On Thanksgiving eve, I was fully vested in Clippers/Thunder when I got a text from a friend partial to the New York Knickerbockers that read: “Damn Crowder!” I cursed myself and flipped over to MSG just in time to catch a replay of two fourth-quarter threes, one Clyde Frazier witticism, and thousands indulging in full-throated adulation of a mostly unheralded rookie's sudden heroics. I was prompted to correct the initial text. “Damn, Crowder!”
I had my reasons for being excited about this, and the fans in the arena had theirs. If they didn't exactly overlap, neither was exactly a bad reason. I was happy for a player I’ve been enthralled by for the last couple of years; they were happy, at the most basic level, to see him inhabit—however briefly—the joyous role of anything-is-possible, out-of-nowhere phenom.
Jerry Seinfeld’s description of fandom as “rooting for laundry” was beaten to death long ago, but it came to life for me again when I caught a couple of Crowder’s buckets against the Lakers in their opening tilt. Cheering for guys in the pros who attended the same college as said cheerer, often many years after the fact, is indeed like rooting for laundry—like rooting for laundry that’s been washed, dried, folded, shelved, and ignored only to be brought out and worn in ill-fitting irony at the 20th-reunion fish fry/half-barrel party.
Perhaps if one’s sheepskin is sanctioned by the Universities of Kentucky or North Carolina, the NBA success of fellow Wildcats and Tar Heels is expected, old hat or otherwise meh. This is not so for us medium-sized Jesuit cats. Yes, we have our Hall-of-Fame outlier in Dwyane Wade, but he's a once-in-a-lifetime figure—every bit as much so as Santa Clara's Steve Nash, Holy Cross's Bob Cousy, or University of San Francisco's Bill Russell. These are untouchables, and in many ways bigger than their respective institution. In some ways, bigger than the NBA, really.
When I entered Marquette in the fall of 1989, the basketball program was coming off a dismal 13-15 season in the dregs known as the Midwestern Collegiate Conference, a now blessedly deceased consortium that proudly included the Evansville Purple Aces and their sleeves. We can skip, here, the 25-year history lesson and go directly to this: a decade ago the superhuman persistence and superstar strengths of Wade got Marquette to the Final Four and a return to prominence. But it’s the school's last few Big East seasons under Buzz Williams that have been the ones that proved the erstwhile Warriors to be a solid program, if not a factory. Crowder's two seasons at Marquette ended in to back-to-back runs to the Sweet Sixteen, a far cry from the Poppy Bush era when we hoped and prayed for a coveted NIT bid. Nowadays Marquette guys make the NBA with some regularity; some for a few years, most for a can of Red Bull. Still, given those old times best-forgotten, anytime someone sticks around long enough for a solid pension, Marquette fans notice. So suffice to say I'm a big Jae Crowder fan, if one who failed in his official "alumni with a remote control" capacity during Thanksgiving week.
But I hear you. That’s why I watch Jae Crowder and doesn’t explain why we should watch Jae Crowder. This is the other part. If Marquette made me a Crowder devotee, the power of the archetype he currently inhabits is bigger than that, and is also the thing that won that crowd over that night against the Knicks. It may well win over more crowds, more times, although how many more crowds and how many more times is still an unknown. That's the fun of it, or part of it.
Phenom. The word itself is interesting, but also unfortunately requires me to use the hoariest of high school public speaking tropes. Bear with me: Merriam-Webster defines a phenom as “a person of phenomenal ability or promise.” The keyword here being “or,” a simple conjunction whose function ensures that the term phenom encapsulates two entirely different types of player. “Ability” covers the all-worlders, undeniable talents that won’t be stopped—your Wade, your LeBron, your Kevin Durant, and while time will tell, probably your circa-now Anthony Davis. This is phenom-as-short-for-
“Promise,” however, is whatever we want it to be. And why shouldn't it be Jae Crowder?
Short of being bounced down the D-League like his former Marquette teammate Darius Johnson-Odom—he of the Easter Island visage, full body head fakes, and three-point lefty daggers—Crowder has lived a typical rookie season in all its ups-and-downs in one month's time. Drafted in the second round, he shined in the preseason, got nice minutes off the bench early, started a few games after Shawn Marion got hurt, had a couple of productive games, got feted in a fan-made “Rookie of the Year” YouTube remix, then threw up a few clunkers and lost his starting gig to veteran stiff Dahntay Jones. He took a DNP against Golden State, had a big night off the bench against the Knicks, and returned to the starting lineup only to post an ugly -14 +/- against the 76ers. He's a rookie.
