Like a latter-day Knight of the Round Table--perhaps a Knight of the Roundball--Sam Crawford constantly strives to prove his worth, show his moxie, answer the critics, quiet the doubters and conquer his opponents, in life and in basketball.
He is a little man (5-foot-8) in a large man's game; the perennial underdog who nonetheless angers opponents with his cockiness. He also has one other strike against him: failure to meet Proposition 48 academic requirements.
That's why Crawford is in junior college as a freshman point guard at Moorpark College, where he is probably the most electrifying player in the school's history, and that's why his personal grail is a scholarship at a four-year school.
Crawford's basketball mentors and peers are other Knights of the Roundball, people such as Norm Nixon and other friends from the old Lakers as well as former high school comrades such as Harold Miner of USC and Zan Mason of UCLA. If Crawford's buddy Miner, the Trojan golden child, is Galahad, then Crawford is more of a Percival, brilliant but stymied in the grail quest and playing in relative obscurity at Moorpark.
So Crawford answers questions that seldom need to be asked, sees critics at every corner and goes out every game night to prove that, yes, Sam Crawford can play, and, no, Sam Crawford did not ruin his life when he failed to get a scholarship.
"I think that's what keeps me playing well, what keeps me playing hard," Crawford said. "It's not so much that I need to prove I'm a good basketball player but I'm a good person."
Also, he contends, an average student. Crawford says he easily exceeded the Proposition 48 Scholastic Aptitude Test requirement with a score of better than 800. But he fell short of the necessary C average in core curriculum classes.
"I was recruited real hard coming out of high school, I just didn't do the job. It's nobody's fault but mine," said Crawford, who attended Moorpark on the advice of the coaching staff at New Mexico State, which had recruited him. "I think I've proven that I can play basketball. I don't think there's any doubt in anybody's mind that I can play basketball."
Indeed, Crawford plays as if the basketball is attached to his hand by an invisible string.
On fast breaks he often freezes defenders with a fake behind-the-back pass, picking the ball off the dribble with one hand, quickly whipping it behind his back to show the pass, then smoothly pulling it forward in the same stride for the layup.
Santa Monica's Chico Langston learned how devastating the move can be.
"Chico had one foot going one way and another foot going the other way, and all he could do was sit on his bottom," Moorpark Coach Al Nordquist said. "(Crawford) said, 'I'm going to clinic Langston tonight' and he did.
"He's like a mini-Magic. I can't think of someone else who can do so many things so many different ways."
Valley decided to let Crawford shoot from the outside; he hit five three-point shots and scored 25 points. Ventura blanketed the perimeter and challenged him to drive; he scored 49 points, despite a sprained thumb on his shooting hand.
Crawford plays with a studied nonchalance punctuated by outbursts of mercurial magnificence. Occasionally, such as those rare moments when he throws a careless pass or lets a lesser defender fleece his dribble, he's awful. More frequently, he's aah -ful.
"More than anyone I've ever coached, he enjoys that (the crowd)," said Ed Azzam, Crawford's coach at Westchester High. "Most players in high school don't have the ability to focus on the game and play for the crowd, but he did that. . . . He's one of the few that I would pay to watch."
Typically, junior college games draw as many people as the express line at a supermarket, but Nordquist said Moorpark crowds have increased markedly since Crawford joined the team.
Crawford didn't pull Excalibur from a stone in leading Moorpark to the state playoffs, but he has dealt the rock well enough to help Moorpark improve from 16-15 last season to 21-10 this season.
Crawford broke the school single-season assist record and led Moorpark with 20.4 points (second best in the Western State Conference) and a conference-leading 12 assists per game. He set a school record with 49 points against Ventura, but Moorpark lost, 104-89.
"My trademark has been left on some great losses," said Crawford, who made 16 of 22 shots and handed out nine assists against Ventura. "I won't go down losing with seven points. . . . I can't take to it that easily."
Crawford says he picked up his distaste for losing from the Lakers, whom he became close with through his uncle, former Laker Ron Carter.
Not a typical gym rat, Crawford was more of a Forum ferret, soaking up the Laker ambiance while he watched Carter from the sidelines.
Nixon, a former star guard with the Lakers, was drawn to Crawford by his obvious love for the game but was dismayed when Crawford ran into academic difficulties.
"Sam's a hell of a player," Nixon said. "I was disappointed. He was someone I wanted to enjoy seeing playing, and I still think he will get there, but it's a hard lesson he has to learn now."
Carter met Crawford through his aunt, Mita, whom Carter eventually married. At the time, Crawford was living with his mother, Debra Crawford, in the Chicago suburb of Harvey, and Carter would bring Sam to summer basketball camps in California as a reward for good grades.
One summer, before Crawford was 10, Carter kept him in Los Angeles in an effort to save him from what Carter called "the beginning of what would be a real street life."
Except for occasional visits to the Chicago area, Crawford has been in L. A. since.
"Up until his junior year of high school, I was his father," Carter said. "At that point, it became different, and I wasn't prepared to become his friend."
Crawford eventually moved out of Carter's house and in with a Westchester teammate for his senior year. The rift deepened and the relationship bottomed out one Saturday during Crawford's senior season. Carter came to a gym where Crawford was playing pickup basketball and asked the other players to leave.
There, in the empty gym, Carter challenged Crawford to a fight. Carter says Crawford refused to throw a punch, but Crawford said, "I wouldn't hit him at first, (but) we scrumbled and tumbled for a little while."
Now reconciled, the two live together in Studio City, and, Carter said, "slowly but surely the love took over."
Said Crawford: "I'm not the kid he brought from Chicago, he understands that now."
Carter never adopted Crawford or assumed legal guardianship, but Crawford, who was 3 when he last saw his natural father, calls Carter his father.
The dispute with Carter was not the only down note of a tumultuous high school career for Crawford, a strong-willed man who is not afraid to state an opinion.
"Sam and I had some fallings-out too," Azzam said. "It was not an easy four years. His has not been an easy kind of life."
He stepped into the limelight with a strong performance against city power Crenshaw as a freshman, and he never stepped out of the limelight or the starting lineup thereafter. Crawford twice made All-City but said "nothing was ever good enough for anybody."
Finally, Crawford saw Westchester teammate Mason sign with UCLA while his own recruiting interest plunged along with his grade-point average.
Moorpark has afforded Crawford a second chance.
"I like it here," Crawford said of Moorpark. "I'd rather be at a four-year school, but, having to do this, this is probably the best place for me."
The recruiting process has begun anew for Crawford, and he has two alternatives. He can remain at Moorpark for another year, earn his degree and be immediately eligible for two years of major-college basketball, or he can matriculate to a four-year school, sit out next season and have three years of eligibility remaining.
"I'm willing to sit a year rather than sacrifice a year," said Crawford, who has drawn interest from such schools as Texas Tech and New Mexico State but has yet to commit.
College recruiters are allowed to scout on the road until March 4, and Crawford should command even more interest when he leads Moorpark into a 7 p.m. first-round state tournament game against Orange Coast on Saturday.
"I'm like a fourth-quarter player," Crawford said. "I'm coming into my own going into the playoffs. I should be able to put it all together.
"You can't keep somebody down that wants to win. Not just in basketball but to win in life."