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Braves New World: Fred Crawford

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

(Budd Bailey and Greg D. Tranter have written a book called "Buffalo Braves From A to Z," published by St. Johann Press. Early in the writing process, they wrote good-sized biographies of all 71 men who played a regular-season game for the Braves during their time in Buffalo from 1970 to 1978. Publishers weren't so enthusiastic about all of that material, so most (59) of the biographies were shortened to about 500 words. However, the authors hated to waste all of that material ... so they are presenting it here. It will appear three times a week. A bibliography is available upon request.)

Fred Crawford’s basketball career is a tribute to his persistence. His college career was interrupted by a disease that forced him to take a year off from game action. Then, after finishing his college eligibility, it took him more than two years to play a game on an NBA roster. Once he made it, Fred spent more than four years in the game’s highest level.

Frederick Russell Crawford Jr. was born in New York City on December 23, 1941. He stayed in New York throughout his childhood, as he turned up at Samuel Gompers High School in the Bronx. Fred is the only NBA player to come out of the school, which was named after the labor leader of the late 19th century. Since the facility closed in 2012, Crawford is in a class by himself. Freddie was a star at Gompers, as he was a first-team All-City selection as a senior.

Crawford graduated from the school in 1959, and his high school advisors had told him he wasn’t college material. He showed them they were wrong when he accepted a scholarship at St. Bonaventure in Olean. The university is located south of Buffalo near the Pennsylvania state line. He arrived right in the middle of the most glorious era in the Bonnies’ basketball history. In 1959-60, Crawford had the chance to see a Bona team that was led by the Stith brothers, Tom and Sam. They combined to average 51.5 points per game. The team went 21-5 under coach Eddie Donovan – remember the name – and finished ninth in the final Associated Press poll.

Sam Stith graduated in 1960, but there was a replacement ready to pick up the scoring: Crawford. The 6-foot-4 guard averaged 21.9 points and 10 rebounds per game to complement his roommate, Tom Stith. St. Bonaventure went 24-4 (starting 21-1) that season and was ranked third in the nation. That was the season when the Bonnies’ 99-game home winning streak came to an end against Niagara. The team was picked for the NCAA tournament for the first time in its history; Bona beat Rhode Island in the first round (Fred had 34 points and 16 rebounds) but lost to Wake Forest in the Sweet Sixteen.

Not only did the Bonnies run out of Stith brothers by that point, but Donovan left to coach the New York Knicks. Larry Weise took over as coach. Bona also was missing Crawford, who did not play that season because he was suffering from tuberculosis. Tom Stith also contracted that disease; the two of them spent five months in a hospital in Mount Morris. The team finished 14-7 without Freddie. Crawford came back in 1962-63, and it took him a little time to return to game shape as doctors restricted his playing time early in the season. Even so, he averaged 19.7 points per game. Meanwhile, his team never generated much momentum and finished 13-12.

Donovan obviously had been keeping an eye on Crawford, and knew he was eligible for the 1963 NBA draft because that’s when his original class graduated. The Knicks took the guard in the eighth round, but didn’t sign him. Fred returned to St. Bonaventure, and he picked up his game as a senior. Crawford averaged a double-double at 26.3 points and 12 rebounds per game. The Bonnies went 16-8 and made to the NIT; there they lost to Army, 64-62. The Cadets were coached by future Braves coach Tates Locke and led by future Braves player Mike Silliman. Crawford earned All-East honors for his work that season.

The Knicks were persistent when it came to Crawford, drafting him in the fourth round in 1964. This time they signed him … but he didn’t make the opening night roster. Fred took his gym bag to Delaware. There he played for the Wilmington Blue Bombers in the Eastern League, and averaged about 18 points per game. It was the same story a year later, and Crawford upped his scoring average with the Blue Bombers to 25.2 points per game. That team won the league championship. And he broke his hand in the Knicks’ training camp in 1966, so he went back to Wilmington again. There he averaged 22.4 points per game. One of his teammates there was future Brave Bob Weiss. Remember, there were only 10 teams in the league at that point, and it was tough to earn a job. A lesser man might have given up his NBA dreams by then.

By that time, Donovan was the Knicks’ general manager. When he needed a guard, he called Crawford and signed him. Crawford played in his first game on January 29, 1967. He had eight points and three rebounds as the lowly Knicks were thumped by the defending champion Boston Celtics, 141-106. Fred played in 19 regular season games that year, seeing an average of 10 minutes of action and scoring 5.9 points per game. He did have a nice playoff series, averaging 17 points in 28 minutes per game.

During Crawford’s time with the Knicks, he helped found the Rucker League, a summer circuit that attracted some top players to a playground in Harlem. Donovan once asked him to bring some of his teammates to the area in an effort to work in the community. Fred brought Willis Reed, Walt Frazier and Bill Bradley in for a game. That squad lost a game to a team called “Sweet and Sour,” representing a bar. “The place went berserk,” Crawford said. “They had a parade around the park with the Cadillacs and Mercedes down 7th Avenue. They had a guy named Pablo Robertson, he was a magician. And I knew those guys from the neighborhood, so even though I lost I enjoyed the (heck) out of it.”

