Jordan Crawford was back home in Detroit this summer, working on his family business after wrapping up a stint with the Sichuan Blue Whales in the Chinese Basketball Association. In June, he took a break to suit up for Boeheim’s Army, the Syracuse alumni squad playing in the 2019 edition of The Basketball Tournament. He’s been busy, just not the sort of busy that might compete for the attention of a basketball world fixated on the NBA arrival of Zion Williamson and another insane summer of free agency and trades.
Ten years ago, thanks to one surreal, infamous moment that almost no one actually saw, it was a very different story.
In the summer of 2009, Crawford was a 20-year-old sophomore-to-be at Xavier, itching to make his mark after sitting out a transfer year. A three-star recruit out of Hargrave Military Academy, he’d averaged nearly 10 points per game as a freshman at Indiana before transferring. After a season in hoops purgatory, he finally got a chance to show out when he was invited to Nike’s Deron Williams Skills Academy. Drilling and scrimmaging alongside guys like Avery Bradley, Iman Shumpert, and Isaiah Thomas, he played well enough to earn a trip to what was then the premier Swoosh summer basketball event for high school and college players: The LeBron James Skills Academy in Akron, Ohio.
It was a big week for a guy who hadn’t played a game that mattered in more than a year, not least because, as Crawford remembers, “we heard LeBron was going to bring in a bunch of NBA guys, so that’s kind of what we were looking forward to.”
He had no idea.
It was a warm July evening when LeBron and a hand-picked squad of former, future, and almost teammates took the court at the University of Akron’s James A. Rhodes Arena, affectionately known as The JAR. His old high school teammate Romeo Travis was there, as was then-Cav Tarence Kinsey and recent draft picks Danny Green and Christian Eyenga. Their opponents would be a rotating cast of college campers, the first five of whom were Kansas big man Cole Aldrich, Virginia Tech guard Malcolm Delaney, Michigan forward DeShawn Sims, Cal guard Patrick Christopher, and Crawford.
As a veteran LeBron Camp attendee, and one of just a few dozen observers in the gym that night, I can tell you that these late-night runs were always the highlight of the week. You never knew what you’d see, but you could count on two things: arguably the best player alive going about half speed but still putting up a few highlights, and a bunch of hungry young dudes trying to take advantage of what might be the only time they’d ever share the floor with LeBron James.
So it was, a few minutes into a first-to-seven run, that Crawford got the ball off an inbound play and drove hard around his defender and into the paint. LeBron was under the basket — Crawford wasn’t his man — and as the college kid exploded to the rack, the reigning NBA MVP tried to contest. Crawford was too quick. LeBron was a half-second too late.
“I didn’t think it was a big deal,” Crawford says now, “until I got back to my room that night and people who weren’t even there were already hitting me on my phone.”
When looking back on the night an anonymous college sophomore posterized the best player on the planet, and the hilarious-in-retrospect controversy that ensued, it’s useful to remember the state of social media and mobile technology at the time. While there were a few video cameras in the gym, there weren’t dozens of high-definition camera phones trained on this particular July pickup game. Even if there had been, most of us weren’t on Twitter and Instagram didn’t yet exist. Word of the moment, sans video, spread via text among the high school and college campers on hand.
Me? I was sitting courtside. This is the extent of my handwritten notes from the game: Crawford dunks on Bron, and, a few minutes later, Bron’s team wins. Don’t get me wrong: Crawford’s drive and dunk was a really nice play and a legitimate poster, and if it’d happened a few years later, Crawford would’ve dominated Basketball Twitter for a couple of days, most likely with a LeBron tweet acknowledging that he’d gotten got. And then everyone probably would’ve forgotten about it.
Instead, because of a never-substantiated decision involving at least one Nike rep and possibly LeBron himself, what was presumably the best video angle of the dunk was confiscated from the freelance videographer who shot it. Word of that confiscation got out, and eventually, a good-enough angle of the dunk on someone else’s camera was released. The resulting narrative painted LeBron as thin-skinned, and Crawford as a folk hero with hops.
For his part, Crawford thinks it was the presence and reaction of so many high school campers that inspired attempts to erase the evidence. “I think that made it a big deal right away,” he says. What he remembers clearly is the delayed snowball of reactions over the coming days and weeks, from the fellow camper who told him “you need a Twitter right now” to the response when he got back to campus at Xavier.
“It was crazy,” Crawford says. “Honestly, I was mad that everybody was just talking about the dunk, because I was killing it out there the whole week.”
Today, Crawford is just a dude making a living playing basketball and laying the groundwork for a future after the game. Since being drafted by the Nets in 2010, the 6’4 guard has had stints with the Hawks, Wizards, Celtics, Warriors, and Pelicans, averaging 12.2 points a night in 281 NBA games. He’s also spent time in the G League, Israel, and China. You can argue that his fame peaked that night in Akron, but that misses the point of a decade getting paid to hoop, a run with plenty of highlights, like averaging nearly 15 points per game for the Wizards in 2011-12 and a 72-point game in China in 2016.
At 30, he says he could see himself playing another decade as long as he takes care of his body, but he’s already laid the foundation for life after basketball. He’s working with his parents, brothers, and a few partners on a real estate and property development company in downtown Detroit, turning an older building into a co-working and events space; it’s a project for the present and the future, and one that’s well suited to a guy who says “I try to live off of not living off my past.”
This story wasn’t Crawford’s idea, of course, but he’s gotten used to talking about that dunk.
“It’s pretty much a once-a-week type thing,” Crawford says. “People I know, people that recognize me, on the internet, all that. The first couple of years, I used to be like, ‘Nah, that ain’t me,’ but now I accept it. Every time something happens — it could video of Rihanna falling down on stage or something — somebody jokes about ‘delete the video.’”
(For what it’s worth: Yes, he’s been on the court with LeBron, and no, he says, the dunk never came up.)
Crawford admits to some curiosity about the fate of that original video, but it’s not the only trophy from that night that he’d like to claim. He remembers Nike reps joking with the college players before the game about a $500 bounty for anyone who could manage to dunk on the camp’s namesake.
Crawford laughs as he delivers the punchline: “They never gave me my $500.”