CLEVELAND – It should have been a move that stewed the emotional Jae Crowder, the Celtics throwing him into the deal to acquire Kyrie Irving, ending his Boston tenure after 2½ years of sacrifice and progress.
Crowder’s passionate heart, his undivided attention, was focused on something more personal, far more meaningful than basketball. His 51-year-old mother, Helen Thompson, was dying of cancer in August when the Celtics and Cavaliers were escalating trade talks.
On the night of Aug. 22, the Celtics completed an agreement to send Crowder, Isaiah Thomas, Ante Zizic, and a first-round pick (and later a second-rounder) to the Cavaliers for Irving. A few minutes before his mother died in Atlanta, Crowder, 27, relayed to his mother that they were headed for Cleveland. She died that evening.
Crowder, who will make his return to TD Garden on Wednesday, didn’t have enough energy or desire to be angry at the Celtics. He didn’t have enough passion to even think about the trade or his future or his new opportunity to play for the team he had spent three season chasing, being a teammate of the player (LeBron James) he had dedicated himself to stop.
“That’s why the trade didn’t even hit me like it should have,” Crowder said. “My mind, my soul, and my body was somewhere else. But I can say the trade didn’t hit me like everyone thinks it did because I was going through some other situations, personal situations.”
The pain and anguish of her death didn’t dissipate when the season began, and Crowder had to concentrate on basketball games. So he compartmentalized his healing, and some days the process was better than others.
“I have my days, I ain’t going to lie to you,” he said. “I have days where I don’t want to do [expletive]. I just want to sit there and think about her all day. I take a minute to myself here and there, as I should. I think about her every day. But I think it’s set up to be a special year because a lot of stuff has been going on. I feel like I put a lot of time into my work and hopefully it pays off for me.
“I know she would want me to do that. Whenever I get down on myself or get down on life, I just try to revert to my work and ask myself, ‘What would she want me to do?’ Because she was my biggest supporter. I would talk to her after every game. It’s tough not to have her here. It’s a challenge but I’ve taken it on. I have my father, who’s still in my life. These guys [teammates] are my extended family and done a great job of me weathering the storm.”
For all of Celtics-Cavaliers meetings, Crowder was matched up defensively against James. And even at 6 feet 6 inches and 235 pounds, Crowder was undersized against the 260-pound behemoth and often lost those battles.
When Crowder was dealt to the Cavaliers, James called him. The two weren’t all that close and Crowder knew it would take more than a phone call to create a bond with his biggest adversary.
James invited Crowder to Santa Barbara, Calif., for pre-training camp workouts in September, which eliminated any preconceived notions about his new situation.
“That [phone call] wasn’t enough obviously,” Crowder said. “When I flew to LA and worked out with the team weeks before training camp, that really, really was special. When we weren’t in the gym, we were together. We’re going to dinner. We’re going to lunch. We were together and that helped build a bond. Everything we do is together. That helps build relationships. He’s done a great job of being a leader in that aspect off the court, feeling like one big family.”
Said James: “You try to get integrated right away and it started in Santa Barbara when I had my little minicamp. We needed to see how he can help us be successful and how we can help him adjust. That process has been ongoing since that last week of September.”
While Thomas has spent the past several months rehabilitating from a torn hip labrum and actually made his season debut Tuesday against Portland, scoring 17 points in the Cavs’ 127-110 win, he and Crowder have grown closer.
The two were each glad they weren’t going to Cleveland alone and they joked about joining their archrivals when they first talked on the phone when the trade was announced.
“For sure, we were close playing with each other in Boston and how we built that over there,” Crowder said. “Once we came over here, it was a new situation so we had to stick together and talk to each other and at times I would get frustrated with learning a new system and he would be there to help me out. I’m sure there’s going to be times he’s frustrated with the new system and I’m here to help him out. It was great to go over to a situation with someone you’re familiar with.”
Crowder’s role has changed considerably in Cleveland. He is attempting three fewer shots per game and playing six fewer minutes. He has struggled from the field (46 percent last season compared with 40 percent this season) but he has embraced being one of a plethora of scoring options for the Cavaliers. Crowder is not worried about his numbers as much as he is worried about making plays and, most importantly, winning.
He said the biggest difference between Boston and Cleveland is how the Cavaliers take losses as learning experiences for the long run. In Boston, he stewed over defeats because the team was so eager to take that next step.
“I want to do whatever it takes to win a championship,” he said. “I never have been a me guy. All I worry about is winning the ballgame. You know that from Boston.”
When asked how he wants to be received in his return, Crowder said he hadn’t thought much about the Boston game until the past few days. But he does want to be appreciated for helping change the culture, helping the franchise make major progress to Eastern Conference contender under Brad Stevens, and embracing being a Celtic and playing in such a sports-crazed city.
“[Celtics] fans have cheered for opposing team’s players before. I feel like they should do the same for me,” he said. “Because I gave them a lot. I hope they give me a little cheer because I respect everybody over there, I respect the organization, I respect the fans. I’m appreciative of the opportunity both the fans and the organization provided for myself and my family, so those guys will always be special to me.
“That whole situation will be special to me for the rest of my career.”