- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
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You've seen the highlight a hundred times. Jamal Crawford grabs the ball in the open court, takes off for the rim, then improvises some ridiculous move out of a Harlem Globetrotters video by passing the ball through his legs and up into the air for a perfect alley-oop to Blake Griffin.
Of all the dunks that have made Lob City Lob City, this is one of the cornerstones.
How in the heck did Crawford even see Griffin trailing the play?
How did he have time to pass the ball through his legs and still toss a perfect alley-oop?
It was one of the best dunks you'll ever see. But somewhere in South Seattle, his old high school coach Mike Bethea was laughing.
"He did the same thing at 16, only on that one he threw it off the backboard and dunked it himself," Bethea said.
Every NBA player has a high school coach who has stories like this from their glory days. Back when they were a man among boys and everyone started to realize they could make the NBA one day. But Crawford was on another level.
At 16 he was averaging 25 points a game against professional and college players in Doug Christie's summer league. By the time his high school season started, word had spread that there was a phenom at Rainier Beach High. SuperSonics stars Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp were regulars at his games.
"He changed the face of high school basketball in the state of Washington," Bethea said. "There was just something special about Jamal when he was playing. Wherever he played, the gyms were packed. Everybody heard about him and wanted to come out and watch.
"There's not a kid who comes through Seattle now who doesn't try and have a little of Jamal's flair in their game."
It seemed as if he was destined for superstardom, and well on his way to it when he was drafted eighth overall in 2000. But the Bulls never really played him. Crawford averaged just 4.6 points in 17.2 minutes a game as a rookie. He tore his ACL working out with Michael Jordan the summer after his rookie season and played just 23 games the following year. Then in successive drafts, the Bulls took point guards Jay Williams from Duke and Kirk Hinrich from Kansas. Crawford played alongside them, but there was never a comfortable fit.
"That was tough, and I was immature at handling it all," Crawford said. "'Here we are, we're not the best team anyway, and I'm one of the top picks, why aren't you playing me?'"
Looking back on it 14 years later, Crawford knows exactly why the Bulls weren't playing him. He had all the talent in the world, but he wasn't fully formed as a basketball player. Was he a point guard or a shooting guard? Was he a shot-maker or a creator? Was he a superstar or a solid rotation player?
It took years to answer those questions. But now that he has, Jamal Crawford knows exactly what he is and who he should be: a sixth man.
"Growing up, it wasn't like I wanted to be a sixth man," Crawford said. "It only happened because I got to this point where I just wanted to win more than anything. When you bring one of your top scorers, your top players off the bench, it really gives your team balance."
His job is to score when Chris Paul and Griffin aren't on the court, whether it's normal rest over the course of a game, or when one of them is injured as Paul was for a large chunk of games in the middle of the season.
Crawford is averaging 18.6 points in 66 games this season -- most among NBA reserve players -- but 22.5 points and 5.3 assists a game when Paul has been out of the lineup.
"He's a starter on any other team in this league," Paul said. "He could be on our team as well if he wanted to, but he knows that role and he's the best at it."
Crawford won the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award in 2009 as a member of the Atlanta Hawks. He finished second to New York's J.R. Smith last season. He's one of the leading candidates -- along with Chicago's Taj Gibson, San Antonio's Manu Ginobili, Phoenix's Markieff Morris and Oklahoma City's Reggie Jackson -- to win it again this year.
Ginobili has the highest player efficiency rating of the group at 20.63, but is averaging just 12.3 points a game. Morris has the second-highest PER at 18.5 to go with averages of 13.7 points and 6 rebounds a game. Crawford has the highest scoring average and the third-highest PER at 17.47. Gibson is averaging 13.2 points and 6.9 rebounds a game with a 16.48 PER. Jackson is scoring 13.3 points with a 15.35 PER.
In other words, it'll be a close race.
Crawford was probably the front-runner until a calf injury limited his playing time down the stretch. He has missed 12 of the Clippers past 18 games because of what he called an "ultra safe" approach that he and the team hope ensures he's healthy for the playoffs. He's expected to miss Wednesday's game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, but said he was hoping to play in a game or two before the playoffs begin.
Asked whether the injury could affect his chances at the award, Clippers coach Doc Rivers said, "It shouldn't. The only way it would is if people forget about him, and if they forget about him, it means you guys aren't writing about him enough. I certainly think he should win it."
However the voting shakes out is secondary, though. Crawford spent the first nine years of his NBA career on teams that missed the playoffs. It took until his 10th season, when he came off the bench for the Atlanta Hawks, to get a taste of the postseason. And once he got that taste, everything was different.
"Their starting five was pretty much intact," Crawford said. "They had Marvin [Williams], Josh [Smith], Joe [Johnson], Al [Horford] and Mike Bibby. It was a great situation to win, but I knew I wouldn't be starting.
"So I go, and I remember the first game I had to come off the bench -- and I'd known I was going to have to come off the bench before -- but I was like, 'Man, I feel weak. I feel like a scrub.'
"The first game, I think I took two shots against Indiana. I'm coming in late, it was weird."
After that game, Hawks coach Mike Woodson pulled him aside and told him he needed to get over whatever he was feeling and find a way to be aggressive.
Crawford knew Woodson was right. He needed to get over himself. So what if he was a superstar in high school? Who cares if you're a lottery pick 10 years later? He'd been through so much losing and soul-searching in the first decade of his NBA career that it was time to make whatever sacrifices needed to be made.
"I understood it," Crawford said. "Because if you have all your best players and best scorers out there at one time and they come out, it's a big drop-off. So now I understand the importance of it. Guys have accepted it more, too. Whether it's Lamar [Odom] or Jason Terry, Ginobili or J.R. ... Nobody wants to come off the bench. But if you're really about winning and sacrifice, then you have to do it."
Crawford said he actually prefers that role now.
"I like the fact that when I check in the game, the other players start getting nervous," he said. "The other team gets nervous. I like that."
He drops lines like that with a coolness, not a swagger. Same way he recounts those glory days back in Seattle when he was the high school kid all the pros had to see for themselves. Same way he dropped in details of those days back in Chicago when Jordan took him under his wing.
"I went to his house and played against him," Crawford said of Jordan. "Remember when there was the Gatorade commercial of the old Jordan coming back to play against the young Jordan? I was the young Jordan.
"The best people in the world took an interest in me. It was crazy."
It actually was crazy, even though Crawford drops those details like nothing more than a routine pocket pass. NBA players like Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton don't usually watch high school games on their off days. Maybe they do in the summer at an open gym or summer league, but not high school games.
Crawford was something of a legend at that age, though.
"Jamal was like 16 years old and they brought him in and asked, 'Do you think he can play?'" Christie said. "I watched him play and was like, 'Can he play? Oh my goodness, he's going to kill in this summer league.' At 16 years old, he was able to do all the things he can do now against grown men."
But sometimes it takes a while to find out where you really fit in the NBA. Not everyone has enough talent to stick around long enough to find their way to that place. Those who finally do, appreciate it more.
"I went my first 10 years in the league without making the playoffs, so that's all I want to do now," Crawford said. "I was just talking about that with some of the guys on the bench the other day, like, 'Can you believe that for some of these guys the season is about to be over?' I'm so far removed from that, I can't even remember what it was like."