LOS ANGELES — A half-hour after the Celtics’ loss was complete on Monday night, Clippers guard Jamal Crawford walked into Boston’s near-empty locker room. It is not common to see a player from the opposing team in this space, but Crawford and Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas share an uncommon bond.
Crawford was a basketball icon in the Seattle area, and when Thomas was in elementary school he used to travel from nearby Tacoma to watch his games. When Thomas reached high school and turned into a star himself, he and Crawford became friends while playing in pickup games at the University of Washington.
“And then from there,” Crawford said, “we’ve been inseparable.”
In 2006, Thomas transferred from Curtis High in Tacoma, Wash., to South Kent Prep, an all-boys school in a sleepy part of Western Connecticut. He was there to improve his grades so he could qualify to play at Washington, but he was homesick and frustrated and lonely. Crawford was playing for the Knicks at the time, so he watched over Thomas.
“When Isaiah was down and out, Jamal was the one to be there to say, ‘Hey man, It’s gonna get better,’ ” said Isaiah’s father, James Thomas. “It was big. It wasn’t just being a mentor, it was love. Isaiah is forming into this great young man, and so much of it is because of Jamal.”
At South Kent, students with family nearby were allowed to leave the school on weekends, and that could leave those without a support system feeling isolated. Without Crawford, that is what life would have been like for Thomas.
But he would often take the one-hour train ride to Crawford’s home in White Plains, N.Y., where they would play basketball at all hours. He’d go to Crawford’s games at Madison Square Garden, and Crawford would drive to South Kent to support Thomas, too.
“I’d be the only one in the crowd because it was kind of far off,” Crawford said. “It was out there. So I would watch him, support him.”
“It was everything, because when I was in prep school I was across the country,” Thomas said. “I was far away from family and friends and that was the only family I had. He was the guy who took me under his wing.”
Crawford, who is now in his 16th NBA season, has become a kind of basketball patriarch in the Seattle and Tacoma areas. Celtics guard Avery Bradley has told the story of the time he was at a local fair with no money in ninth grade and Crawford gave him and his friends $20 apiece.
Washington assistant coach Raphael Chillious remembers when Crawford would take part in pickup games at the university, then suddenly disappear and come back with cases of Gatorade for everyone.
“For kids growing up around here, he was their idol,” Chillious said. “The biggest thing with Jamal is he’s so humble.”
“Even if you’re not good at basketball, but like basketball and are a gym rat, he’ll grab those kids and take them under his wing, too.”
In addition to running summer leagues, Crawford holds numerous community events and also goes out of his way to attend events run by other players from the area, like Thomas.
“He’s the guy everybody looks up to in that area, the guy everybody wants to be like,” Thomas said. “He’s a great basketball player, but if you get to know him, he’s an even better person.”
The connection between Thomas and Crawford has endured. Thomas was a groomsman at Crawford’s wedding, and the two speak to each other almost every day. On Monday night, Crawford beamed with pride as he thought about how far Thomas has come, from the homesick teenager at a Connecticut prep school to an NBA All-Star.
“I’ve been so happy for him,” Crawford said. “I actually told him that this was possible last year when he got traded to Boston. Like, ‘Everything you do is exactly what they need. They have all the pieces in place. And you just do what you do, lead.’ Isaiah’s a winner. He’ll do whatever it takes to win. So I knew that would be contagious, and they already had things in place.
“And they allowed him to be him. They don’t try to change him. He’s a scorer, he’s a playmaker, he’s a scrapper.”