January 8, 2016, Tianjin, China —
Nan Zhang hit the first shot of the game – an 18-footer along the baseline – the ball nipping against the back of the rim before lifelessly plopping through the net.
They would be Zhang’s only points of the night. His final stat line would read three shots, two points, and no rebounds, assists, blocks or turnovers. The six other Chinese players who set foot on the court for the Tianjin Gold Lions put up similarly forgettable numbers.
The American does the scoring.
Jordan Crawford’s first shot is a three from straight away. His balance is perfect, his wrists snapping as the ball passes through the net the same way a flawlessly thrown rock makes ripples in a pond.
In the Chinese Basketball Association, import players are expected to put up points in bulk. Scoring has never been Crawford’s problem.
Back in April of 2014, in the last regular season NBA game he played in, Crawford dropped 41 on a rapidly ascending Golden State Warriors team. A month ago, in a loss to the same Blue Whales he’s torching tonight, Crawford went off for 61. Coming into the rematch, he is averaging a robust 41.5 points per game.
The Gold Lions, a struggling team with a long history of ineptitude, opened the season with eight straight losses. Now, sitting at 3-14, the season is all but over.
Fifty-four seconds later, Crawford connects on another bomb from deep.
The Blue Whales answer back with an uncontested dunk from Iranian import Hamed Haddadi — the 7’2”, 300-pound moose establishes position and converts the easiest basket of his life after his man simply gives up his positioning. Defense is not one of the hallmarks of the CBA — neither is officiating.
On the next Blue Whales miss, Crawford takes an outlet pass a step beyond the free-throw line. In a full-on sprint, he uses a crossover to elude a defender near the half court line. Then, he cuts back, juking by another defender like Barry Sanders at the three-point line. He dodges the remaining three Blue Whales at the hoop, converting a scoop layup with Haddadi’s never ending arms extending toward him.
The Gold Lions lead 10-6; Crawford has scored their last eight points, accounting for exactly 80 percent of their offense; a scoring clip he will nearly keep pace with for the entire game.
“I had 26 or so with two minutes to go in the first quarter,” Crawford will later explain. “I did that a lot [in China] but I’d get tired, I’d get gassed. That time, I was stuck on seeing how much I could score. I really wanted to see if I could score 80. I just remember my mindset – how locked in I was on seeing if I could do that.”
With a capacity of 10,000, The Tianjin Arena is a shoebox. The cold wind coming off the nearby Hai River doesn’t keep fans at home. Though empty chair-backs are noticeable, the balcony style seating creates the atmosphere of a full house.
The Gold Lions are important to the city, which has an urban population hovering around 13-million, and who is unofficially known as the ‘censorship capital’ of China because of the low labor costs online content providers in Beijing take on when outsourcing their censorship departments to Tianjin.
“The crowd, they just love basketball period,” Crawford says, with the twang and rhythm of Detroit reverberating through his words. “They were going crazy. Once I got to 50, they were going crazy. They were like ‘score again, score again’ It was fun.”
The onslaught from Crawford is unrelenting. He hits jumpers, is a machine in transition, and at games end has converted 18 of 20 free throws.
At the half, he has 37.
“What made me go [to China], was, they had offered a lot of money over a short period of time,” Crawford says. “But also, they put the ball in your hand. At that point in time, I really wanted to see how good I was as a player. I set myself out to try to do something remarkable. Once I started putting these forty plus games together, I wanted to see if I could average forty for a season. That really intrigued me, I wanted to see what I was capable of on the court.”
The Gold Lions keep it close against the bigger, more talented team, but the Blue Whales move the ball well, establishing an inside-out game with Haddadi and American Justin Dentmon, who combine for 58 points.
With just over six minutes left in the fourth, the Blue Whales establish a comfortable 15-point lead – one that they won’t relinquish. In the games’ final 360 seconds, Crawford scores the Gold Lions’ last 14 points, bringing him to an insane 72 on the night.
Sichuan 113 – Tianjin 104.
Crawford goes 25-of-52 from the floor, adding 16 rebounds and three steals.
His offensive output makes him one of only five players in CBA history to score 70 or more points in a game.
“I found out on twitter,” says Joe Crawford, Jordan’s older brother by two-years, who also enjoyed a cup of coffee in the NBA with the Knicks. “I couldn’t believe it. I was trying to find out if it was really real – so I was calling him and calling him. When he told me, I was just like ‘that’s crazy man.’ I was happy he achieved something and people did get to hear what he was doing from way over there.”
Following the loss, in the final eight games of the season, Crawford does his best Wilt Chamberlain impression, scoring 43, 43, 35, 56, 47, 44, 55, and 50. This begs the question: what was Jordan Crawford doing getting buckets in a remote basketball outpost on the far edge of the world? Why wasn’t he under the bright lights of an NBA arena?
A year later, the question is still being asked as Crawford suits up for the Grand Rapids Drive of the NBA D-League.
“He’s misunderstood,” Joe says. “When I say he genuinely loves the game with all his heart, that’s what he does. He’s very passionate. I think one of the things that got in his way, the first couple years (in the NBA), he didn’t have patience; he just wanted to try to win every game before he was even capable of taking over the team or taking over the game.”
Jordan Crawford calls his native Detroit a “get it on your own type, work-hard environment” that pushes you to “battle everyday.” No doubt, traits that spilled out onto the asphalt of the West Detroit playgrounds the brothers’ Crawford ran pickup.
“That’s the mentality you get, it’s built inside you,” Jordan Crawford says. “I can’t even tell you a day I started playing, because I feel like I’ve been playing all my life.”
