Javaris Crittenton: A rapid rise, a troubling descent, a fall from fame to infamy

The thread tying basketball player Javaris Crittenton to the drive-by killing of a mother of four, authorities say, stretches back to four months ago, when he was the one listed as a victim on an Atlanta police report.

At that point in time, he was simply a 23-year-old fringe pro whose career was stalled. If his NBA days were remembered at all, it was for being the other guy in a bizarre, guns-drawn confrontation with Washington Wizards teammate Gilbert Arenas in late 2009.

Unceremoniously cut in training camp by the Charlotte Bobcats in 2010, he played briefly in China, then in 21 games with the minor league Dakota Wizards. The NBA, concluding its season, was about to go into lockout mode.

He still clung to high hopes, though. According to Crittenton’s longtime mentor, Tommy Slaughter, if the league ever got its labor affairs in order, “This was going to be his breakout year, his comeback year.”

He also was still trying to reclaim his good name, having never logged another minute in the NBA after the Arenas affair.

The barbershop on Cleveland Avenue was supposed to be a safe haven from the trials of the world, a familiar, old-neighborhood haunt where Crittenton had been getting shorn since he was a little boy and where the men accepted him as he was.

Yet, even there, he would come to feel like a target.

As Crittenton and a friend walked out of the shop late on the evening of April 21, they were ambushed by two young men who, at gunpoint, hustled them into Crittenton’s car and ordered them to hand over all they had. Crittenton reported to police the teens took a black diamond watch worth $30,000, a black diamond necklace worth $25,000, an iPhone and a small amount of cash.

Flash forward to the night of Aug. 19. As Jullian Jones strolled with others near her home on Atlanta’s Macon Drive, a black SUV pulled up nearby. Witnesses say shots were fired from inside the car. One struck Jones, 22, in the hip. She died later at the hospital.

Upon issuing a warrant for Crittenton’s arrest on Aug. 26, police said that he was in the SUV and had recognized a young man with Jones as one of those who had robbed him four months earlier. The bullet that killed Jones allegedly was meant for him.

Crittenton’s attorney, Brian Steele, has denied that depiction of the events and asserted his client’s innocence.

Over the past week, Crittenton’s story was flashed nationwide, grist for ESPN’s “SportsCenter” in between the preseason NFL highlights. He was another athlete in trouble — not a particularly famous one — charged by police with trading in an uncertain playing future for a misguided act of street vengeance. The subject of police searches in both Atlanta and Los Angeles, Crittenton was arrested at the John Wayne Orange County Airport on Monday before he could board a flight for Atlanta. In a hearing in Los Angeles on Wednesday, he did not contest extradition back to his hometown.

Words of disbelief

Meanwhile, a community of those who know Crittenton was left trying to reconcile the allegations facing him with their impressions of a reserved young man who was a team captain and 3.5 student at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy as well as an ambitious one-and-done guard at Georgia Tech.

Some reacted with anger toward the media interest in the story, saying it painted Crittenton as guilty before his first appearance in court. “People are judging his character based on the Gilbert Arenas [confrontation]. He said he didn’t do it; the only thing left is to prove otherwise. He’s innocent until proven guilty,” said Paul Pierce, owner of the Cleveland Avenue Barber Shop where Crittenton was robbed. Pierce declined to speak further about his friend or the case against him.

There also were prayers for all those involved in the tragedy.

“I’m very surprised,” said Karl McCray, co-founder of the AAU team, the Atlanta Celtics, on which Crittenton developed his skills alongside the likes of Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard and Atlanta Hawks forward Josh Smith.

“I know someone has lost a life — obviously you’re concerned about that family,” McCray said. “At the same time, I’m just really, really shocked by the idea that Javaris would be involved in any type of thing like that.

“You want the person responsible for the death of the young lady to be treated justly. I’m hoping and praying Javaris had nothing to do with it.”

