New Mexico State point guard Sam Crawford is so slight that you want to remind him to return that droopy uniform before his big brother realizes it's missing. But despite his size—5'8", 155 pounds—Crawford thinks big, as in big numbers and big surprises. And last week he led the Aggies, the 12th seed in the West Regional, on a huge run through the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.
Crawford scurried under and around fifth-seeded DePaul for 21 points, 11 assists and four steals in the Aggies' 81-73 win last Friday in Tempe, Ariz. Then he added 14 points, 10 assists and two steals in a victory by the same score over a fellow upstart, 13th-seeded Southwestern Louisiana, on Sunday. "He was just too quick," said DePaul coach Joey Meyer. "We thought we could get some charges on him when he penetrated, but we couldn't get in front of the guy."
Crawford, a junior transfer from Moorpark (Calif.) College, clearly stood alone as the most dynamic individual surprise of the tournament's first two rounds. He dribbled through presses, spun away from double teams and showed an uncanny knack for driving the lane and, while airborne, finding open teammates through the forest of arms.
"I'll take some extra chances because my style is to do something that will get my teammates pumped up and the crowd excited," says Crawford. "Sometimes I'll mess up, but I'm not afraid of making a mistake. You'll never make a great pass if you're scared of making a bad one."
One reason Crawford may be fearless on the court is that he has faced more daunting challenges off it. When he was 10, Crawford's mother thought it was too dangerous for him to live with her in the Chicago projects, so she sent him to Los Angeles to live with an aunt, Mita Carter, and uncle, former Laker guard Ron Carter. Five years later, though, the Carters divorced. Mita entered an alcohol rehabilitation center, and Ron moved to nearby Sherman Oaks. Sam, who was about to begin his senior year in high school, decided to move in with a teammate rather than with Ron, which would have meant changing schools.
By that time Crawford was known as a talented but uncontrollable player, throwing wild passes and raging at referees and other players. Fortunately he befriended two people who helped settle him down—former NBA guard Norm Nixon, whom he met through Ron, and Dee Dee Purvis, a dance teacher whom he met in junior college.
Nixon helped him on the court. "Norm really helped cool me down," says Crawford. "He taught me that it's not a crime to throw a basic bounce pass. He taught me about control."
Purvis, whom Crawford married last July, helped him off the court. "I was angry and frustrated before I met her," he says. "She smoothed my life out. Suddenly I didn't always need to be screaming, yelling and acting crazy."
This season, Crawford ranked second in the nation in assists (8.4 per game) and led New Mexico State's balanced attack in scoring with a 12.8-point average. But his basketball education is still continuing. "He still tries to do too much occasionally," says New Mexico State coach Neil McCarthy. "Talented people tend to do that. But he can be spectacular. He's a player of oohs and ahs."