Crawford returned to the NBA in the fall of 1967-68, and played in 31 games as a reserve guard for the Knicks. The New York backcourt was rather crowded, so Donovan did Fred a favor by selling his playing rights to the Los Angeles Lakers on January 12, 1968. Crawford still had Jerry West, Archie Clark and Gail Goodrich in front of him, but his playing time jumped to about 20 minutes per game. That helped him average 10.3 points per game, a career high. Even better, the Lakers were a much better team than the Knicks at that point, so Crawford had the chance to join on a team that went through a long playoff run. Los Angeles bumped off Chicago and San Francisco, but lost to the Celtics in six games in the Finals.

Goodrich and Clark were gone for the 1968-69 season, while Wilt Chamberlain had joined the team. That allowed Crawford to average almost 21 minutes a game with the Lakers. His scoring average dropped to 6.2 per game for a team that had high expectations to win a title. Los Angeles finished 55-27 to win the West, and it beat San Francisco and Atlanta in the first two rounds of the playoffs. However, the Celtics were in the way again, winning another NBA championship by taking Game Seven by two points.

While in Los Angeles, Crawford’s name popped up in an investigative story by Life magazine’s David Wolf in 1969. Wolf had written an article on how standout Connie Hawkins came to be banned from the NBA because of his alleged involvement in a betting scandal. In 1961, authorities had indicted Joe Hacken, who was an assistant to Jack Molinas – the head of a gambling ring that had paid out thousands of dollars to college players to fix games. The indictment contained 17 counts of bribery and one count of conspiracy; 14 players were mentioned in the indictment. Hawkins was formally banned by the NBA in 1966 after he refused to answer questions about his relationship with Hacken. However, Kennedy admitted that he hadn’t even read the original indictment until early 1969.

The first name of a player named in the indictment belonged to Crawford. Allegedly, Hacken offered Crawford a $1,000 bribe while he was playing at St. Bonaventure, and that Crawford failed to report the offer to authorities. Kennedy had approved of Crawford’s first NBA contract in 1967 without knowing the player had been mentioned in the indictment. But Kennedy said he wouldn’t have done anything differently had he known about the incident, because St. Bonaventure allowed Crawford to continue playing after sitting out a year with illness.

The Lakers sold Crawford’s rights to the Milwaukee Bucks on September 18, 1969. That meant Fred had a good look at one of the most heralded rookies in NBA history. Lew Alcindor, later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, had graduated from UCLA and was ready to being a memorable pro career. The rookie met every expectation and then some, as they finished 56-26. Crawford played in 77 games as something of a third guard. The Bucks weren’t ready to win a championship yet, as they lost to the emerging Knicks in five games of the East finals.

The Bucks acquired the great Oscar Robertson in the offseason of 1970, and they were headed toward a championship in the following season. Crawford wasn’t part of it, because Donovan still remembered him. Eddie left the Knicks to become the general manager of the new Buffalo Braves franchise, and he picked Crawford in the 1970 expansion draft. It probably represented Fred’s best chance to win a starting job.

The Braves had quite a number of bodies to sort out, particularly at guard, when they started the season. That was partly because the three new expansion teams were allowed to keep three extra players on the roster for a limited amount of time in 1970-71. He played in the Braves’ first-ever game, scoring six points in 23 minutes in a win over Cleveland. Crawford hung around Buffalo through late November. Then the Braves traded him to Philadelphia for a second-round draft choice. He had played in 15 games, averaging 5.9 points per game.

The Sixers were quite crowded at guard, thanks to Clark, Hal Greer, Wali Jones and Matt Guokas. But Crawford squeezed in some playing time, taking part in 36 games on a limited basis. Philadelphia went 47-35 and was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. His final game in the NBA came on March 30, 1971, against Baltimore in the first round of the playoffs. Fred scored seven points in nine minutes in a 15-point loss to the Bullets.

That was it. Crawford played five years in the league, scoring 2,031 points in 297 games. The Basketball-Reference website has a stat called “Similarity Scores,” that compares the statistics of players from different eras. It’s a little odd that Crawford’s most comparable player in the history of the NBA is Dick Garrett, a teammate on that first-year Braves team.

Crawford’s alma mater never forgot his contributions to the school. In 1970, St. Bonaventure put him in its Hall of Fame. Uniform No. 54 was retired in his honor. Then in 2014, a 7-foot mural was placed in the Reilly Center. His family and 20 of his classmates were part of the unveiling ceremony. "These guys, when we get together it's like we never left (St. Bonaventure)," Crawford said. "I never expected (a mural) like this would happen. I'm humbled." In that same year, Fred was picked as a member of the 2014 Atlantic 10 Conference legends class. Then in 2019, Crawford was part of the school’s centennial All-Time Team.

Fred was saluted by Congressman Charles Rangel in 2011 when the U.S. Representative saluted the good work of The National Association of Each One, Teach One, Inc. on its 44th anniversary. The organization encourages young people to pursue higher education through college tours and guest speakers. Fred also owned a sporting goods store in Harlem for several years.

Crawford was living in Teaneck, New Jersey, at last report. When Fred was with the Braves, he had a wife (Vernita) and two children. His goddaughter, Star Fitzgerald-Greer, transferred to St. Bonaventure from Howard in 2020 to complete her last year of basketball eligibility. It sounds as if Fred put the idea in Star’s head. “I speak to him (Crawford) probably every other day,” she said to the Bona Venture. “He checks in on me, asks how everything is going, how school’s going and how practices are going. He brings this sort of energy, this sort of mentality that is just ‘get up and go’, like just get up and make some change.”

(Follow Budd on @WDX2BB)

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