Paul Oliver Lawrence Jr. died on February 16, 2011.
Lawrence had been a fixture in Seattle sports circles since his days as a guard for Seattle University in the late-1980s and had worked for the last decade as an agent for Maximum Sports Management, where he represented a number of NFL players. Portland Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan, former player and coach of the Seattle SuperSonics, was his "best friend" for twenty years and is the godfather of Lawrence's son; new Blazers guard Jamal Crawford, a Seattle-area product, has known and sought counsel from Lawrence since he was a 16-year-old student-athlete at Rainier Beach High School.
On February 15, 2011, one day before he passed away unexpectedly from a heart attack while playing basketball, Lawrence called Crawford, then playing for the Atlanta Hawks, and told him that he would join the Blazers for the 2011-2012 season.
Seated at his new Rose Garden locker following the Blazers' Friday Fan Fest intra-squad scrimmage, one day after signing a 2-year, $10 million contract with the Blazers, Crawford vividly recalled the phone call with wide eyes, some forehead scratching and a feeling of disbelief.
"It was weird because he's a close friend of mine, but I hadn't talked to him in maybe two weeks," Crawford said. "And he called me the night before he passed."
The 2010 NBA Sixth Man of the Year was in the middle of a frustrating 2010-2011 season. The owners of the Hawks were trying to sell their team and they did not aggressively move to extend his contract when they had the opportunity.
On February 14, 2011, Crawford scored just four points on 1-for-2 shooting in a road win over the Detroit Pistons. The Hawks traveled to New York City in advance of a February 16 game against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden.
"I was in New York, it was right in February," Crawford remembered. "[Lawrence] was talking about Atlanta and he was like, ‘It doesn't matter. You'll be in Portland next year anyway.' True story. And the next day he passed. And even through this whole process I still wasn't sure I'd end up here. And I'm here. I guess he knew something that we didn't."
Portland's players, especially forward LaMarcus Aldridge, put a full court recruiting press on Crawford during the lockout. Crawford said that because of Portland's cap situation and roster questions -- read: Brandon Roy -- he had doubts about Lawrence's prediction until it finally came to fruition.
And, even then, Crawford had difficulty wrapping his mind around it. On Friday night, Crawford kept calling the situation "surreal" and said repeatedly that he had been reassuring himself that this week had actually happened and wasn't a figment of his imagination. What do you call this? Coincidence? Chance? Karma? Fate? Destiny?
His new coach clearly shared this larger-than-life emotional sentiment.
"I talked to Jamal, it’s really a dream," McMillan said during the team's introductory press conference on Friday morning. "I had the opportunity to see Brandon [Roy] and Jamal and Jason [Terry] grow up. Going into coaching and seeing their talent, it was a dream to one day be able to coach them on the floor."
McMillan left his team last season to attend Lawrence's funeral.
"As I told Jamal when he decided to come, this was a dream of mine," McMillan said. "He and I lost a very, very close friend a year ago. Paul Lawrence. Paul and I would talk about Jamal and Jamal told me he and Paul would talk about me. It’s really unfortunate that Paul passed away last year, but he told Jamal that he would be in Portland one day. He won’t get that opportunity to see it come true but I’m looking forward to it."
Lawrence's Seattle Times obituary includes these words: "He was well known in the business for his integrity and ability to create excellent relationships with players and management alike."
That skill at connecting dots will never be felt more profoundly.
McMillan gets a proven, veteran scorer who can create his own shot and provides much-needed backcourt depth. Crawford gets a return to the Pacific Northwest, a solid pay day with a second-year player option giving him flexibility going forward, plus a chance to play for an organization that highly values him.
"He’s just always told me stuff that Nate would say, tell Nate stuff that I would say," Crawford said. "He’s always been the middle person for that relationship. It was weird, the night before he passed, he told me I would be playing in Portland. I was like, ‘How do you know that?’ I asked him that. He’s like, 'Nate’s my best friend, how do you think I know?’"
Another shake of the head.
"It still feels surreal. It really feels like I’m dreaming right now," Crawford said. "I’m really here? I don’t have to leave in two days? But it’s real."
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter