Sonics gone, but hoop dreams still alive with Seattle Pro-Am
SEATTLE -- Jamal Crawford stood opposite his bride, Tori Lucas, in front of friends, family, celebrities and athletes on their wedding day. His life was about to come full circle. On his side were his three of his best friends, exemplifying what he’s stood for all his life: family, community and loyalty.
Isaiah Thomas. Brandon Roy. Will Conroy. Best friends, bonded by basketball and their hometown. Thomas and Roy are household NBA names; Conroy, on the other hand, has bounced around, country to country and league to league.
What all four share is bigger than a city. It’s bigger than a game. It’s family.
It’s possible none of it would have happened without another name NBA fans are familiar with: Doug Christie. The now-retired Christie started the “All Hoop, No Hype” league in 1996, four seasons after he entered the NBA as the first Seattle native in nearly a decade. At the same time, Crawford was entering his sophomore year at Rainier Beach High School — Christie’s alma mater — and beginning to burst onto the blossoming basketball scene in the Emerald City.
Christie reached out to Crawford and took him under his wing, making Crawford the inaugural high school player featured in what would eventually become the Seattle Pro-Am. At 16, Crawford suddenly had summer teammates and mentors in Christie, Damon Stoudamire, Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton.
“I was a fly on the wall when I was around those guys,” Crawford said. “Just a sponge on picking up things.”
As Crawford grew, so too did the league. Soon, it was Crawford in the NBA and Christie in the stands, after the latter retires in 2007. He handed the league over to Crawford, and with it, the heart of the Seattle basketball scene.
It became the Jamal Crawford Pro-Am, then just the Seattle Pro-Am. With the name changes came bigger venues and more growth. Thomas has seen that growth first hand. He’s also played in the Pro-Am since he was 16.
“From being at Rainier Beach (High School), when there were five people at the games, where it looks like an open gym,” Thomas said," “to being at Rainier Vista, where it’s a cool amount of people. But here (at Seattle Pacific University), it’s just, you see how professional it is. … It’s grown 100 percent.”
As recently as 2011, when the league was played at the Rainier Vista Boys & Girls Club, it was difficult to even color coordinate teams, let alone put on a full-fledged event. This year, each of the nine teams had a sponsor, including Brandblack, Crawford’s partner in his newly minted clothing and shoe line, which provided full uniforms for every team.
The league's growth hasn't stopped there. With the possibility of players like Kobe Bryant, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul or Kevin Durant visiting each weekend, Crawford and company provide as close to an NBA experience as possible for a league that plays in a 2,650-capacity gym that was last renovated in 1992.
On any given day, an out-of-town player can be directed to a barber, the best food in the city and provided “whatever gets you going.”
“We make it as comfortable as possible,” Crawford said. “The players really respect that and enjoy that.”
That’s part of the reason Crawford is able to draw the guests that he does. Many of them, he doesn’t even have to reach out to. Bryant, who was in town for Richard Sherman’s celebrity softball game this summer, was the only player Crawford needed to contact first.
Even Durant talked to Crawford about making his first return to Seattle since leaving with the Sonics after his rookie season. The best part about Durant’s visit for Crawford? The text he received from the NBA MVP the next day.
“When he came, the love they showed him was truly amazing,” Crawford said. “He texted me and said, ‘Man, that was the best day of the summer.’ It was really cool to hear.”
The league has always had the best local players, but only recently has it been able to bring in the best out-of-town talent, too. It speaks volumes about the growth the league has seen under Crawford, and especially in a Sonics-less Seattle.
If Crawford had been making his college choice today, with a booming basketball culture between the Pro-Am and the University of Washington, he might have never left Seattle.
At the time, however, Crawford faced a difficult decision. Leave Seattle and try to follow the Fab Five at Michigan, or stay home and continue building the foundation that the Seattle basketball community now stands on? For him, it wasn’t a tough choice. Crawford followed in the footsteps of previous prominent Seattle talent and left for a season at Michigan before entering the NBA draft.
Crawford doesn’t think much of his choice to leave. He was a heralded recruit who wanted to play for a premier college program, something that didn’t yet exist in the Pacific Northwest.
It wasn’t until three years later, in 2002, that Huskies head coach Lorenzo Romar arrived at Montlake, and it wasn’t until 2004 that Washington basketball arrived at prominence. The 2004-05 Huskies went 29-6 and earned a No. 1 seed, made especially significant by what the team was comprised of: its three leading scorers and starting point guard were all Seattle natives.
In both Crawford and Romar’s minds, that’s what changed the culture in Seattle. Two players from the team, Nate Robinson and Roy, have starred in the NBA. Three more have spent time in the Association. Seven of them played in the Seattle Pro-Am this summer.