“It was a competitive city as far as basketball,” Joe says, echoing his younger brother. “Playing in the neighborhood, playing against different blocks, we just competed to be the best in our age group. We were very intrigued by those Pistons Bulls matchups – Michael Jordan and Isaiah Thomas, those battles, the ‘Bad Boys’ against the Bulls, that’s genuinely when it began.”
In high-school, Jordan shot up to 6’4”and his athleticism – even in a basketball haven like Detroit – was largely unrivaled. The reoccurring problem was homework and grades.
“In high school, I was always ineligible, I only played in 12 games during my four years,” Crawford says with a slight chuckle. “I just really didn’t feel school-work like that. I’d be in school every day – in class – I just wasn’t down with the ‘do this paper and turn it in before class over. I was just lazy. For real.”
“I’m only two years older than him, that’s basically my best friend,” Joe says. “We grew up doing everything together, I’ve always believed in him. He was always talented, but once he got that height, it was no brainer, he started making a name for himself.”
After a prep year, Crawford became an Indiana Hoosier, before transferring to Xavier University. In the summer of 2009, Crawford ascended, for one brief week into the pantheon of the mythic.
In a pickup game, at Nike camp, Crawford, then a sophomore, drove into the middle of the paint, launched his 6’4” frame into the air and threw down a two-handed slam in the face of one LeBron James. Nike – citing camp policy – confiscated tapes shot by media covering the camp (It was widely believed that the true motivation from the sneaker juggernaut in was to try to keep footage of the dunk from ever seeing the light of day).
It only took a week for the throw-down to slip out and hit YouTube.
That season, Crawford lived up to the hype the dunk created. In what was called the college basketball game of the year – a sweet sixteen matchup between Xavier and Kansas State – Crawford dropped 32 in the double overtime thriller, including a deep three that sent the game into its ‘second overtime. Though Xavier ultimately lost, Crawford’s draft stock soared.
With the 27th pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, the New Jersey Nets selected Crawford.
“When I got drafted, I had a party,” Crawford remembers. “It was a big party. Looking back on it, it was risky in throwing a party because I didn’t know if I was going to go in the first round. That’s something that I am always going to remember.”
The Nets traded his rights to the Hawks, thus beginning Crawford’s rendition of NBA Musical Chairs. After 16 games in Atlanta, Crawford was sent to Washington; after two years with the Wizards he was dealt to Boston; after 66 games in Boston, the Warriors acquired him as part of a three-team trade with the Celtics and Heat.
Though Crawford was never able to achieve long-term stability with any one franchise, he says he’s taken something away from every stop around the league.
“Playing with K.G. and Paul and all them, you learn something everyday,” Crawford says. “They don’t even have to say nothing, it’s just how they go about stuff, that really stuck out. Practicing against them, and they taking the practice serious; you know that was some of the most fun times, trying to score on them.
“With the Warriors, the one thing I can say, with Klay Thompson, he loves shooting the ball. In practice man, he shoots so much – it is just remarkable to watch him, just picking up a basketball and shooting it at the rim. He really brought that culture of everybody that’s on that team (are) three point shooters – because you are so confident you are going to make one just watching him shoot.”
In 257 career games, spread out over four seasons with four different teams, Crawford averaged 12.2 points on 40-percent shooting from the floor and 30- percent from deep. The criticism has always been shot selection and efficiency. It’s criticism Crawford bristles at, especially when called a volume scorer or shooting guard.
“I definitely don’t think I’m a volume scorer,” Crawford says. “I really think I am a point guard, a playmaker. I can get hot. I got better every year. At a point I was player of the week in the NBA. I got triple doubles. I really only get better each year. I’m always thinking ‘what can I get better at’?”
After the 72-point performance in Tianjin, there were bigger offers in Europe – Maccabi Tel Aviv and Barcelona, the EuroLeague equivalents of Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics. Crawford, who had played 14 games in the D-League for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants in 2015 decided his best shot at the NBA was once more through the D-League.
“The reason why I came to the D-League this year, is, I wanted to give it a shot,” Crawford says. “After that stint in China and seeing what I could do, I really wanted the NBA to see what type of player I was. And, the misunderstanding, people have me as a selfish guy and not a locker room guy. I really wanted to show them what type of person I was.”
Coming off the bench for the Drive this season, Crawford has been exceptional. In 28 games, he has averaged 23 points on 47 percent shooting, 3 assists and 1.3 steals a game. His three-point shooting is up near 40 percent, an increase of almost 10 percentage points from his NBA career average.
His advanced statistics paint a larger picture. His Player Efficiency Rating of 25.2 is nearly double his NBA PER (take that with a grain of salt with a diluted talent pool); his True Shooting Percentage .592 is up from his NBA .496.
“I’m way more patient,” Crawford says. “That’s what hurt me the first time around. I wanted everything so fast. I appreciate life. I appreciate my grandma being healthy. I was so stuck on being the best player in the world. I wanted to be greater than everybody – and that’s kind of what drove me to being impatient. I’ve grown a lot. I appreciate being in the space and putting on a show for fans. Yes – you’re not playing for that much money, but it’s a blessing to still be young. I’m still 28, got a lot of basketball left in me”.
Does he have any regrets about his four years in the big league?
“With the Wizards, we really misunderstood each other, because I was so locked in on wanting to be the best player I could be,“ Crawford says. “As an organization, we didn’t really have a serious chance of winning. I didn’t really understand that part; that’s probably the only thing I regret.”
Crawford thinks he’s close to getting back to the NBA, but says if it isn’t to happen, he can be at peace with himself.
“I didn’t want to look back when I’m 40 and not be humble enough to play in the D-League. It be tough (not playing in the NBA again), but it’s life, NBA not everything.”