Driving along with Jamal Crawford

Jamal Crawford sits in his car out front of a shimmering Los Angeles apartment building not far from the beach. It’s the place he’s called home since shortly after he signed a four-year, $25 million deal with the Clippers in July. Before the season, he and Lakers forward Antawn Jamison actually looked at the same unit in the building but Crawford was a little quicker and was able to snag it.

He prefers smaller one-level dwellings. In his third year in Chicago, he bought a house from former Bulls guard Randy Brown but didn’t like it because there were too many stairs.

Then there was the cavernous 5,000-square-foot suburban Illinois mini-mansion that sat on a lush golf course. His mind played tricks on him so when he’d get home from practice he’d wait in the driveway for hours until his roommate and cousin got home so he wouldn’t have to go into the dark house by himself. Though the neighborhood lacked community and personality, the best perk was peering out of his first-floor bedroom window and seeing Michael Jordan tee off 50 feet from his house.

But now, at 33, it’s all ocean views and warm breezes.

I approach the car and jump in when he hands me a bottle of water.

“What up, CP?” he says. “Gotta stay hydrated. Yessir.”

On this typically picturesque Southern California afternoon, Crawford is in the throes of a routine that has been part of his life for 13 years. Already out of the way are the Panera Bread lunch and the two-hour pregame nap. Next up is a small, mundane task that annoys most of us but brings him a certain satisfaction and calm.

It’s just after 4 o’clock and he’s about to drive to work. He pulls his bronze 2011 Porsche Panamera out of the driveway and into traffic.

“You take the highways or surface streets?” I ask.

“Surface, definitely,” he replies. “This is how I get to see L.A. Driving through the neighborhoods makes me feel like I’m a part of the city. I take my time and I can see everything.”

One of the perks of being a professional basketball player is that the daily commute usually happens in off-peak hours. No rush-hour gridlock, laying into the horn or nervously scanning the GPS for alternate routes for fear of a fine. Not even in the heart of legendarily congested Los Angeles.

Cruising at an easy 40 miles per hour with Nas’ “You Wouldn’t Understand” emanating from the speakers, the bass adjusted to a comfortable level, Crawford points out places of interest along the way. There’s the unusual architecture of an out-of-place funeral home, the sandwich shop he might like to try.

His trip eastward along this busy thoroughfare is more or less a straight shot. He knows the lights and that the glut of buses in Koreatown can slow you down on a Friday. But he’s in no rush. He leaves promptly at 4:15 each day to arrive a half-hour before his 5:20 p.m. pregame shooting session in which he makes 75 jump shots while Clippers assistant coach Howard Eisley puts a hand in his face.

In 13 seasons, Crawford has logged nearly 10,000 miles driving from his home to the arena in six different cities. His average commute in his four years in Chicago was about 90 minutes. New York’s traffic perplexed him as a Knick. Golden State was a brisk 20-minute jaunt. But none has been so soothing as his current L.A. trek.

“I actually really like this drive,” says Crawford. “I could probably make the trip in my sleep.”

Crawford rarely veers from this path. He doesn’t go out during the regular season, a habit he adopted early in his career. Party invitations end up in the trash. Hollywood and its velvet ropes are uncharted territory. He explores his neighborhood with his fiancée, Tori, looking for new restaurants and the occasional movie. On weekends, they hit Barnes & Noble or Starbucks with their brood.

And after 13 years, Crawford is nothing if not a creature of habit. He ices daily at home on days off. His entire career, his clocks have been set to Seattle time as a way to stay connected to his beloved hometown. And of course, there’s the nap. “My babies sleep when I do, so it works,” he says.

Crawford normally uses the 43-minute drive to prepare himself mentally for the night’s game. Nothing too intense; just some time to clear his head.

But on this day, Crawford is talking hoops. He’s an avid basketball fan (he’s had League Pass since its inception) with an opinion on just about every aspect of the game. Kobe Bryant’s recent injury is fresh in his mind.

“A lot of us players were just sick when we saw it,” he says pulling up to a light. “We were all so messed up. It’s almost hard to put into words. Kobe’s almost superhuman. It was just crazy to see him so, you know, human.”

Bryant endeared himself to Crawford by endorsing him for Sixth Man of the Year in both November and April of this season. They kept in touch via text during the season and Crawford tweeted about Kobe’s “greatness” after bumping into him in the hallway at Staples after a game.

“There will never be another Kobe,” Crawford says. “He’s the closest thing to Jordan.”

