Jae Crowder was not going to do this without research or a heart-to-heart discussion with his father. Crowder, the Celtics’ strongman forward, emerging leader, and emotional force, wanted to acknowledge his dismay with the current issues between African-Americans and police, and the unsettling topic of race relations, with a gesture from his team.
But Crowder was not going to do anything individually. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick reinvigorated athlete activism with his controversial decision to kneel for the national anthem prior to games. While many of his athletic brethren respect his decision and support his stance, they understand the potential divisiveness such a move could create within an organization.
Crowder did not want to cause any dissension among his teammates. He wanted to do something that would cement the team’s unity as well as acknowledge the chaos on the outside. So the team circulated a video on its website prior to its preseason opener with the 76ers with each player speaking on being united.
And during the national anthem at the game in Amherst, each player grabbed the arm of his teammate on each side, similar to the 1960-61 team photo with Red Auerbach in the middle holding hands with Bob Cousy and Gene Conley. Also in the photo are Bill Russell, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones, and one Tom “Satch” Sanders, who spoke to the team following Monday’s practice about the gesture.
Crowder knew that was the answer, but he had plenty of questions when he went to dinner with his father and sister in Boston on Sept. 25. Corey Crowder, a former NBA player who also played overseas, has served as a guide and confidant for his son.
“For me it was easy [to discuss it with him] because I wanted to hear what he had to say because I know he’s tuned in with what’s going on in the world, so I wanted to hear how he felt,” Jae Crowder said. “It was good knowledge and feedback.”
Corey Crowder told his son, if you decide to take a stand, people could confuse your message. Make sure the message is unified and strong.
“That’s basically how I wanted to approach it, get my point across in a positive way, because like I told you guys on media day, two wrongs don’t make a right,” Jae Crowder said. “I wanted to make it positive and my teammates felt the same way. It was easy for me to say I wanted to do something — at this stage we have — to make a change.”
Said Corey Crowder: “The only advice I was trying to give him was to go with your gut on something like that but you have to be respectful because you are in a place where you can affect a lot of people. You have to understand there’s going to be backlash in the way people perceive you. It’s a shame in 2016 we have to feel this way. It’s not my word or his word, this thing is bigger than us or anybody else.”
Jae Crowder said being a father himself, he wanted to talk to his father about how to approach racial issues with his daughter. Corey Crowder also has a teenage daughter and he has been trying to explain to her today’s racial climate.
“He’s a father of a middle-school daughter and she’s affected by what’s going on,” Jae Crowder said. “She is a [biracial] child. She’s in middle school and she doesn’t understand it. We’re trying to bring her along as much as possible. I’m trying to do my best.”
The actions prior to the 76ers game drew positive reviews and bonded the Celtics. “I feel like what we did [Tuesday] was the first step and getting out in the community is the next step,” Crowder said. “Talking to kids and being the role models that we’re supposed to be. That’s the next step. We’ve had multiple conversations as a team and it’s helped. We’ve had guys like Tyler Zeller come out and talk like, ‘I can’t speak on you guys’ behalf because I’m Caucasian but I understand what’s going on.’ He has input and we listen. That just all brings us closer together.”
Crowder was slightly concerned about what his father would think of the pregame demonstration as well as the video. And Crowder beamed with pride when his father texted, “Saw the video. Love it.”
“I think what they did brought attention to what’s going on,” Corey Crowder said. “It’s a fight that’s been going on for ages. I respect what they did. I think it was something that didn’t offend anybody. You have to have [this conversation] with your kids because they’re going to deal with it. They’re going to see it. They’re going to experience it and you try to help them understand. I’m 47 years old and blessed to still be here. I don’t bother anybody. I just want respect. I don’t want to be judged by what’s happened in the past. I want to be judged by who I am and that’s all anybody wants, no matter what color they are.
“You don’t necessarily want to have those conversations but you have to. It’s the reality that we live in.”
ON THE UPSWING
76ers have reason to be optimistic
It’s already been a difficult year for the Philadelphia 76ers, who lost prized rookie Ben Simmons to foot surgery even before his first preseason game. Simmons was injured stepping on the foot of fellow rookie Shawn Long during a practice.
