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Fear & Loathing in Seattle: Jamal Crawford’s Pro-Am Helps a City Heal

When you walk into the Royal Brougham Pavilion at Seattle Pacific University in Queen Anne, it doesn’t feel like a college arena. It feels more like a high school gymnasium, and there’s an immediate air of intimacy here that’s rare given the fact that the upcoming game features so many professional basketball players.

It’s a little before 4 p.m., and Dime arrived in Seattle this Saturday in late July just in time for the final game of Week 4 of the Seattle Pro-Am, a match-up featuring Jamal Crawford and his DRG Wolverines versus Alvin Snow and the Stranger Cougars.

[RELATED: Dime Q & A with Jamal Crawford on the Seattle Pro-Am and more]

It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what it is, but really good basketball players, when they’re warming up, have a certain combination of tranquility and insouciance to their movement that belies a very high level of athleticism and overall ability.

After tip-off, it quickly becomes evident that this is a real basketball game. The pace and intensity is roughly 80-90 percent of what you would expect from a college or pro game, which is pretty amazing considering Crawford regularly (and effortlessly) drops 50 or more points here every weekend. He’s just that much better than everybody else.

Here are just a few random mind-boggling facts about Jamal Crawford: he is one of only three current players with more than three 50-point games. He’s the only player in NBA history to win the Sixth Man of the Year award twice. He is seventh among all active players in career three-pointers (1,689). And he is the all-time NBA leader in four-point plays.

But this game would be a different story. After a hot start and a second-half streak of three impossibly-deep three-pointers in a row, Crawford had gone cold, and by the end of the third quarter, his Wolverines were getting blown out of the gym thanks to a 22-2 run by the Cougars.

We were witnessing something rare. Crawford – who is quite possibly the nicest guy you will ever meet – was visibly frustrated and engaging in a little trash talk with the opposing team’s bench, which, though perfectly harmless, seemed a tiny bit out of character for him. This was partially due to the fact that Alvin Snow – a local Franklin High product who played at Eastern Washington University and professionally overseas for the past decade – had caught fire. During one sequence, Snow drained several deep three-pointers of his own and, to make matters worse, picked Crawford’s pocket on one possession and it followed it up with yet another impossibly deep three on the other end. It was an off game for Crawford (if you can call it that) who finished with only 38 points in the loss.

The point is that just about anything can happen in a setting like this, which is a big reason why the Pro-Am draws so many fans every weekend during the summer. This is the Pacific Northwest’s version of NYC’s EBC at Rucker Park, L.A.’s Drew League, or D.C.’s Goodman League. The games are loose but competitive, partially because you can’t underestimate the power of bragging rights.

“I love those moments,” Snow said about his Texas-style shootout with Crawford. “He can never take those back, and I can always ram them in his side whenever I feel the need.”

The Seattle Pro-Am is more than just a handful of glorified summer league pickup games. It’s a two-month long basketball tournament that just happens to periodically feature some of the NBA’s biggest stars.

Here’s a brief rundown of just a few of the names, past and present, who’ve participated in the event: Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, John Wall, Tyreke Evans, Jeff Green, Isaiah Thomas, Tony Wroten Jr., and countless others.

Saturday’s games were part of regular tournament play, but Sunday was the Pro-Am’s annual All-Star Day exhibition, which would feature, among other events, a three-point shootout, an absolutely insane dunk contest between high-flying NBA rookie Zach LaVine and Team Flight Brothers alum Kevin Kemp (aka Golden Child), and an All-Star Game with surprise guests Wilson Chandler, Terrance Jones, Spencer Hawes, and more.

Part of what gives the tournament its signature flair is the inimitable voice of the Pro-Am, Vance Dawson, a Seattle native and local high school and college sports announcer who’s been calling games at the Pro-Am for the past three years. He’s more or less the Duke Tango of the event, except without all the running around on-court and screaming. Some of his best quotes from the weekend: “clean as a Safeway chicken,” “sunny outside, raining in here,” and so-and-so “gettin’ his Sidney Deane on.”

