicago. Did you know they were interested in you?

JC: No. In fact, when I went through the interview process, I had a good feel for them, but they didn’t tell me anything. What was crazy was that day of the Draft, I was wearing Bulls gear the whole day. The whole day. I had some extra stuff from the workouts.

SLAM: Playing at Michigan and then starting out in Chicago, a lot of people probably think of you as a Midwesterner.

JC: Everybody does. I liked living there a lot. In Chicago, because I had experienced Michigan, I knew how the winters would be. The people were nice. I spent four years in Chicago, and I really grew up there. I went at 19, so I matured a lot. I remember I was upset because I wasn’t playing a lot. We weren’t that good—we only won 15 games. We were the youngest team in the League, so how come I wasn’t getting to play and get better? It was just stuff I didn’t understand at the time. I think when I went to New York I understood it better. And in New York there was a whole different crew of veterans—Steph, Allan Houston, Moochie, Vin Baker. I had veterans over the course of my career in Chicago, with Pippen, Charles Oakley was great, Jalen Rose. But I was the youngest guy there. And in New York the whole team was veterans.

SLAM: So in Chicago, is that where you first sort of learned how the NBA worked?

JC: You know, when you’re a young dude, any guy that gets drafted, they’re not going to come in and change the organization in one swoop. It happens—like with LeBron—but 98 percent of the time, you’ve got to bide your time.

SLAM: You thought you could turn the Bulls around?

JC: I didn’t think we’d be champs, but I thought I could at least make us better. And at that time, I wasn’t ready, I gotta be honest. As a player, when you’re really, really playing at your best at this level, I look at it like you’re as comfortable as you were when you were playing in high school. When you’re in high school, you feel like you can do wrong. The really great ones, they play like they did in high school, with that same confidence.