By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Rarely does a player get to know his team’s owner (let alone become friends) before the owner actually becomes the owner.
But that is the case with reigning Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford. His Seattle roots afforded him the opportunity years ago to cultivate a relationship with former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. This, of course, was long before Ballmer, a 6-foot-5, bounding ball of infectious energy, ever dreamed he’d cough up $2 billion to buy one of the all-time sad-sack organizations in all of sports.
“We’ve done a lot of [charity] events together in Seattle, so I’ve known him before he was actually the owner,” Crawford said. “We were texting throughout the year and emailing each other and staying in contact and continuing to work together with charities around Seattle. It’s exciting. I don’t know how many people have actually known their owner before they actually played for the team they were on. So it’s pretty cool.”
Times they a-changin’ in Clipperland and Crawford is singing Ballmer’s praises and predicting heady days ahead for the franchise. In his final years, disgraced owner Donald Sterling had finally started to loosen his air-tight grip on the purse strings, allowing for All-Stars Blake Griffin and Chris Paul to sign long-term deals and to bring in coach Doc Rivers. It hardly made up for decades of valuing frugality over winning, but it does set up Ballmer well to elevate the Clippers into perennial contenders.
The 6-foot-6 Crawford, who averaged 18.6 ppg and shot 36.1 percent from deep in his 14th season, has been telling his teammates what they can expect from their new owner.
“I just told them he’s very open-minded, he’s very ambitious and aggressive,” Crawford said. “He’s someone who’s also there to have your back, always positive energy, positive reinforcement. He’s someone obviously that is a huge, huge, huge fan of basketball. He didn’t just buy the team to be profitable; I think he’s doing OK without owning the team. I think it’s more so staying connected and he loves the game, enjoys the game.
“In this league, you only get a certain number of chances to really go after it and when you have those moments you have to take advantage and be aggressive in those times, and I think that is exactly what he’ll do. If we feel like we need to add a piece or we need to add this or that, going over the luxury tax or any other restrictions or trying to be cautious about different things, that’s not him. He’s aggressive and he’s going to go after it.”
Crawford, 34, recently got married and this week he and his bride are honeymooning in Kauai. Then it’s back to Los Angeles to begin working out with teammates as the official countdown to training camp begins. Before flying out over the Pacific, Crawford granted NBA.com a few minutes to reflect on the early days of the Sterling controversy and where the Clippers could be headed under Ballmer.
NBA.com: What did last month’s sale of the team, the ending of the Sterling era, signify to you?
Crawford: Now we can focus on what’s important, and that’s trying to put one of the best teams on the floor, trying to play for one of the best organizations out there and trying to win a championship. Everything else is behind us and we can move forward. I think it’s kind of, in a way, a fresh start for everyone. We’re all excited about moving forward.
NBA.com: We had heard through the court proceedings that Doc Rivers wasn’t sure if he’d return if Sterling remained the owner when the 2014-15 season started. What do you think the players’ response would have been had the sale not gone through?
Crawford: At that point, if the sale didn’t go through, we would have to revisit it and all decide collectively what we were going to do. But I’m sure everything would be on the table at that point.
NBA.com: Was the day the Sterling tapes came out one of those days you’ll never forget where you were or what you were doing when you heard the news?
Crawford: For sure, it was a monumental time. I’ve said if you want to work on your jumper, you can get some extra shots up, or if you want to be a better ballhandler, you can put some cones down and go through drills, but to actually go through what we went through, there’s no guide or manual for that. You just have to go through it and lean on your faith and fight through it and lean on each other. I think we did a good job of that. We handled it the best we could, especially having Doc as the leader and the voice for us, I think that made our jobs a whole lot easier. Because here we are, we’re worried about Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and Draymond Green and those guys and we have to deal with that; but it’s something I think that brought us closer together and hopefully we can use that this season and really continue to lean on each other and move forward.
NBA.com: The news broke in the middle of the first-round playoff series against Golden State. The Clippers managed to win in seven games, but how difficult was it to focus on playing the games?
Crawford: It was a nightmare because you got to think there’s 15 personalities [on the team], and the coaching staff and then your family’s opinion, they all weigh in, and everybody has an opinion and before you know it, it wasn’t just about basketball and things of that nature and just our team anymore. In 24 hours the whole world had an opinion about it. You’re trying to take naps and stuff and get your rest, and you can’t even get some sleep because you feel like, ‘how can I play for someone like this?’ There were so many different emotions. I think getting to lean on each other, having Doc at the helm to kind of be our voice so we could concentrate the best we could was probably the best decision we made.
NBA.com: Did your emotions run the gamut from day to day?
Crawford: Yeah, I’m human. You’re angry, you’re disappointed, you’re sad, you’re confused. There’s just so many different emotions. And then when you let people inside that world, inside that circle, you start thinking even more. I think we just leaned on each other. We tried to block everything else, the rest of the world and lean on each other, the 15 guys in that locker room and our coaching staff and we did what we felt was right.
NBA.com: All that is in the rearview mirror now. There’s been some turnover, players lost and added. Do you like how the roster has evolved?
Crawford: We have a year under Doc’s system, another year he knows us. Obviously losing [Jared] Dudley, he was a guy who started half the season, he spread the floor, he guarded tougher guys, so you always hate to lose guys. We also lost [Darren] Collison, we lost [Danny] Granger, we lost Ryan Hollins. But in return you gain Spencer Hawes, Jordan Farmar, C.J. Wilcox. And another year of having the core guys together, hopefully health is on our side. Last year I missed a little over a month, Chris [Paul] missed a little over a month, J.J. [Redick] missed a couple months. If we can keep those guys together, Doc knows us, we know him, we know what to expect, he knows what to expect from us, and to keep trucking I think sometimes you need a little bit of luck in those situations and we’ll be ready to go.
NBA.com: There’s very little room for error in the Western Conference. How do you see the race developing this season?
Crawford: I think last year only two teams record-wise in the East would have even of made the playoffs in the West and that was Miami and Indiana, so it’s the wild West, that’s for sure. I think you had the ninth-place team approaching almost 50 wins in the West, that’s tough. It’s really open. We all understand San Antonio is the top dog, they’ve been that way, they’ve been a staple pretty much the last decade and a half. We all understand that and they’re going to be there in the end just like always, they find ways. With us, OKC, Golden State is a good team, Phoenix is on the rise, there’s so many good teams. Denver will probably be healthy this year. It will be a dogfight. Memphis will be there. It will be a dogfight, that’s for sure. We just know if we focus on what we need to do, we’ll be in pretty good shape.
NBA.com: What did you think of LeBron James returning to Cleveland and Kevin Love joining him? And any other story lines pique your interest?
Crawford: I think it’s really cool he gets the chance to go home and end it the way it started. He means more to Cleveland than just a superstar athlete, so for him to have the opportunity to go back in his prime and go back and do good things on and off the court, I think that’s great, I’m happy for him. Kyrie [Irving], Dion Waiters, [Anderson] Varejao is still there; especially in the East that’s a team that can win a lot of games. Then you throw in Chicago, if they stay healthy. Miami is re-tooling a little bit and I think D-Wade [Dwyane Wade] is going to play like he has something to prove. [Chris] Bosh, you’ll probably see more of him like he was with the Raptors, more of a focal point, so I think it’s going to be fun. Just seeing Kobe back, I’m a huge Kobe Bryant fan, so seeing him back healthy, I think he’s good for sports, period, not just the NBA because everybody wants to see the Kobe show.
There’s so many different stories this season and I think that’s really, really cool. I just want everybody to be healthy because it evens the playing field. It makes the game more exciting and I think it’s good for the league and good for the fans.