As we make good time down the boulevard, the topic moves to the not-yet-announced Sixth Man of the Year award, which has come down to a two-man race between him and Knicks guard J.R Smith.

“Who gets it?” I ask.

“I think J.R.’s going to win it,” he replies quickly. “He deserves it. Up until a month ago I thought I had it, but he got hot at the right time and they won 14 out of 15.”

There’s a lull in the conversation. I know what he’s thinking. Crawford so dearly wanted to win the award. He’s kept up with Smith’s numbers and the two text each other every couple of weeks to root each other on. Another moment passes, then Crawford smiles.

“Yeah, J.R.’s been hooping lately,” he says.

In 13 years of commuting to games, Crawford hasn’t had a bit of car trouble. Until this year. A couple of months ago, he caught a flat tire halfway through his drive. He rolled on the fluttering tire for two blocks before pulling into a tire shop where mechanics installed his spare.

“I got lucky the shop was there,” he says. “Or else I would have definitely been late that day.”

No such trouble today. Halfway to the arena we’re in the midst of a Rick Ross mix when I decide to press his buttons.

“Who’s the best athlete in the NBA?” I ask, shifting gears.

D-Rose, Westbrook and LeBron really jump off the page for me,” Crawford replies.

“I think Westbrook is the best athlete I’ve ever seen,” I offer.

“No way!” exclaims Crawford. “He’s not better than D-Rose. We played the Bulls one time and D-Rose triple pumped in the lane. I’ve never seen anybody do that. Ever. But Westbrook and Rose are like the new Baron Davis and Steve Francis.”

As L.A. passes outside his window, Jay-Z’s “Success” is now the background music to our hoop chatter.

“What about this guy Steph Curry?” I ask. “I think he might be the best shooter I’ve ever seen.”

“Man, no. What about Steve Kerr?” says Crawford. “You think Curry could beat Kerr or Reggie Miller or Ray Allen in a 3-point contest? Nah.”

“The difference between Curry and those guys is he can get his shot both off the dribble and catch-and-shoot,” I counter.

“Yeah, but the best ever, though?” Crawford replies. “I’m big on body of work. He’s cold, but kind of soon to call him the best ever.”

“A lot of success is about situation,” Crawford continues. “How much do you think Steph would average under Gregg Popovich?

“At least 22 a game.”

“You think he’d average 22? No way. Uh-huh.”

“He’s going to take at least 16 shots per game and shoot 45 percent,” I explain. “What coach would have the best shooter in the NBA shoot less than 16 times?”

“I’ve seen worse situations,” says Crawford. “Last year [in Portland] I was used as a point guard and I ain't nowhere near a point guard. Like I said, I've seen worse.”

Traffic is a breeze today; he only occasionally changes lanes, and we’re getting most of the lights. The basketball conversation has exhausted itself and we’re just rolling now. The weather, Drake (“Hate or love him, he’s cold.”), the best smartphone (BlackBerry for him) and tattoos pop up in the last few minutes of the conversation.

As we near our destination, the late-afternoon sun casts a shadow off Staples Center. Women in business suits and guys clutching briefcases scurry home after work. A teen on a skateboard drifts by while checking his iPad. Crawford stops at a light and flips the blinker. As he waits to make the left onto Figueroa, his right hand is on top of the steering wheel as he runs his left hand subconsciously along the tattoo on his right forearm.

The tattoo, done by the same guy who does Allen Iverson’s work, is a verse from the Notorious B.I.G song “Sky’s the Limit.”

A few minutes later, he makes the right-hand turn from Chick Hearn Court into the entrance of the players' parking lot. He sees a fan in a Blake Griffin jersey holding a red, white and blue basketball. Crawford rolls down the window, takes the man’s Sharpie and signs the ball. He jokes a minute with the autograph hound who already has a dozen or so of Crawford’s signatures.

Crawford inches forward where a security team checks the underbody of his Porsche with an upward facing mirror at the end of a long handle, a symbol of the times we live in.

“Yeah, they check us too,” Crawford says matter-of-factly.

A car is right on his bumper as he descends the steep driveway to the valet beneath Staples. He sees Eric Bledsoe in the rearview mirror with a huge smile on his face. Crawford jumps out of his ride and surrenders his keys to the valet, whom he makes sure to tip regularly, while making polite small talk about the current playoff race.

“Time to go to work,” says Crawford. He turns and disappears down the tunnel.