This Spur's greatest mentor is a Clipper

ByMichael C. Wright ESPN logo
Thursday, December 22, 2016

AUSTIN -- Spurs rookie Dejounte Murray remembers his Seattle childhood as being "tough."

"There's a lot of stuff that goes on around there: gang-related stuff, killings, people selling drugs," said Murray, 20. "The high school we went to is right there. Everything is right there."

Murray says he sidestepped the majority of the gang life, but not all of it.

"There was a point in time where I was being a knucklehead out there," he said.

He doesn't want to go into detail about that. But what he will talk about is one of the people who helped him through it all, and who helps him to this very day -- a man who has been texting him since he was in the sixth grade, who has spent summers with him in the gym and who is close to Murray's mother and uncles.

He's also a man who will be in uniform for the opposition when Murray's Spurs square off against their Western rival on Thursday: Clippers guard Jamal Crawford, who says he believes deeply in the job of mentoring younger players.

"A lot of guys in the NBA I may check in on once or twice a week," Crawford said. "Me and him talk every day or every other day. You know what I mean? Because we have a certain closeness. We've spent so much time together in high school that it was ... I've seen so much, even more so than anybody else that ever came out. I saw so much of myself in him."

By sixth grade, Murray had earned the nickname "Baby Boy." He played on an AAU team managed by Marvena Thomas-Kemp, the wife of former Seattle Supersonics forward Shawn Kemp.

Crawford heard about Murray from a former high school teammate, David King, who was a local coach.

"There's this kid named Baby Boy," Murray remembers King said, "and he's really good. He can be a pro one day."

On a visit to Seattle, Crawford checked out "Baby Boy," who dropped 40 points that night.

"Marvena Kemp, she had a team in sixth grade, and I went and talked to her team," Crawford said. "I had heard about him already, and from that point on in the sixth grade, we stayed together. And then, he ended up going to my high school, and our relationship just really took off. He's like more than even a friend. He's like my brother."

For high school, Murray attended Rainier Beach, where Crawford completed a stellar prep career in the late 90s. The school has a rich basketball tradition, having produced Doug Christie, Terrence Williams, Nate Robinson and C.J. Giles despite being described by the Seattle Times in 2015 as "Seattle's smallest, most troubled high school."

"You never know what a kid is going through," Murray said. "I'm not going to speak on what I was going through, because I don't want to put that out right now. But it was just rough. Some kids have a house, have their mom and dad, stuff like that. Then you have kids that go through it. It is what it is, just life. But like I said, more NBA players should reach out to kids."

By the time Murray was at Rainier Beach the two were texting, according to both, "every day."

In addition to blowing up Murray's phone with calls and text messages, Crawford made sure to routinely hit up Murray's mother, Shameka Thompson, as well as uncles Reuben and Terry Thompson. All three made it a point to show Crawford's messages of encouragement to Murray. Terry Thompson, Murray's uncle who competed against Crawford in high school, currently lives with him in San Antonio.

Murray says Crawford "tried to help, but there was nothing he could really do. He was an NBA player. So he couldn't come get me. There's only so much you can tell somebody. He could text and say, 'Stay out of the streets' or whatever. But he wasn't there. It was hard."

"He helped us," Murray says of Crawford. "He definitely was there for us if we ever needed something. He always stayed positive with me and my family. He always hit up my family, my mom, my sister, my uncles. He stayed in contact with me. He'd pretty much tell them to make sure my head is straight. 'That kid has a chance.' I've seen several messages from my uncles, my mom with them just saying Jamal just texted me saying little things like that."

Crawford married Tori Lucas in August 2014. Instead of going out with friends the night before the big day, Crawford instead held a star-studded, free "Midnight Madness" Pro-Am game attended by thousands.

