SALT LAKE CITY — It was the summer of 2009, around June to be specific.
Mostly grown men were on the court on this particular day at the Estero Recreation Center, right outside of Fort Myers, Florida.
An 18-year-old Jae Crowder had just wrapped up an All-American freshman season at South Georgia Technical College. He was there visiting his dad, Corey, who he also teamed with against men’s league competition, before he was set to play his sophomore year at Howard College.
If there was ever any question about Crowder’s toughness before then, despite being a high school quarterback at Villa Rica High School, it was all erased in that moment.
“I was playing against grown men, and I wasn’t yet grown. I was in a tough neck of the woods with my dad and these guys were talking junk,” Crowder recalled. “That’s what made me grow up on the court a little bit.
“I was busting their (expletive) and I felt like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m doing this against grown men? I must be alright, I’m straight, I’m going to keep at it.’ That’s when I got confident.”
The rest is history, as Crowder would go on to star at Texas’ Howard College before working his way to Marquette University and becoming a second-round pick in the 2012 NBA Draft.
Crowder has since developed a reputation as somewhat of an enforcer who isn’t afraid to back down from anybody. Like the time when Minnesota’s Jeff Teague unnecessarily body-checked Ricky Rubio during the fourth quarter of a game last March and Crowder jumped in immediately to wrap up Teague. He’s almost always in the middle of stuff, defending his teammates, and that’s by design.
“The one thing that I told him is that as far as trying to mold him to where he was going to make it in the NBA or not, I told him one thing. I didn’t say nothing about points, I didn’t say nothing about rebounds, I said this: ‘If you can be an (expletive), every team in that league wants an (expletive), they need that guy,’” Corey Crowder said. “There’s not one team that doesn’t want that guy that will guard five different positions and will love doing it and I said, 'If you can do that, you’ll have a job as long as you want.'”
Sure, he does that. However, he knows when to tone it down, too.
Like when Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic jawed in his face after being lightly nudged on Jan. 23. Instead of ramping up the situation, Crowder instead laughed it off.
Especially after his teammate Derrick Favors had already been ejected in the same contest earlier for an altercation with Mason Plumlee, where both of them ended up getting fined — and Jokic was suspended one game for leaving the bench.
“It’s very difficult, no doubt,” Crowder explained after the game. “If we were at the park, it would’ve went down. It would’ve went down for sure.”
The Jazz have come to expect that toughness from Crowder. In fact, it’s necessary for what they want to accomplish.
“Jae is a passionate player and he plays with a lot of emotion,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “He’s always been like that, and I think that he’s able to focus that intensity in productive ways, and kind of knowing where that line is between good, clean, physicality and then finding yourself in a situation where you’re just going to react.
“That happens to every player and happens to Jae, too, but as much as him discerning those situations, I think his intensity and physicality and passion is something that our team feeds off of,” he added.
Crowder has played in all but one of Utah’s games this season, only sitting once with a left thumb contusion. He has also started in seven games at the forward position and averages 12.1 points and 4.7 rebounds while shooting 33.2 percent from 3. That versatility to switch to roles both in and out of the starting lineup is also helpful for matchup purposes.
His ability to knock down open 3-pointers, along with Kyle Korver, has helped Jazz guards Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell in driving situations because they can penetrate and kick it out on the wing, knowing he’ll be ready to shoot.
But it’s his toughness that’s ultimately helped him become a seventh-year pro, despite being a second-round draft pick and junior college alumnus. That dates back even earlier if you ask those closest to him.
“He’s always been a handful, even before he hit his growth spurt, because he used to be an overweight kid and he was still a lot to handle,” said Eric Thompson, Crowder’s first cousin and best friend. “He was always that guy that was never going to back down no matter who it was. That’s always been him.
“Once that switch is flipped, it’s hard to get him to go back to the other side,” he added.
Like Jae, Corey Crowder also played with the Jazz during the 1991-92 season, in addition to a lengthy overseas career that ended in 2006. These days he still lives in Fort Myers, operating as a businessman, while catching as many Jazz games as possible. He admires the heart and toughness of his son, and whenever folks ask him when he first noticed it, he’ll always reference that summer day in 2009.
That’s when the beast was unleashed and there’s been no turning back ever since then.1 comment on this story
“I can’t say I noticed it when he was young. I knew that he was a fighter, but the one thing when Jae was down here, I played with him in a pickup game and this guy threw the ball in and another guy hacked his arm. This was after his first year of JuCo,” Corey explained. “He called foul, they took it out, he posted up again, the guy threw the ball in and the guy hacked him real hard again and he turned around and said to the guy, ‘You’re going to have to keep doing that because I’m not going to quit. I’m going to keep coming.’
“I knew I had something to work with, that I could help him go as far as he wanted to go, only because being able to have that dog is something you can’t buy,” he continued. “I can buy him all the shoes in the world, I could even take him to a shooting coach and buy him a jumper, but I can’t buy him a heart to fight.”