Even with Simmons possibly out for three months, the new-look 76ers, who fired general manager Sam Hinkie — the man responsible for their painful rebuild that made the organization a laughingstock — are feeling better about themselves.
Joel Embiid is finally healthy after missing two years following multiple foot surgeries. Philadelphia signed some capable free agents — Gerald Henderson, Jerryd Bayless, Sergio Rodriguez — while some of the younger players who have labored with constant losing are getting better.
Coach Brett Brown has maintained his optimism over the years, even when there was no reason to, but this time he’s sincere about his positivity, despite the Simmons injury.
“You look at our roster,” said Brown. “You look at Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, the fact we’ve added point guards into this program, the fact that we’ve added veterans into this program, the fact that we have moved into a multimillion-dollar home and you walk into a place that you feel is yours and it’s extremely professional and they too feel like that and will spend a lot of time [there]. You feel a beat on the street in the city of Philadelphia. There is a true excitement.”
The 76ers opened a new practice facility this month in Camden, N.J., another testament to their dedication to winning. It may be years before Philadelphia becomes an attractive free agent destination, but the 76ers have at least showed they are separating themselves from the Hinkie “Trust the Process” era that resulted in 199 losses the past three seasons.
It was feasible that the 76ers could escape the Atlantic Division cellar with a healthy Simmons, considering the Nets are in total rebuild.
“The Ben Simmons thing took us all a little bit for a loop initially but there are so many reasons to feel a greater level of hope than we’ve had in the past,” Brown said. “This roster is very, very different than the ones we’ve had in the past.”
And as Brown has done in the past, he’ll make oatmeal out of mush. Embiid has looked surprisingly good in his first two preseason games, moving well despite those foot surgeries. Saric, the Croatian product who waited two full years to join the 76ers, looks like a quality addition as a stretch four.
Brown even turned the aftermath of the Simmons injury into a positive, saying he will use the time to help the prospect develop into more of a point guard. There is a consensus among NBA observers that Philadelphia should just allow the 6-foot-10-inch Simmons to be its point guard because of his versatility and immense skills.
Maybe this break will allow for that.
“We talked a little bit about what the plan is now and I’m excited in a very sort of twisted way once you admit and you come to grips with what has happened,” Brown said of Simmons. “I’m excited to dig into a different part of his development. As I have said to everybody that’s talked about it, we’ve had so much practice over the years with this type of thing that I feel we as a staff have gotten better with how to handle this. I felt like I heard a bounce in his voice that it’s not all doom and gloom. There will be ways where we continue to keep him involved with his teammates and move him forward with his improvement.
“It’s holistic, you can sit in a room and you can look at edits of some of the great point guards, the great do-all type players that we all sort of look at Ben growing into. So there’s a classroom aspect of it. There is an opportunity to break down his shot. There is an opportunity to get better.”
Brown learning the mind game
Celtics rookie Jaylen Brown is considered one of the more intelligent young players in his draft class, blowing away teams in his interviews as clubs noted his pointed questions and prudent responses. Brown is a thinker and has been working with sports psychologist Graham Betchart, who has helped the 19-year-old flourish as he tries to make an immediate impact with the Celtics. Betchart has also worked with Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons, and Minnesota’s Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns about how to deal with the peaks and pitfalls of being a professional athlete.
Betchart met Brown four years ago while he was a coach at the NBA Players Association Top 100 camp. Brown was a 15-year-old rising prospect at the time. The two began talking more about the mental aspect of basketball and life when Brown grew into a top recruit about a year later.
“That guy has a desire to be really great in life,” Betchart said. “I present what I teach to a lot of kids and I just try to see who looks open-minded to it and I could just tell he was open-minded. He’s hungry for knowledge and he wants to learn, so it’s kind of a natural relationship. We just kind of vibed and connected. He provides a lot of energy and he believes in this.”
Betchart said he and Brown discuss topics such as quantum physics and astrology. And they discuss how to deal with failure and respond quickly from disappointments.
