Eric Thompson’s parents used to give him just enough gas money each week to drive himself and his cousin, Jae Crowder, to and from Villa Rica High School.
But the two best friends could not resist other temptations. They drove to get double cheeseburgers and to visit girls and, mostly, to play basketball all around their small city that sits 35 miles west of Atlanta. The $7 an hour they made working the chains at youth football games helped only so much, so when they were out of cash, Thompson would just steer his 1978 Oldsmobile Delta until it sputtered to a stop.
“Just about every week,” he said, “Jae and I would end up stuck on the side of the road and get someone to come help us.”
It happened so often that people around town knew that green, rusty Oldsmobile, and what it meant when it was not moving. So the boys always found a way home.
In 2012, Crowder improbably emerged as one of the top players in college basketball at Marquette. When he was named the Big East Conference’s player of the year that March, he realized, for the first time, that reaching the NBA was no pipe dream. He thought back to where he had come from, back to being stuck on the side of the road waiting for a gas can. He called Thompson.
“Eric,” Crowder said, “pretty soon, we’re not gonna run out of gas anymore.”
Jae Crowder is now the backbone of the Boston Celtics, the one who defends LeBron James and can play any position and make any shot. He has a tattoo on his left forearm that says ‘BOSS.’ People often take it is a sign of machismo, but really it is a meaningful acronym.
“It means I was built on self-success,” Crowder says, “but you’ve got to get to know me to know about that.”
Crowder’s father, Corey, played professionally in Europe after a brief stint in the NBA, so Jae was mostly raised by his mother, Helen. He and his four siblings sometimes formed their own starting five and played basketball against other neighborhood children, with the best games coming on a court made of clay and rocks in an area known as The Valley.
“You’d come in clean and go home dirty,” Thompson said. “It was rough and you had to bring your grown-man game, and Jae was the only one who could stick with the big kids.”
Although Crowder was tough and athletic, with massive hands even as a child, he was also curiously short and overweight. He gorged on honeybuns and fast food and was usually carrying a can of soda, and the effects were evident early in his high school career.
Crowder was always last to cross the line when the Villa Rica basketball team ran wind sprints, and his teammates had to keep running until he was able to finish in the allotted time. When he went to the offseason plyometric training sessions known as “dunk school,” gravity usually won.
“He was so excited for it every year,” said his coach, Jason Robinson. “But no matter how hard he tried, he just couldn’t get up.”
Late in a football game during Crowder’s sophomore year, his team trailed by a point when he scrambled toward a first down. But he tripped and fell short of the line and cost his team the game. He was inconsolable afterward. Near the end of his junior year, he finally called his father with a request.
“Dad,” he said, “will you help me lose weight?”
Corey Crowder called Jae’s mother — the couple separated when Jae was 8 — and asked her to throw out all their junk food. He called Coach Robinson and asked him to make sure Jae stopped devouring chicken fingers before games.
Crowder had always spent summers with his father in Miami, but now he went there to train. As his peers competed in AAU tournaments, he was playing in men’s leagues where he was incessantly shoved and hacked.
“They did everything you could besides fight,” Crowder said.
The sessions toughened him, and as he began to lose weight, he also began to sprout. When he’d return to Villa Rica, other students would go to the gym just to see how he had transformed over the summer, how he was evolving into a sinewy 6-foot-6-inch guard that no one wanted to mess with.
Colleges became interested in Crowder during his senior year. He was a good student, but one day Robinson noticed that as a sophomore Crowder had altered his curriculum from a college prep program to a more vocational track.
Many of his friends had graduated and begun working in warehouses or driving forklifts, and Crowder had once thought that would be his path, too. Now that he was a college prospect, though, that change left him short of the credits needed to meet the NCAA’s eligibility requirements.
Running out of options, Robinson sent DVDs of Crowder’s three best basketball games to 25 junior colleges. South Georgia Tech was one of just three to respond, and as a freshman Crowder led the team to its first national tournament appearance and was named the state’s junior college player of the year. But during the NJCAA tourney, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins told Crowder that if he stayed at South Georgia Tech, his college career could be ruined.
The school was unaccredited, so Crowder’s academic work would mostly count for nothing when he transferred. Enraged, Crowder refused to attend another class there. He was eventually released to transfer to Howard College in Big Spring, Texas.
Crowder had always gone at his own pace on his own terms, but at Howard that was not an option.
“We ended up in my office a lot early on, wondering if it was going to work out,” former Howard coach Mark Adams said. “There were trust issues.”
Adams wanted Crowder to dive onto the floor and take charges and play defense like a maniac. Today, of course, that is his lifeblood. Once he bought in, he led the Hawks to the junior college national title and was named the national player of the year.
Top programs like Oklahoma, Baylor, and Texas Tech began to circle, and Marquette coach Buzz Williams seemed a slight long shot swooping into Big 12 territory.
The first time he saw Crowder, the forward played about seven minutes and fouled out. Adams apologized to Williams for coming all that way. But Williams had seen intriguing flashes, and he was most enchanted by the way Crowder supported his teammates from the bench. He offered a scholarship, and Crowder appreciated Williams’s no-nonsense approach.
Still, he wanted his father’s approval, so Williams soon flew to Florida and met with Corey Crowder in a barbecue restaurant. Corey’s request was simple.
“I have an agreement with myself to raise this boy until he gets to the age of 21 to be a respectful black male,” he told Williams. “I need you to be hard on him and drive him and give me your word that you’ll be an extension of me.”
Crowder committed to the Golden Eagles without ever visiting the campus. The Big East, which had yet to be gutted by conference realignment, was impossibly deep then. There were high school All-Americans at every turn, but Crowder was not one of them. He did not care.
