Rocky Widner

Playing free—After the most difficult year of his life, Jae Crowder has finally found a home in Utah

by Aaron Falk

The postgame interview hadn’t finished. Didn’t matter. It could wait. Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder stepped into the frame, wrapped his arms around Jae Crowder and then proudly hit the forward’s chest with a closed fist.

Crowder had just scored 20 points—including a key 3-pointer late in the game—to help the Jazz beat the Celtics at Vivint Smart Home Arena. It was another statement game for Crowder. The former Maverick and Celtic loves to remind his old teams that he thinks it was a mistake to ever let him go.

“They know,” he’d say in the locker room afterward.

But Jae Crowder knows something, too: after enduring the most difficult seasons of his career, after trades and tragedy, his new team in Utah has fully embraced him and he has found a home with the Jazz.

“Whatever’s meant to be is going to happen,” he said. “I feel like I’m meant to be playing for this organization.”

Family Ties

Corey Crowder meets up with his friends each fall to hunt deer near where he played college basketball in Kentucky. But when he saw the NBA schedule, that his son would be playing a short drive away in Memphis in mid-November, he knew that tradition would have to be put on pause.

“It’s special to watch him play,” the elder Crowder said courtside at the FedEx Forum in Memphis.

“It’s always good to have my dad there to support me,” Jae Crowder added. “I know he’s watching every game when he’s at home. But when he’s in the stands it’s a great feeling.”

The father and son share a special bond. Corey Crowder played for the Jazz in the early ’90s. Jae keeps a pair of the shoes his father wore in Utah, autographed and the bottoms blown out, in a glass case.

“It’s more than a dream come true,” Jae Crowder said of following in his father’s footsteps as a Jazzman. “I never would have thought this would happen, me playing for Utah. It’s like coming around full circle for me and my family. We love it, we embrace it.”

“I think he wears that purple jersey better than I did,” Corey Crowder said.

Jae has always appreciated his father’s support from the stands, but especially now. Last season, he leaned on him heavily for support as they both grieved the loss of Crowder’s mother, Helen Thompson, who died after a battle with cancer.

Jae spent the summer of 2017 by his mother’s side. The day she died, August 22, Crowder learned he was being traded from Boston to Cleveland. What followed was the most difficult season of Crowder’s career.

“Year 6 was the toughest one yet for me,” he said. “That was the first time in my life I couldn’t put my whole heart into basketball.”

Six months after the trade to Cleveland, Crowder was on the move again. This time to Utah, where he was looking for a fresh start.

“I think it really helped me,” he said. “The organization did a great job of bringing me in and making me feel like I was wanted. From Day 1, the locker room really embraced me. The GM, the head coach, my teammates, they embraced me. They brought me in and made me feel like I was part of something special. Every day I laced them up, that was for those guys.”

Fired Up

Corey Crowder sees a difference in his son’s game.

With half a season, a summer and a full training camp with the Jazz now under his belt, Jae Crowder looks at home.

“He’s playing with a lot more confidence,” Corey Crowder said. “I think his energy level is higher and he’s taken on more of a leadership role. He had to figure out what his place was, what is his role on the team.

“I ask him, ‘Why are you always so angry on the court?’ He said, ‘Dad, I think you used to play like that too.’”

Jae Crowder’s passion for the game is all the way back.

“I’m naturally fired up,” he said at a shootaround in Memphis. “I’m naturally excited to play each and every time I lace the shoes up.”

But with stops in Dallas, where he started his NBA career in 2012, and Boston, where he played from 2014–17, that fire burned a little hotter on this road trip.

“With those guys, a little more,” Crowder admitted. “I’ve got a little more when it’s my former teammates.”

Crowder still hasn’t forgotten how he felt when Celtics fans chanted Gordon Hayward’s name at the Garden. It was a show of appreciation for a soon-to-be free agent from the Boston fans, but Crowder felt disrespected.

“I remember my emotions were high,” Crowder recalled. “I was very upset, and I played like that. I played upset. I know I had a good night on both ends of the court.”

Crowder came out aggressive against both of his former clubs on this road trip. And while he didn’t have the stat lines he’d like (a combined 10 points on 4-of-19 shooting), he is always an integral piece for Snyder’s team.

“There’s more of a comfort level this season,” Snyder said. “Any time you find yourself knowing your way around more, you’re able to extend your area of focus. I think one of those areas for him has been leadership. He’s a guy that has experience at high levels competing. You can feel his competitiveness. But now he’s being more verbal because he’s more comfortable and he’s had time with this group of guys.”

Crowder has taken rookie Grayson Allen under his wing to mentor him. But his reach extends throughout the locker room. After the win in Boston, Crowder was dancing with Donovan Mitchell, messing up Joe Ingles’ hair. Then he let out a joyous scream as he walked into the locker room victorious.

“The guys are giving me the platform,” he said. “My teammates believe in me. These guys believe in what I bring to the team.”

And this season, Crowder is determined to bring everything he’s got. That’s why Snyder was so eager to embrace Crowder during that postgame interview back in Salt Lake City.

“Jae deserves emotion from other people because he gives so much of it,” Snyder said that night. “He’s got a heartbeat you can feel, and he gives that to our team.”

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