“That’s a big skill we were on, how fast can you fail and move forward?” Betchart said. “You just keep moving forward because everyone makes mistakes but it’s how fast can you move on from it. Once the real pressure hits them and they go through a couple of challenges . . . they realize pretty quick that if I make a mistake, I need to move forward. One of the challenges is letting them know you have to practice mental skills as you do physical skills.”
Newcomers to Betchart’s teaching begin with an exercise called MVP (Meditation, Visualization, and Positive Affirmation), where he encourages clients such as Brown to visualize success before it occurs, and then to think positively despite the potential of failure so the effect of falling short does not linger.
“We teach that if someone says you’re great or someone says you’re terrible, it’s the same,” Betchart said. “You have to let other people have their opinions. It’s really about them learning what they can control and to coach themselves, because if they can stay stable and coach themselves, they can live through everyone else talking about them. You have to learn to be comfortable in the middle of a storm.”
Through the first two preseason games of Brown’s career, he appears to keep his emotions to himself. He hasn’t displayed emotions after either successful or unsuccessful plays.
“I want them to be the most authentic selves they can be,” Betchart said. “I don’t have a certain persona I try to teach these people and I try to help them build confidence to be who they are, and when they are comfortable in who they are, it shows in their game.”
Brown and Betchart contact each other every week. “Sometimes Jaylen doesn’t return your text but he’ll pick your call up,” said Betchart. “Usually, it’s the other way around.”
Betchart said he plans to come to Boston at least a few times this season to visit with Brown, as he has with Magic forward Aaron Gordon over the past few seasons.
“I definitely think this is helping him out,” Betchart said of Brown. “I feel like in the next two years we’re going to see a lot of ground covered because if we have athletes who are proud of this, it’s going to open the door for a lot of other athletes to work on their mind-set and mental skills. I’m just coaching [Brown] in all aspects of mental-skill development. This is something that takes off their burden. He has such a strong presence when you meet him and the way he looks at you in the eye, you could tell he’s really trying to understand what you’re saying. The connection is very powerful.”
A few weeks before David Fizdale begins his first season as coach in Memphis, he’s already made his first major move. He slid former All-Star big man Zach Randolph to the bench and inserted promising forward JaMychal Green, who averaged 7.4 points and 4.8 rebounds per game in his first full NBA season. The more athletic Green allows Fizdale to play a more up-tempo style as he tries to move away from the lumbering, half-court style that made Memphis a difficult opponent but one that struggled offensively against elite teams. Marc Gasol, coming off foot surgery that caused him to miss the Olympics, remains the starting center . . . The Suns will try to deal with their backcourt logjam by moving once-prized point guard Brandon Knight to the bench. Knight is more of a scoring guard but he wasn’t going to start over All-Rookie guard Devin Booker, who has claimed the spot at shooting guard. Eric Bledsoe, who missed 50 games last season following knee surgery, returns to play point guard. It seems the Suns eventually will have to make a move with Bledsoe or Knight. Booker is considered a keeper and potential franchise cornerstone . . . The Pelicans are having an interesting camp with plenty of roster competition because of the presence of Lance Stephenson, point guard Quinn Cook, Ex-NBADL Maine guard Tim Frazier, former Knick Langston Galloway, rookie Buddy Hield, and recently signed E’Twaun Moore. The Pelicans already waived former Pacer Chris Copeland, and starting point guard Jrue Holiday remains out while tending to his ill wife. It could be a critical season for coach Alvin Gentry and general manager Dell Demps after the club was ravaged with injuries and were one of the league’s disappointments last season. Anthony Davis is back healthy and the Pelicans also added former Rocket Terrence Jones to compete for the starting power forward slot . . . The Warriors are wearing No. 42 patches on their uniforms in honor of Hall of Famer Nate Thurmond, who died during the offseason. Thurmond played 11 seasons with the San Francisco/Golden State Warriors and was a seven-time All-Star.
Another week, another iconic Celtic announced his retirement. Paul Pierce, who will retire at the end of this season, will be remembered as one of the greatest Celtics of all time, and rightfully so. He is one of 11 players in league history to appear in 1,000 or more games and average at least 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.