SALT LAKE CITY — Less than 24 hours after a thrilling 124-123 loss to the Golden State Warriors at Vivint Arena Friday, Jae Crowder got dressed up as Willy Wonka.
The massive, 6-foot-6, 235-pound Utah Jazz forward was all smiles while posing for photos in the costume for his young princess the next day.
“Jada Wonka & The Chocolate Factory” was the theme of his 5-year-old daughter Jada’s fifth birthday party in Utah on Saturday, which family, friends and Jazz teammates all supported.
What the public didn’t see, though, is the work Crowder put in before the celebration. Even on an off day, where no practice was scheduled, he was training.
Crowder’s first cousin, Eric Thompson, whom he also considers his “best friend in the world,” certainly did.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” said Thompson, who lives in Georgia, but recently visited Utah over a four-day span for Jada’s birthday party and the home opener.
Although Thompson grew up across the street from him on Villa Rosa Way in Villa Rica, Georgia, he’s never witnessed Crowder this focused.
“He would come home for practice and go into his gym,” said Thompson, who Crowder currently wears No. 99 in honor of.
Thompson wore No. 99 on the gridiron as a defensive lineman at Faulkner University.
“He has a gym in his house now and he would come home from practice and go into his gym to put up 200 to 300 more shots,” Thompson said. “He put up 100 free throws then 100 or 200 more jump shots. It was just amazing for me to see him come from practice and for him to want to do something like that.”
After a roller-coaster 2017-18 season, when Crowder was traded from Boston to Cleveland to Utah, tragically lost his mother, Helen Thompson, to cancer at 51 and then returned to his father Corey Crowder’s old stomping grounds as a Jazzman, the 28-year-old is fully recommitted to basketball.
“Yeah, mentally for sure I feel like I’m engaged more,” Crowder told the Deseret News. “I feel like I’m having fun with it like I used to, and I just reset my whole mindset and body and I see it paying off.”
Through the first three games of the 2018-19 season, @Bossmann99 is averaging 15.0 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.3 assists off the bench. He also shed 14 pounds over the summer, re-signed with Nike, and is following strict orders from a personal chef to manage his weight while keeping his body fat at a minimum.
“I saw him grow tremendously. I saw him grow just as a man,” said Jae’s father, Corey Crowder, who appeared in 51 games for the Jazz during the 1991-92 season.
“I was a big preacher in the beginning about now, ‘Son you’ve got to realize that, yes, you’re playing a game and, yes, you want to concentrate on getting better but there’s also the other side and the other side is called the business side’ and I had to get him to understand that if you don’t run the business the business will run itself and me and you both know a business cannot run itself,” he said.
But even as smoothly as things seem to be running, Crowder still has his days when he misses his mother like crazy. That’s where his family enters the picture.
“It still affects us to this day but we get through it,” Eric Thompson shared. “Like, on this end, from time to time when he wants to talk to her, I go to her (grave) site and I will FaceTime him at the site, that way he can see her, talk to her or whatever so we still do little things from here and there to help him out to stay focused.”
Helen Thompson passed away from cancer on Aug. 22, 2017. That happened on the same night he learned he was being traded from Boston to Cleveland in the deal for All-Star Kyrie Irving.
As Helen’s youngest of five children, he struggled to deal with that tragedy throughout most of last season and realizes at times he as disengaged, especially in Cleveland, before being traded to the Utah Jazz as part of the three-team deal involving Rodney Hood.
Crowder is finally back to feeling like himself after a summer of soul searching and holding his teammates accountable in the process. He’s taken Jazz rookie Grayson Allen under his wing and isn’t afraid to talk and walk the walk, when necessary. Even on a night when the Jazz struggled offensively, shooting 35.4 percent as a team in a 92-84 loss to Memphis Monday, he put up a team-high 15 points on 4-for-7 shooting in 29 minutes off the oak.
Crowder's impact is subtle in some areas, but his ability to space the floor with great vision — he was a former quarterback at Villa Rica High School — also opens the game. And defensively he’s earned stripes for his forceful play.
“First of all, he’s really intelligent and very aware,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “He also has a work ethic, even in practice where he holds guys accountable. If he needs to say something to them, he does by how hard he goes and with which he practices. It gives him a platform to lead, I think, because of his competitiveness. When you have a leader that plays with as much passion as he does, it’s infectious.”
While most folks can’t relate to the heartbreak of losing a mother before the age of 30, Crowder’s Jazz teammate Ricky Rubio certainly can. Like Crowder, Rubio lost his mom, Tona Vives, to lung cancer at 56 in 2016.
That’s why in those moments when he feels down and likes to post her on social media, Rubio’s words of encouragement carry weight and he knows he’s not alone in the locker room. Essentially, that’s bringing out a better Jae Crowder, which is now on display for the world to see and not just behind closed doors in the gym of his home in the mountains of Salt Lake City.
“That shapes us and you can see that some things are similar through our lives and that makes us stronger but at the same time, we’re playing for somebody else, like, making her proud up there,” Rubio said. “It’s just a tough time sometimes but at the end of the day, you’ve got to keep the legacy.”