A pair of shoes gathered dust in an office for 24 years.
They were L.A. Gears. Big high tops that were popular for that era. Signed by an journeyman NBA player almost no one had heard of — Corey Crowder.
But the Utah Jazz PR staff discovered the shoes in 2016, just taking up space in Vivint Smart Home Arena, and the Jazz gave them fresh life by giving them to one of the few people to whom they would have meaning: Corey’s son, Jae.
Something about that gesture has never left Jae Crowder, now 27 and the newest Jazz player 26 seasons after his father played for Utah. It led him down a path of rediscovering a time he can’t vividly remember: leafing through old photos of him in his father’s Jazz jerseys, mimicking a shooting form to the best of his 2-year-old ability.
“Those pictures bring back memories of when I fell in love with the game,” Crowder said. “Those travel with me for the rest of my life.”
It also told him something about the Jazz, who are now undertaking a new reclamation project: Crowder himself.
On its face, Utah has been criticized in some quarters nationally for trading Rodney Hood — a 25-year-old scorer with size and restricted free agency approaching — for Crowder, a 6-foot-6 defense-first wing who was in the midst of a disappointing season while sharing the floor with basketball’s best living player. He was mostly a bust in Cleveland in his 53 games there, averaging just 8.6 points while seeing his shooting numbers reverted to the worst they had been since before he played for two playoff teams in Boston, his previous stop.
But since arriving in Utah, Crowder has attacked his new situation with a hunger he reportedly did not have with the Cavaliers. He joked that he only knows two plays of coach Quin Snyder’s extensive playbook, but in two games he’s been productive: 29 combined points, 8 rebounds and 6 for 12 shooting from 3-point range, while bringing physicality on defense that he was known for with the Celtics. He’s helped the Jazz add the last two wins to their NBA-best 10-game streak.
JAE CROWDER FILE
• Georgia native, originally intended to play football.
• Won a NJCAA national championship with Howard College (Texas) in 2010.
• Big East Player of the Year, 2nd team All-American at Marquette in 2012.
• Drafted No. 34 overall in 2012, acquired by the Dallas Mavericks via trade.
• Averaged 12.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg shot 35.3 on 3FG percent in three seasons with Boston.
• Traded to Cleveland Cavaliers in 2017 offseason in Kyrie Irving deal.
• Averaged 8.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg and shot 32.8 on 3FG in 53 games with Cleveland.
And Crowder himself hasn’t exactly tried to rein in expectations. He said he couldn’t be happier to land with his father’s old team — and his family was overjoyed as well.
“I truly believe this will work well,” he said before his first game in Portland. “Meeting with the people in the organization, meeting with the coaches. I feel like this could be home for a long time.”
In Cleveland, media reports surfaced of Crowder’s dissatisfaction with his role, which was reduced from what he did for the Celtics. Long stretches of games went by when he didn’t touch the ball much, and his defensive effort waned while playing on the third-worst defense in the NBA.
When Cleveland slumped midseason, losing 13 of 19 (including a loss at Utah), blame spread around quickly. Isaiah Thomas, who had been packaged with Crowder from Boston in an offseason trade for Kyrie Irving, famously said days before the Cavs blew up their roster: “When adversity hits, we go our separate ways.”
Crowder keeps it short when talking about Cleveland: There were a lot of good players who weren’t meshing in the right way, he offers diplomatically. But after his first win over the Trail Blazers, his comments implied that he got something in Utah that he didn’t have with the Cavaliers.
“I’m getting back to having fun, playing the game the right way,” he said. “It’s just fun to be out there with a good group of guys that are so connected. They’re just very connected and they’ve welcomed me since Day One. I’m glad to be a part of it.”
Crowder has yet to participate in a full Jazz practice, but that hasn’t kept him from making an impression. In the first film session he had with Snyder, he asked questions that showed his new coach he had an uncommon sense of engagement and curiousity about Jazz schemes. Donovan Mitchell said in his first game, Crowder ran a few plays correctly while being only barely indoctrinated in the playbook — indicative of his intuition for Utah’s style.
In his home debut at Vivint Smart Home Arena, fans applauded when he checked into the game six minutes in, then roared as he sank his first three, as he dove for a loose ball, as he tossed an assist to Rudy Gobert. They were as happy to have him as he was to be there.
“He played hard, competed, knocked down some shots — he’s gonna be great for us,” Gobert said. “He’s in a great defensive system, and I think he likes to play defense. So he’s gonna do well here.”
But the moment that struck Crowder the most on Monday night wasn’t a play he made. It was a gesture by Gobert: With the fourth quarter ticking away, Gobert was readying to check in for the final few minutes, but saw Derrick Favors was playing well at center. When Snyder asked him what he wished to do, Gobert sat back down, opting to let Favors play on.
The unselfishness of that act spoke volumes to Crowder about his new club. After the game, he gushed about it.
“For a guy like Rudy to see D-Fav go in there and tell D-Fav to go rock out, that’s great to see and be a part of and be a teammate of,” Crowder said. “That shows what this team is really about.”
As eagerly as Crowder has embraced being a Jazzman and following his father’s footsteps, there’s a lot left to tackle. There’s an iPad full of Jazz plays that he’ll be studying throughout All-Star break, and while teammates have lauded his start so far, there’s at least 25 games left to go. Even Crowder acknowledged it will probably take more than this season to fully find his footing in Utah’s system — and since he’s under contract for two more seasons after this one, he’s got the time.
But in his conversations with Crowder, Snyder has tried to caution him against measuring his progress and rushing to get to a certain point. Crowder wants to delve in, but Snyder hopes to bring him along gradually, working him into the fabric of the Jazz.
Sometimes the payoff for patience is all the more worthwhile.
“I don’t think there’s anything that’s overwhelming to him,” he said. “I think he’s going to find a comfort level and a role. One of the things I told him is don’t judge today, tomorrow, next month, next year. Let’s dial in and do what you do to help us win, and we’ll do what we can do to have you improve as a player.
“That seems to work.”
SUNS AT JAZZ
At Vivint Smart Home Arena
Tipoff • Wednesday, 7 p.m.
TV • ATTSN
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 29-28, Suns 18-39
Last meeting • Jazz 129, Suns 97 (Feb. 2)
About the Suns • With five losses by 40 or more points this season, Phoenix has more defeats by that margin than any NBA team. … Since being traded from Orlando, point guard Elfrid Payton has averaged 24.5 points per game and notched 14 assists total in games against Golden State and Denver — both losses. … The Suns are 1-9 in their last 10 games, and they have not won a road game since Jan. 19.
About the Jazz • Averaging 21.0 ppg over Utah’s 10-game winning streak, Donovan Mitchell is the first rookie to lead his team in scoring over 10 straight wins since Wilt Chamberlain for the San Francisco Warriors in 1959-60. … New addition Jae Crowder has averaged 14.5 points per game in his first two Jazz games while shooting 6 for 12 from beyond the arc. … In the last 10 games, the Jazz are the top-rated defense in the NBA (97.4 rating) and lead the NBA in net rating (plus-15.0) over that stretch.