One former teammate from his days with the Washington Wizards last week echoed the sentiments of those who never could picture Crittenton involved in a situation like this. “All the guys I’ve talked to are like, ‘Can you believe this stuff about Javaris?’” Brendan Haywood told The Washington Post. “This is a grounded guy everybody got along with, a real quiet guy. I’m still in shock and think there has to be some mistake.”

From Crittenton, there were only the sparse characters of his Twitter account — taken down shortly after the arrest warrant was issued — to speak for him.

The final one reportedly read:

This is crazy. Trouble continues to follow me for some reason. I put my trust in God.

Future looked bright

Crittenton grew up in south Atlanta and spoke of developing his game in the grittiest of urban settings. In a 2007 AJC story as he was completing his lone season at Tech, he underscored his connection to his old neighborhood: “I still have friends who sell drugs and do what they do. I’m not affiliated with what they do, and I don’t agree with it, but they’re still my people.”

Slaughter had helped steer him toward Southwest Atlanta Christian in order to both expose him to the spiritual discipline of the school and to play alongside Howard. Crittenton thrived there — he had his A average, was a member of the Beta Club and the Future Business Leaders of America and won state titles in 2004 and 2006. A top recruit, he chose to play his college ball near home.

In his one season at Tech, he was a 14-points-a-game guard, a fiery competitor who could react badly to losing (he raged as he left the floor at halftime of a loss at Wake Forest). Hardly a finished player, Crittenton nevertheless opted to jump to the NBA. Such was his combination of size (6 feet 5) and quickness that the Los Angeles Lakers took him with the 19th overall pick in 2007.

“This kid has always been ready to take on any challenge in the world,” Slaughter said.

Crittenton never gained traction in the NBA, his name relegated to the list of players who may have been better served staying in college at least one more season. Before his first season was done, the Lakers traded him to Memphis for Pau Gasol. By early in the 2008-09 season, he was traded again, this time to Washington. He appeared in 113 NBA games, averaging 5.3 points and 1.8 assists per game.

When he showed up at the Charlotte Bobcats training camp in 2010 as a free agent tryout, he told reporters there, “I do feel like I really haven’t gotten my shot yet. I really wasn’t one of those players who could really learn from watching. But it’s the NBA. This is the decision I chose. I left college early and I just have to learn. There’s no more being babied or anything like that.”

‘A bad decision’

The single incident that most defined Crittenton’s professional life occurred Dec. 21, 2009 as he and Arenas flashed guns inside Washington’s Verizon Center. Reportedly, a running dispute over money owed by Arenas to Crittenton from a card game spilled over into the Wizards’ locker room. It was widely reported that Arenas arrayed four guns in front of his locker with the note challenging Crittenton to “Pick 1.” Crittenton, instead, pulled his own.

In the fallout, Crittenton, who had yet to play that season due to an ankle injury, would miss all of 2009-10. Both he and Arenas were suspended for the remainder of that season.

Crittenton was left to deal with the damage to his image. On the now vanished Twitter site, Crittenton posted words from the Jay-Z song “Say Hello” as part of his personal profile:

Say hello to the bad guy! They say I’m a bad guy. That say a lot about me, let me tell you what I ain’t.

Asked during his brief stay in Charlotte what the experience had taught him, Crittenton responded, “Use wisdom in everything and just don’t get caught up in foolishness and nonsense and crazy people around you. It was a bad decision on both ends and we’re trying to move forward with our careers and our lives.”

Arenas has yet to comment publicly on Crittenton’s current charges, but The Washington Post’s Mike Wise recalled another conversation he had with the controversial star shortly before he was traded to Orlando last season.

Arenas reportedly told Wise that, while he had not talked to Crittenton, he had heard that their confrontation and suspension had made him “more hard.”

“You know, like some people turn over a new leaf when something bad like that changes their life,” Arenas said at the time. “I heard Javaris went the other way – he became more ’hood, more hardened in that way.”

“I didn’t see the incident making him harder,” Slaughter responded. “It made him more determined to prove himself as a player.”

“Javaris,” he said, “always was a kid who wanted so badly to be someone.”

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