Corey Crowder’s words have always stuck with his son.
Jae was not old enough to recollect his father’s playing days in the NBA, and he never saw him compete overseas in France. When Corey returned home from Europe each summer, Jae would watch his father train and, at times, engage in workouts. But Corey was still unsure of his son’s commitment to basketball.
With Jae and the Golden Eagles on the verge of a Sweet 16 berth, Corey now knows.
“I can see a lot of the things in him that he may have picked up as far as the way he prepares and is a leader on the court,” Corey said. “And his intelligence of basketball is incredible. That’s the same way I played.”
Much like Jae, Corey was undersized in college. At 6-foot-5, he played power forward at Kentucky Wesleyan from 1987 to 1991. His junior season, the Panthers won the Division II National Championship, and a year later the elder Crowder was named National Player of the Year. He played for both the Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs for one year, and spent 12 seasons overseas.
Now the president and owner of Crowder Financial Group, Corey still finds time to work out with his youngest son in the gym over the summer.
Jae has played basketball with his father and sought out his advice hundreds of times, but one instance solidified Jae’s professional aspirations.
The summer before Jae’s sophomore season at Howard College, a junior college in Texas, he traveled to Florida for routine workouts with his father. The day Jae arrived, the two went to a local gym to play pick-up basketball.
On one of the first plays of the game, a player committed a hard foul on Jae.
His response to the play was all Corey needed to see to know his son would be successful.
“He turned around and said, ‘you’re gonna have to do that all day, because I’m gonna keep coming,’” Corey said. “I saw that and I knew I had a player. He didn’t know it at the time, but I did.”
That same summer, Corey had a serious conversation with his son, and asked him what he wanted to do with his life. Jae was on his second stint at junior college, and was not being recruited by many high major schools. His son responded that he wanted to play professional basketball one day.
“I told him, ‘I can get you there, but I can’t and won’t do the work for you,’” Corey said.
Those two events – the hard foul in the gym and the conversation with his father – clearly stuck with Jae. That fall, a revitalized Jae Crowder led his team, the Howard Hawks, to their first ever national championship. Just like Corey. He was named Player of the Year. Just like Corey. He averaged 18.9 points and 9.0 rebounds, and midway through the season gave a verbal commitment to Buzz Williams and Marquette.
“He always told me we were going to make it. We were going to get to the D I level,” Jae said. “And he stuck to his word.”
While Corey knew his son possessed a similar skill set, he also emphasized the mental aspect, which he knew could elevate Jae’s game.
“Mentally, that’s where games are won and lost,” Corey said. “If you look at (Jae), and the way he can go out and have four points in the first half and then 18 in the second half, it doesn’t look like he’s trying any harder in either half. Mentally, he’s locked in to know what he can and can’t do.”
Like his playing days, and his son’s impact at Marquette, Corey has played many roles in Jae’s development.
“When your dad is your father, best friend and mentor, all in one, it’s hard to explain what he brings,” Jae said. “He brings confidence and self-awareness through my game, on and off the court. I’m blessed to have him.”
For everything Corey has given Jae, the most important may have been an unlikely connection with the Marquette coaching staff.
Scott Monarch, current Golden Eagles assistant coach, was a high school basketball player in Owensboro, Kentucky, at the same time Corey was playing for Kentucky Wesleyan. The two often played summer basketball together in local gyms.
Years later, the Crowder name resonated in Monarch’s head. In 2009, a friend called Monarch and told him about a talented junior college player.
“As soon as I saw the name Crowder,” Monarch said. “I knew exactly who it was. And I called his dad and we started recruiting him.”
Corey and Monarch’s relationship established trust and eased the recruiting process for Jae. However, Jae’s most important influence was still hesitant to yield control.
“Buzz did tell my dad, ‘don’t take it overboard,’” Jae said. “‘You’re either going to trust me with your son, or you’re not.’ And I think my dad backed off on him a little bit and accepted that.”
Corey wanted Marquette to produce a basketball player but more importantly, Jae’s father needed affirmation about who his son would become as a person.
“I had a conversation with Buzz, and I let him know that as a father, what I wanted was for him to be an extension of me, and to help me raise this kid to be a young, respectful, black male,” Corey said. “I told him to guarantee me that and I’ll back you on my side, and Buzz has held his word.”
Williams has continued Corey’s work as a father the last two years, and it has translated into success on the court. The duo has propelled Marquette to 47 wins, a 2011 Sweet 16 berth and a program-best second place finish in the Big East this year.
“We won 22 games last year and have won 25 thus far this year,” Williams said. “I don’t know that we could have won any of those games without what he brought to our team.”
As a senior, he has been the quintessential leader for the Golden Eagles, both through his actions and his words. With three starters suspended for the first half at West Virginia on Feb. 24, the Golden Eagles were ripe for a loss. But Jae’s leadership was on display that night, as he led Marquette with 26 points to an improbable 61-60 victory.
“He has to be accountable for his actions in the classroom, community, on the court and in the locker room,” Corey said. “You have to be accountable because there’s no way to tell someone ‘follow me,’ when you’re not living the right life.”
During his playing days, Corey would visualize his own success on the court as a pregame routine. He has passed this ritual down to his son.
“I tell him to get into a corner where it’s quiet, where he can be by himself before the game,” Corey said. “And visualize doing great things, and hear himself say, ‘I’m going to be great. I’m going to carry the other guys.”
Crowder has put his father’s advice to use while playing in an undersized Marquette front court. The 6-foot-6 forward’s numbers have improved significantly, and this year he was the lone unanimous selection to the All-Big East First Team.
Monarch said the father-son relationship between Jae and Corey has been instrumental in Jae’s progression.
“You have a father who has walked down the same streets you have, maybe fallen off the track a couple of times,” Monarch said. “That’s huge for someone to have that type of guidance in a father, who can guide you in your career path, but also in life.”
Coach Williams said the humility with which Jae carries himself is a direct reflection of his father.
“You can tell Jae was raised the right way as a person, and Jae’s beliefs as a competitor mirror Corey’s,” Williams said. “Jae has a spirit of maturity about him that very few kids have, and I think that comes from how he grew up and how his dad raised him.”
From summer workouts in Florida to the national stage, Jae has kept his father’s words close to him. Crowder now sits 40 minutes away from a trip to the West regional, due in large part to the lessons imparted on him by his father. But Corey knows some things are just innate.
“I can teach you how to shoot, jump and run,” Corey said. “But I can’t teach you how to have the heart of a warrior. Either you’re born with it or you’re not. There may be players better than Jae, but I’ll put him in the ring any day against anyone, and he’ll come out on top.”