It’s been a whirlwind, but the no-limits potential, the promise, of what Jae Crowder could be remains high. Listed at a generous 6’6, Crowder is undersized, and doesn’t possess the freakish athleticism to rise Don Knobler’s kilt. What he offers, instead, is an uncanny comfort in and with the game, and a skill set wider than it is deep—Crowder's a player who does just about everything well, way more than the garden variety “does the things the coaches love” role player. He can, like many former college stars, flat-out fill it up; he doesn’t have abilities that that will set him leaping over a 7-foot stack of Mark Cuban’s discarded energy bracelets at the dunk contest.
The easiest way to explain Crowder’s essence is that he won the Big East Player of the Year, even though West Virginia’s Kevin Jones—a recent Cleveland Cavaliers call-up—led the league in scoring and rebounding. Another easy way to explain it is to note that Crowder’s production and versatility have earned him numerous comparisons to Shawn Marion, the man he ostensibly aims to replace.
However, the Mavericks have been scuffling while waiting for Dirk to return, so Rick Carlisle started both Marion and Crowder against the Bulls. To no avail, as it turned out. The Mavericks lost by 23 and Crowder’s stat line was just as ugly as the final. Which, actually, is the thing about Swiss Army Knives: they do it all, but there’s rarely a call for going double-fisted. Crowder’s in a tough spot if he’s to become the Matrix 2.0, even if his jump shot is of the classic “hand in the cookie jar” variety and doesn’t resemble a Time Warner technician unspooling a length of cable. Anyway, if being Shawn Marion were easy, every funky-gamed oddball would do be able to it.
But Crowder does have a signature, always a key factor in raising phenom awareness. His dreadlocks are a wonder to behold. The first time I saw Jae’s bountiful braids in a Marquette uniform, I believed we’d been blessed with the warm sun of a Rastafari small forward sent to thaw the Milwaukee winter. Jae...Jah?
Nah. Crowder is country: a native of Villa Rica, Georgia, a small town that’s tripled in size as suburban Atlanta sprawls greasily out. It's not a tropical paradise, but is a place where the powers-that-be had the good sense to let the proposed Gone With the Wind theme park go by the wayside. You must be this tall to enter Massa’s House. It's for the best that Crowder ended up in Milwaukee.
Still, Crowder’s locks do set a certain visual vibe for him. Crowder ties down his bountiful braids down before every tipoff—and tightens his scrunchie throughout to keep things tight and orderly, since he's at work and all. But the dreadlocks. They bounce. When Crowder’s hair provides an exuberant kicker to a true three-pointer, it’s a physical manifestation of a young man’s promise, and a joyous wrinkle that bestows insta-cult status and novelty tee-shirts. Q-rating never hurts a phenom’s cause. Crowder will see your unibrow and raise you the "Maverick Mane." Whatever else proves illusory in time, or doesn't, the enthusiasm that Crowder generates in Dallas is very real. For now, at least.
So where does that leave Jae Crowder on the road to phenom-dom? If the Mavs keep underachieving, the giddy early-season novelty will quickly wear off. And as soon as the Big German comes back, minutes will dwindle for everyone, especially if vets Marion, Elton Brand, and Dribbling Dead Person Derek Fisher can right the ship. Crowder’s best hope might be that Dallas tanks, but that’s Cuban’s concern, and one for another day.
For me, it comes back to alum-laundry and the hope that Crowder’s start adds him to the short list of Marquette NBA careerists. I’ll boldly predict he won’t be the next Dwyane Wade. And without that one-thing-better-than-anyone-
Most observers, of course, won't be watching Crowder play through Al McGuire’s beer goggles. But, really, we're all seeing something like the same thing. An idiosyncratic and preternaturally poised young baller ready to make his case in his own weird way; fans hoping for greatness where none existed before—that’s seashells and balloons for all of us who watch. It might be nothing; it mostly is. But it might be phenomenal.