“Seattle became such a hotspot for basketball,” Romar said. “There was a lot of talent that came through here. Now these guys have a Pro-Am league — everybody plays in that — that wasn’t going strong like that when we first got here.”
The Huskies were selling out every home game during that time. A few miles away, Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis led the Sonics to their first division title in seven years. It was the perfect breeding ground for basketball talent.
Enter: Isaiah Thomas.
The 5-foot-9 point guard isn’t shy to admit that he didn’t grow up in Seattle. He’s from the “253,” Tacoma, Wash., about 30 miles south. In 2004, Thomas was a freshman at Curtis High School. In the coming years, his name would be recognized for more than just the NBA Hall of Famer he was named after.
Thomas left Tacoma to play his senior season at South Kent School in Connecticut. Crawford, knowing how hard it is to leave home for school, opened up his doors to Thomas every weekend while he was away. Crawford at the time was playing for the Knicks and had a place in New York.
Soon, Thomas would return home and star for the Huskies. Like Crawford, he followed in the footsteps of those before him when making his college decision. Only this time, those footsteps led him up I-5 to the University of Washington, where he spent three seasons before heading to the NBA.
“Now, we’re in the same league,” Thomas said. “I’m going against him, and I look up to him. It’s just weird. It’s a weird feeling. But it’s also a blessing.”
The only difference for players from this generation is the summer is the only time they can return home. No longer can they play in front of friends and family in NBA road games at Key Arena. Not being able to do that took a toll on the basketball community, including Hawes. His special bond with the Sonics after growing up in Seattle made it difficult on him when they left.
“I was fortunate that my dad took me to a ton of games growing up,” Hawes said. “That was time we spent together and also instilled that love, that love for the game, that passion.
“When they left, it was like it’s a piece of your childhood, it’s a piece of the community, it’s a piece of Seattle that went with it.”
Crawford was playing for the Knicks as his hometown was fighting to keep its team. For some, that would have created a controversy of loyalty. Not Crawford. Not for someone who is a “Seattle guy first.”
“That hurt. That hurt on a personal level,” Crawford said. “Before anything, and that’s why it hurt so much, like this is home for me. I can’t trade it. This is Seattle. This is home.”
Ever since the days of Kemp, Payton and Christie mentoring Crawford, it’s been his goal to give back to the place that’s given him so much. And he's not alone. Without the Sonics, it’s become a goal for many pro Seattle natives to still deliver NBA-level basketball to the youth who would grow up without it otherwise.
Christie passed the torch to Crawford, who now runs the Pro-Am with Seattle lifer Rashaad Powell. Crawford, when he retires, will pass the torch to a guy like Thomas, Hawes or Robinson. In fact, he already has, in a way.
Although Crawford is the man behind the Pro-Am, he’s far from the only man behind community events put on by pro players. Shawn Kemp’s wife, Marvena, helps players like Thomas, Roy, Conroy and Wroten organize backpack giveaways, which provide kids with school supplies and clothes.
The same group hosts individual basketball camps in the summer, but rarely are they alone in the effort. Wroten was holding his camp the same weekend as Pro-Am games, and the group hustled the six miles back and forth to play in the Pro-Am and also show support for Wroten, helping out at his second annual camp.
They don’t share any blood relation, and yet, they manage to hold a family gathering every summer. No player can walk into Royal Brougham Pavilion — or wherever the Pro-Am may be located — without getting hugs, daps or high fives from a slew of fans and friends. Everyone seemingly knows everyone.
So when Crawford organizes an event that’s actually meant for friends and family — like his wedding — chaos ensues. Chaos, as in close to 5,000 people showing up by 10 p.m. for a midnight Pro-Am run featuring the star-studded guest list of Crawford’s wedding.
When Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the rest of his guests arrived in Seattle, they wanted to play a pick-up game with the Seattle crew — it was already going to be a late-night affair; Crawford had his rehearsal dinner earlier that evening — but Crawford talked to Conroy and Powell, the Pro-Am commissioner, and decided to open it to the public for “Midnight Madness.” When Crawford tweeted it out at 4:11 p.m. that afternoon, he had no idea how many people would show up.
By 10 p.m., the pavilion was packed. A line stretched outside the gym for eight blocks down the street.
“If you got there at 11 p.m.,” Crawford said, “you weren’t going to get in.”
So, the night before he got married, Crawford brought the NBA back to Seattle — if only for a night — in the best way he could. Paul, Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Matt Barnes and rapper Wale joined Crawford’s group from Seattle for a 136-129 shootout of a game, in typical Pro-Am fashion.
“It was incredible. It was epic. It was one of a kind,” Crawford said. “It was one of those magical nights.”