“Jae was a man among boys,” said former assistant coach Tony Benford. “Every time he stepped out there, you could just see guys were intimidated by him.”
“The things Jae did on the floor just showed he had a different level of fight than most players,” said former Marquette forward Jamil Wilson.
Crowder was part of a small, menacing group Williams called “The Switchables,” because they were capable of defending anyone. In the case of the 6-6 Crowder, that included players like UConn’s 6-11 center Andre Drummond, who led the NBA in rebounding this season. When the Huskies and Golden Eagles met in 2012, Crowder had 29 points and 12 rebounds and Drummond was held to 7 and 4.
“He was basically up to Drummond’s waist,” Benford said, “and he’s fighting and pushing him all over the block.”
Before his senior season, Crowder had not even received honorable mention all-conference honors. Four months later, he was named the player of the year.
“I always had this mentality,” he said, “like, after you play against me, you’ll know who I am.”
About 25 of Crowder’s friends and family members gathered at a Miami restaurant to watch the 2012 NBA Draft. Five other Big East players were selected before the Cavaliers took Crowder in the second round with the 34th pick. A few minutes later, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban called and said Dallas had traded for him.
“I was the guy who pushed for him,” Cuban said. “He was undersized, but he’s a worker.”
Crowder played 17.3 minutes per game for an experienced Dallas team as a rookie. But his playing time dipped slightly the next year. When he was twice shipped to the D-League, he took it as a sign of disrespect.
Crowder expressed his frustration to Cuban, and he said Cuban assured him that there would be more playing time when veteran Shawn Marion left at season’s end. Then during the offseason the Mavericks signed forwards Al-Farouq Aminu, Chandler Parsons, and Richard Jefferson.
“It was a slap in the face,” Crowder said. “Even though it’s a business, it was just hard for me to understand. But even when I was out of the rotation, even when everyone knew I was pissed, I never stopped putting in work.”
Crowder played just 10.3 minutes per game for Dallas over the first two months of last season. In December he told his agent, Glenn Schwartzman, that he wanted to be traded. He was told the Rockets were pursuing him, but that Dallas did not want to send him to a division rival, and that made him even more agitated.
Then on Dec. 18 he was watching television at home in Dallas when he saw a report that he had been traded to the Celtics as part of the Rajon Rondo deal.
“Baby!” he yelled to his girlfriend, Dana Lambert. “We’re going to Boston!”
The next few days were a whirlwind. After a few nights in a Waltham hotel, Crowder moved into a townhome in Newton. He went out and bought a Christmas tree before the home was fully furnished, because he wanted it to be there when his 2-year-old daughter, Jada, arrived from Texas. On the court, he was eager to find his way again.
“My first few games, I was shooting airballs, missing layups,” Crowder said. “I’d been sitting on a bench for so long. In Dallas, I was kind of a robot. I had to get back to playing like I knew.”
The Celtics lost seven of their first eight games after Crowder arrived, dropping to 11-21. He’d heard rumors that Boston was giving up on the season in order to secure a better draft pick, and that possibility angered him. After some losses, he saw teammates laughing and joking, and that angered him, too. Although he was frustrated with his role in Dallas, he’d always appreciated the winning culture there.
So after one practice, he asked coach Brad Stevens if the team was giving up on the season. He asked if the Celtics were tanking.
“Brad just said, ‘Jae, one thing about me is I don’t coach to lose. I’m not geared like that,’ ” Crowder recalled. “That was all I needed to hear.”
The Celtics began to click, and after they acquired point guard Isaiah Thomas in February, they surged into the playoffs before being swept by the Cavaliers. In the final game of that series, Crowder was the one Cleveland forward Kendrick Perkins tried to flatten in retaliation for Kelly Olynyk injuring Kevin Love’s shoulder. He was the one guard J.R. Smith slugged as the two battled for a rebound, causing Crowder to sprain his knee.
The blue-collar Celtics fans realized Crowder was one of them now. They appreciated that he was fighting for them, that he was their enforcer who would stand up to any opponent, and Crowder appreciated Boston. He was a restricted free agent at season’s end, but he hardly tested the market.
“Jae’s a big loyalty guy,” said Schwartzman, his agent. “Boston was where he wanted to be.”
Crowder signed a five-year, $35 million contract with the Celtics. This year, he is averaging 14.2 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, helping Boston to a 48-34 record and the No. 5 seed in an opening-round playoff series against the No. 4 Hawks.
Jae Crowder is sitting in a lounge chair at the Celtics’ practice facility and running the index and middle fingers of his right hand over that tattoo on his left forearm. “BOSS.” Yes, he was built on self-success. His motivation always came from within. But that has changed.
Crowder smiles and holds up the wristbands that have his daughter Jada’s name on them. Her name is also on his game shoes, on the bands that hold together his dreadlocks, and on another tattoo. Before games, he constantly sends text messages to his girlfriend and mother, asking why they are not at the arena yet with Jada. He wants to see her before he takes the court. He plays for her now.
“He really is like daddy daycare with our daughter,” Lambert says. “He’ll use this little playful voice and dance with her and have tea time, and then he’ll go out in a game and he’s yelling and so intense.”
“That little girl has brought so much joy to him,” Crowder’s mother, Helen, says. “He loves the ground she walks on.”
When Jada goes to daycare, she tells the other children that her daddy plays ball-ball. She flexes her muscles like him and shoots an imaginary basketball like him. She walks around the house in a No. 99 Celtics jersey, too.
She does not yet know what a winding road her father traveled to reach this point. She does not know about the struggles with his weight or the stops at the junior colleges or how he made it big as a second-round draft pick. But someday she will.
“Jae’s the underdog, and the thing is, he loves being the underdog,” Lambert says. “He wouldn’t want to be anything else.”
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach