Jamal Crawford with Jay-Z in New York, 2005 (Photo via Johnny Nunez/WireImage)
MUSIC

Jamal Crawford, Michael Jordan, & Jay-Z: The Soundtrack to a Comeback

How MJ’s fandom took Jamal Crawford’s game to another level — and Hov’s The Blueprint propelled his rehab from a devastating injury.

In August 2001, Jamal Crawford was not on top of the world, but rather under the knife.

Following an up-and-down rookie season in Chicago, the crafty combo guard out of Michigan hadn’t cracked the starting lineup for the Chicago Bulls. But somehow, he had made a famous fan.

“My dad had told me that Michael Jordan liked my game,” Crawford told Boardroom. “But I didn’t believe him. How would he know?”

Finding out years later that his father, Clyde Crawford, was friends through the University of Oregon with Mike’s main man, Ahmad Rashad, the inside information eventually all made sense. Back in 2001, however, it was a mystery to Crawford, who’d idolized Jordan since grade school.

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Pickup With the GOAT

Meeting Jordan through trainer Tim Grover at Hoops the Gym in Chicago, a quiet Jamal Crawford watched MJ lift weights and push his body to the limit as he embarked on a then-secret comeback. The two faced each other in pickup games later that day, with the Baby Bull and six-time NBA champion splitting wins.

Shortly after, MJ’s Crawford fandom was confirmed.

“The next time I went, Tim Grover was calling me saying, ‘MJ’s waiting on you. He’s waiting to start the game until you get here,'” Crawford remembered. “We’re playing against Antoine Walker, Michael Finley, Penny Hardaway, Ray Allen, Tim Hardaway. I’m just a young dude, it wasn’t like he was stacking his team. I would’ve been one of the last picks just based on how young I was.”

But as All-NBA talent ran up and down the court, MJ waited patiently on the sideline for Crawford to arrive.

Once the pair took the court, it was clear that Jordan’s eye for talent had not deceived him.

“From that moment on we didn’t lose one single game,” Crawford said. “For two straight summers, we never lost. Never.”

Over the course of that June and July, Crawford’s self-esteem swelled as his childhood hero not only took him under his wing, but took him to task.

“When I was playing with MJ, I could actually feel my game going to another level,” Crawford said. “I could feel the leap in real time, because playing with him, you’re always on edge. He’s the best player ever and he’s giving you confidence. He’s coming to you for game-winning shots. I have the GOAT’s approval? My confidence was on a trillion at that point. So I knew, going into that season, I was going to take off.”

But suddenly, injury struck.

Under the Knife

While killing the competition with MJ at Hoops, Crawford tore his ACL just weeks before his second NBA season was to begin.

“At that time, the ACL was looked at like the Achilles injury is now,” Crawford said. “You had to do everything perfect just to come back.”

Still studying the game and walking without crutches in the immediate aftermath, Crawford continued to go to Hoops to watch the action and gain encouragement from his mentor and his peers.

Foreshadowing a bright future during a dark spot, Jordan and Crawford’s mutual friend, the legendary William “World Wide Wes” Wesley, knew just how to raise the spirits of the rising star with derailed dreams.

“I was hurt but it was before I had surgery,” Crawford said. “Uncle Wes was sitting outside of a black truck, when I finally get to him a window rolled down and it’s Jay-Z. I literally backed up and said, ‘Oh, shit!‘”

The Blueprint

While Crawford was about to go under the knife and start seven months of rehab, Jay-Z was putting the finishing touches on his sixth studio album, The Blueprint.

For him, his Jay-Z fandom dated back to his high school days, with both creative operators coming into their own in the same era.

“I would go to my friend Lee Denmon’s house every morning before school in LA,” Crawford said. “He was bumping Reasonable Doubt every day. That was my introduction to Jay. When I moved back to Seattle in 1996, that was my reintroduction to the city, and I was playing that album all the time. So it was like me and Jay dropped at the same time. 1996 for me was when my life changed and I really started to believe I could make it to the league.”

Jay-Z and Jamal Crawford in New York City, 2006 (Kevin Mazur/WireImage)

If 1996 was the year Crawford’s dreams started to become a reality, 2001 was the year they went from reality to doubt.

“You have so many of those moments when you’re alone and just by yourself,” Crawford said. “Here I am, a top-10 pick, and [I] didn’t really get a chance to prove myself my rookie year. Now, I’m playing with the best player. My game is taking off. And now I’ve got to wait another year.”

The road to recovery was tough and painful. Seeking surgeon Dr. James Andrews in Alabama based on a recommendation from Jordan, Crawford went from hitting game-winners alongside the GOAT to sitting alone with crutches and reading press about his peers who were living his dream.

“I read a lot, especially at that time because I had a lot of time to think,” Crawford said. “I was buying The Source, I was buying books and I was buying SLAM. SLAM for basketball is like The Source for hip-hop; you want to be in it. I remember people that I knew I was better than in it getting acclaim. I would turn off the lights and just have tears coming down my face.”

Recovery

During that dark time, the injury kept Crawford from perfecting the shake-and-bake artistry he perfected in pickup games and NBA arenas alike. Instead, Crawford was confined to working on his weakness as his knee regained its strength.

“That’s when I really learned how to shoot,” Crawford said. “It took me two weeks to walk after surgery and I would just sit in a chair, practice my form and shoot repeatedly. Those were just the small wins. It tested you physically but it tested you mentally even more.”

In the first few weeks after his surgery, there was another small win. Jay-Z’s lead single, “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” began making its way to radio as The Blueprint readied its release.

Ahead of the album’s Sept. 11, 2001 retail arrival, Crawford kept the single in heavy rotation as he returned to Dr. Andrews’ office to see where he was in the healing process.

“On 9/11, I was in Alabama for a check-up on my knee,” Crawford said. “We were supposed to fly back to Chicago but 9/11 hit, so we had to drive back and it took 12 to 15 hours. I bought The Blueprint right when I got back. I went to Best Buy and bought a couple copies, because you want it in every car— I had a Benz and an Escalade. It was my left knee, so I could still drive.”

“When I moved back to Seattle in 1996, that was my reintroduction to the city, and I was playing [Reasonable Doubt] all the time. So it was like me and Jay dropped at the same time.”

The album came out during a make-or-break low point, offering a soundtrack to his road back to the court. Track by track, The Blueprint became the inspiration for the six-month journey.

Looking back, Crawford credits “Never Change” because it speaks on “being a stand-up individual and having high character when adversity hits.” He also cites “All I Need” because, in that time of darkness, his basketball was all he needed.

By February 2002, Michael Jordan was playing in the NBA All-Star Game with fellow summer run standouts like Walker and Allen. Crawford was weeks away from returning and his soundtrack spoke to it.

“When you get closer to getting back to the court you start to play happier songs like “Izzo” and it starts speeding up,” Crawford said. “You play different songs based on the emotion of where you’re at, the stage of life and what you’re going through.”

Back On Track

That emotion came to life on March 3, 2002, when Crawford came back in a road game against the New Jersey Nets.

Facing the eventual Eastern Conference champs at Continental Airlines Arena — just miles from Kanye West’s Newark apartment that birthed the beat tape that built The Blueprint, and not far from Nassau Coliseum where Jay-Z declared war at HOT97’s Summer Jam — he was back.

Jamal Crawford taking on the Knicks as a member of the Chicago Bulls, 2004 (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

“I was on a playing time limit, so I think I had 10 points in 15 minutes,” he said. “I was 4-7 and I played well. I was actually surprised because I had been out for so long and I came back early compared to how long I was supposed to be out. I came back in seven months, which was really quick for that time.”

Just weeks after his return, the Bulls named Crawford a starter. He would go on to finish his shortened sophomore season with what would be the best shooting percentage (47.6%) of his whole career.

In a matter of months, Crawford was back on track.

That following summer, he and MJ went undefeated again at Hoops, with Jay-Z and Beyoncé coming through to watch them both play pickup.

The confidence coming from running with MJ, backed by the co-sign from Hov, took Crawford’s career to the heights he believed in before his injury, but with moments he couldn’t even dream of.

Famously, the man that soundtracked his rehab process quickly became a fan and friend of his, with Jay-Z signing Jamal to Reebok as an endorser for his S. Carter sneaker line.

“My first 50-point game was in Toronto, and at that time, you didn’t get great service up there,” Crawford recalls. “I had a text from Jay that said, ‘It must be the shoes, ha‘ with his laugh, and I didn’t get it until I got back to the United States.”

Never Change

Years later, Crawford’s curtain call came at age 39, the same age Michael Jordan was when he first called Crawford to come run with him at Hoops. In his last regular season game with the Phoenix Suns, the three-time NBA Sixth Man of the Year scored 51 points off the bench with the same flash and fun that first caught MJ’s eye.

The confidence that came from playing alongside MJ in the summers of 2001 and 2002 carried Crawford over the course of his two-decade career.

“My whole life and career changed,” Crawford said. “That fearlessness that I had to have to play with him? That’s harder than playing in an NBA game, to be honest with you. This is Michael Jordan! The guy who means everything to me. If he says to me, ‘Look, I need you to make this shot‘ that’s a whole different pressure than even 20,000 people being in an arena. For me, that prepared me for the rest of my career.”

Just the same, the lessons learned through rehabbing to The Blueprint still strike a chord with Crawford today as he embodies the lyrics of “Never Change” in every aspect of his life.

“That’s the thing I’m most proud of on the court. I played 20 years and had 20 different coaches and they may all see you differently, and I never changed my style of play,” Crawford said. “You could type in my name and see a bunch of different highlights in a bunch of different uniforms, but my style of play is unique and I never changed that no matter what. And off the court, I would say I never changed. I grew up, but I don’t think I changed in a way that most people do. I thank God for that.”

Even today, Crawford still lists MJ and Jay-Z as two of his “favorite people in the world” — and he boasts the unique honor of having starred in television commercials with both of them. Over the years, Crawford’s close ties with Jay-Z have only strengthened, playing for Hov’s famous Rucker Park pro-am team in 2003 and suiting up in the NBA bubble for his hometown Brooklyn Nets in 2020.

Continuing to play every day and coaching the youth just the same, Crawford looks back at the 2001 summer as a pivotal moment for his life as well as for hip-hop.

“That’s when Jay was really solidifying himself with that top spot,” Crawford said. “When that album dropped, it was no more discussion on who was the best. I lived with it. I stayed with that album.”