“A lot of times, I come up with it on the spot,” Dawson said about his announcing style. “I spend a lot of time in my car, [and] I’ll think of something. I try to see how I can translate it to a basketball game. You know, I took the Kevin Hart bit: Say it with ya chest! When would you say that? Well, after a hard dunk. [If you were here yesterday] then you probably heard the ‘down goes Frasier!’ It’s gotta be a hard dunk. Everything doesn’t apply. You gotta wait for the right thing. You still have your basic basketball calls that you do. You can’t put a flair on everything. But a lot of it I come up with on the spot.”

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The thing about Jamal Crawford that cannot be overstated is that he is one of the most genuinely affable human beings you’ll ever meet – celebrity or otherwise. It’s both refreshing and infectious. There’s no better example of this than his tireless post-game meet-n-greet and autograph signings with the fans. Crawford stayed around (and apparently does so after every game) until literally every single fan who queued up for an autograph – and the line stretched all the way around the gym and took nearly an hour – got to shake his hand and take a photograph with him. All the while, Crawford betrayed zero signs of boredom or inconvenience.

Everyone who knows him personally reiterates this fact. Just ask David King, Rainier Beach High School basketball coach and longtime friend to Crawford.

“I’m gonna tell you something,” King said. “People talk about how good he is on the court; he’s an even better person. I’m talking about knowing him since we were kids to being a 34-year-old man. His heart…he would give you the shirt off his back.”

“What I know of Jamal is that he seems to be a very giving person,” Dawson added. “Any time I’ve ever said what’s up to him at the scorer’s table, he’s never shunned me. He’s got a smile and a handshake. He’s a very genuine man.”

You can chalk all this up to his seemingly boundless generosity of spirit, but it also speaks to the elephant in the room regarding any conversation about the Seattle Pro-Am.

In 2006, KeyArena in Seattle was the smallest venue in the NBA. The Sonics ownership group had tried unsuccessfully to secure public funding for a more than $200 million upgrade to the building, which hadn’t been renovated since the mid-‘90s. Howard Schultz, head of the Sonics ownership committee, then sold the team to a group in Oklahoma City, which had successfully been able to accommodate the New Orleans Hornets for two full seasons in the wake of the post-Katrina rebuilding process. One stipulation of the $350 million sale was that the new ownership group, led by Oklahoma City financier Clay Bennett, would make a good-faith effort to lease a new building or secure funding for a new arena in the Seattle area.

What followed was a nasty legal imbroglio between Bennett’s group and the city of Seattle. Prior to the sale, the Sonics had signed a lease agreement with KeyArena through 2010, which then-Mayor Greg Nickels and a local grassroots campaign called Save Our Sonics (“SOS”) attempted to enforce, but Bennett was eventually able to convince the city to accept an early buyout of the lease and allow him to proceed with the team’s relocation to Oklahoma City. And so in 2008, the Zombie Sonics were born, and the era of NBA basketball in Seattle came to an unceremonious end.

Zakery Pablo, 18, who just discovered the Pro-Am this summer, was one of countless youngsters devastated by the loss of the Sonics.

“I went to basically every home game they had. It was the only Seattle sport I knew back then. I didn’t know what to do [when the Sonics left]. I was younger at the time. It was everything I knew. The only thing I really enjoyed. I played [basketball], watched it, and the Sonics were everything, and when they got taken away I didn’t know what to do.”

This is a city raised on the Reign Man (Shawn Kemp) and The Glove (Gary Payton), aka the original Lob City, a city that was home to Ray Allen during his prime and for a fleeting moment to a precocious rookie named Kevin Durant. Now it is a city left wondering might have been as they collectively watch from a distance that might as well be the other side of the moon as Durant’s star soars higher and higher year after year.

The city was cruelly teased last summer with the prospect of bringing the NBA back to town when an ownership group led by hedge fund manager Chris Hansen came surprisingly close to winning their bid to purchase the Sacramento Kings and relocate the team to Seattle. The NBA’s Board of Governors, which includes all 30 team owners, ultimately rejected the bid by a 22-8 vote.

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Though Crawford has been using the Seattle Pro-Am to help fill the void left behind by the Sonics for the past few years, the league actually dates all the way back to 1996, when fellow Rainier Beach High alum Doug Christie started what he called the “All Hoop, No Hype” league.