"That day I was at home, just hanging with my family," Murray said. "He texted and was like, 'I'm about to have a little game tonight, and let everybody come for free.' Usually, at the Pro-Am, they charge. But that night, he was letting everybody come for free. He was with the Clippers then, so he brought some teammates like Chris Paul and Matt Barnes. There were several of those dudes there. [Current teammate] LaMarcus [Aldridge] was there. The game didn't start until like 1:30 in the morning.

"Chris [Paul] was talking to me in the locker room before we played. He's one of the greatest PGs to play and is still active right now. So I was just asking him questions, getting to know him. He was just teaching points. I was watching him, everything he did."

Crawford's teammate Matt Barnes would later point out that no one but Crawford would spend the night before his wedding running a charity game, but to Crawford it made perfect sense. As a young player coming up with the Bulls, Crawford witnessed the Chicago summer basketball scene.

"Antoine Walker over here, and Mike Finley over here, and Tim Hardaway over there, and I was like, 'When I go back [to Seattle], I want everybody to be together,'" Crawford said. "That's what I wanted to help kind of create, and I just make sure to keep it going. Now the younger generation understands the importance of it, and we've all got it going now. It's a fun thing."

Years prior, Crawford benefited from mentorships with Gary Payton and Doug Christie. Crawford has also donated $100,000 to renovate the gym at Rainier Beach, in addition to donating funds for athletic trainers at Seattle's public schools and heart defibrillators.

"I'm home every second I can be," he said. "When I'm not working, doing this, I'm home. I'm always entrenched in the community. I'm always working with the high schoolers, no matter what school they're at. I'm always in my community."

Said Murray: "Every team [Crawford] was with, he came back, and he made sure we played pickup to get his high school team ready. Since my freshman year, I was playing with pros like every day in the summer. I knew I could be OK if I stayed working hard every day.

"He gives them his number and just does little stuff like that. Any kid's dream is to be able to talk to an NBA player. .... Now, I'm in my rookie year, and I have a lot of kids that hit me up."

Spurs GM R.C. Buford is well aware of the relationship and says Crawford "definitely made a difference. It appeared to me that he had helped Dejounte in many factors.

"I think the time and attention that NBA players put into mentoring guys that are coming behind them, I think has been a big part of the success of our league."

For Murray, being a first-round pick of one of the most successful franchises in sports was the culmination of Crawford's mentorship, but not the end of it. There's work to be done.

In 11 games with one start, Murray is averaging 1.3 points and 4.2 minutes. Murray currently sits at No. 4 in the point guard rotation behind Tony Parker, Patty Mills and Nicolas Laprovittola.

The Spurs still view Murray, potentially, as their point guard of the future, but they sent him down to the D-League because they need him to practice and play. Because of the overall age of the team and the way the schedule has fallen, the Spurs didn't conduct a single practice between Nov. 7 and Dec. 12. That's not conducive to rapid development for Murray.

"They sent me down here for a couple of games. I'm down here, trying to run a team and get to know these guys because they're all hungry, too, to get to the NBA," Murray said. "I'm just down here getting better. I'm a gym rat. I like being in the gym. I didn't pout when I came down here. Every team is different. There are some rookies playing, a lot of rookies not playing. I'm just glad that I'm not playing and our team isn't bad. Our team is good. I just turned 20 years old. I'm still learning and just waiting for my chance."

On a dreary day at the Cedar Park Recreation Center, site of the San Antonio Spurs' D-League affiliate's practice, a black, floor-to-ceiling net is all that separates NBA dreams from co-ed doubles badminton. Nothing is guaranteed. Murray pulls out his phone and reads recent texts from Crawford.

"Stay focused, just trust the process," Murray says. "He's been telling me that since high school, that it's a process with high school, when I got to college. Now I'm a pro playing down in the D-League. It's just a process, and everybody's story is different."

San Antonio announced on Thursday it would be recalling Murray to the Spurs, and with Manu Ginobili out for the matchup against the Clippers to rest, there's even a chance the rookie could see some action against his mentor.

Additional reporting by ESPN's Andrew Han and Ramona Shelburne.