“I remember when I was sixteen years old, and I was playing in Doug Christie’s Pro-Am, and I was one of those high school kids that got an opportunity to play. My first couple of games, I didn’t do so well, but I finally got the hang of it, started playing a lot better, and my confidence grew knowing I could play good against pro players, and guys who were older than me. When I got back to high school, it would be easier. It helped me, and I never forgot it,” Crawford said. “…and Doug, when he got older and further into his career, he was like I want you to take it over. It was kind of a natural progression since I was already a part of it. Now, I think, the league is more important that we don’t have the Sonics anymore. Seeing all these pro players – me, Zach LaVine, Isaiah [Thomas], Blake Griffin – you know, guys they wouldn’t normally see. Seeing these guys up close and personal, Blake and Kevin Durant and Kobe, it speaks volumes to them.”

“He’s doing a great thing, you know, bringing the pros back and giving them a little glimpse of the NBA scene,” Minnesota Timberwolves rookie and Washington native Zach LaVine said. “This town definitely deserves an NBA team, and in my opinion, I feel like we’ll get one in the next couple of years.”

Historically, the games have been held at various venues around town, many of them even smaller than the one at Seattle Pacific University. It started at Rainier Beach High School (Crawford’s alma mater) and, until last year, had been held at the Rainier Vista Boys and Girls Club. Now, the 2,650-seat Royal Brougham Pavilion appears to be the Pro-Am’s new home for the foreseeable future.

Though Crawford has become the face of the Pro-Am in recent years, he credits much of the league’s growth to long-time friend and part-time on-court rival Rashaad Powell, who has been the event’s commissioner since 2009. Crawford playfully interjects our one-on-one with Powell to reiterate this fact.

“We don’t have a league without this guy. Bottom line,” Crawford said.

Like Crawford, Powell is keenly aware of what the Pro-Am means to the basketball-starved city and seems to feel a genuine sense of responsibility to the community.

“I think it’s huge, especially with the absence of an NBA team and franchise here in Seattle, to have high-level competitive basketball,” Powell said. “It’s not the NBA, but you know, especially on a day like today you had a number of NBA-level and NBA players who were out there, providing a high-level of basketball, entertainment for fans, packed gym. People were excited to see that, in a situation where otherwise people wouldn’t see that. [It’s] the only time people get to see NBA-level play, all year long. We got Terrance Jones, Zach LaVine, Wilson Chandler, Tony Wroten…you wanna see those guys, you gotta travel three-and-half-hours and go to Portland to watch that. Jamal helps to bring that here every summer for an affordable cost, $5. You know, it’s not about turning a profit. It’s about giving back, which is all he represents, so it’s huge for us to have something we can do and give back every year.”

Aman Hussein, 18, who was born and raised in Seattle, has been going to the Pro-Am for the past two summers. He grew up watching the Sonics with his family and was heartbroken when the team moved to Oklahoma City.

“I think the fans appreciate what Jamal Crawford is doing for the city,” Hussein said. “It means a lot to us. I just appreciate everything he’s doing. He’s always been like my favorite basketball player growing up, not just because of how great of a player his, but the things he does to bring back players to Seattle.”

Erik Erikson is a journalism student at the University of Washington and a sports reporter for the campus newspaper The Daily. He’s also a sports clerk at the Everett Herald and a reporter for the Seattle Pro-Am. Now 21, seeing Sonics games as a kid is already a distant memory for him.

“I think the Pro-Am is especially important for the younger basketball fans in Seattle,” Erikson said. “For a lot of the kids, the Sonics were gone by the time they would have really been into basketball, so they never got the chance to see NBA players live in-person. The Pro-Am lets them see the NBA talent and gives them a different look and perspective on basketball.”

It’s unclear what the future holds for Seattle in terms of its NBA dreams. For now, the Pro-Am will have to do, but as Crawford’s friend King solemnly reminds us: “it’s just not the same.”

The Seattle Pro-Am Championship will be held this weekend, Aug. 30-31. For more information, go to www.seattlebasketballproam.com

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