Sports have a way of casting certain players as heroes and others as villains. Fans want their teams to win, rooting for their heroes along the way, and anyone attempting to impede such success is an antagonist. Local play-by-play guys will oftentimes reference “good guys” when updating viewers with the score, which only means that the other team would be the bad guys.
But what happens when one of those alleged bad guys is a part of one of the biggest trades in recent memory, shipped to a city which so mercilessly booed him just months earlier? Well, they’re asked to address those very fans before opening night, a game that just so happens to be with his old team on the other end of the floor.
“That’s the way sports are,” newly acquired Cleveland Cavaliers forward Jae Crowder says. “You’re not going to get cheered for by the opposing team’s fans. I have a history, and I’ve played these guys in the playoffs. I don’t take anything I’ve endured to this point personally.”
That history Crowder is speaking of had multiple layers. He was dubbed to be Boston’s “LeBron stopper,” a physical defender who would attempt to counter the nightly domination of the four-time MVP. Two seasons ago, however, after run-ins with then-Cavaliers center-slash-enforcer Kendrick Perkins, Crowder’s playoff run with the Boston Celtics ended as he collapsed to the floor following a backhand from Cleveland Cavaliers’ shooting guard J.R. Smith. The moment was a crescendo of a series that featured plenty of pushing and shoving and stoppage in play due to the physical nature of some stretches.
Smith was ejected and served a two-game suspension; Crowder suffered a torn MCL, twisting his knee as he crumpled to the floor underneath the rim. Crowder had hoped for an apology from Smith, but the Cavs’ wing was having none of it, saying it was “pretty ballsy to ask for an apology from another man.”
Fast forward to the past offseason and Crowder was a part of a trade that sent long-time Cavs guard Kyrie Irving to a conference foe, the same foe in which Irving would have a substantial hand in their demise in seasons past. Crowder, meanwhile, spoke softly during his introduction to the local media, referencing the loss of his mother moments before the trade, but spoke highly of being a part of an organization that has represented the conference in the NBA Finals for three consecutive seasons. The past was the past and it was clear that the fans who had spent seasons lobbing social media insults his way would soon be on his side.
A video circulated of both Crowder and Smith walking together to James’ offseason camp in Los Angeles, but it starts out as just Smith before he pans back and Crowder enters the frame as both men nod along.
“We’re professionals,” Crowder said of Smith. “Emotions run high. It was already over before that next season.”
Crowder wasted no time endearing himself to the city of Cleveland. On Opening Night, after thanking the fans for coming out and ushering in a new season, the Cavs forward immediately started accruing stats in the forehead-to-forehead category, drawing the ire or Celtics big man Aaron Banes and coercing center Al Horford into being whistled for a second-half technical foul.
While Crowder will say that he tries to not pay much attention to fans, he’d be lying if he said that the boos don’t fuel his style of play.
“That’s a part of the game,” said Crowder. “As a basketball player, you have to either gear up or gear down for it, and it definitely gears me up. But I know it’s a game. I know what it’s about. They’re cheering on their team. I was the villain on the opposing team, so I understand what was going on.”
That same game has seen LeBron James be praised by the city of Cleveland only to have him loathed for a four-year period – never more so than his first night back in Cleveland in December of 2010 – and then praised once again. It’s the same game that has turned Steph Curry’s mouth guard into a universal pain point as the superstar casually chews on it as he steps on the hopes and dreams of fans bases across the country one absurd three-pointer at a time.
And it’s the same game that saw Kevin Durant go from being one game away from beating the Golden State Warriors as a member of the feisty Oklahoma City Thunder only to join them a season later despite the backlash he knew he would receive.
All of the above-referenced acts, however, were active decisions. James utilized his two free agency periods to head to Miami and back. Durant did the same while Curry has actively chosen to hurl his mouth guard on multiple occasions, the most recent of which was directed at an NBA official. Crowder, however, was the salary-balancing collateral that allowed two of the game’s best guards to swap teams. They were the headline; he was the add-in.
But did he, in a million years, ever think he would be the one on the floor of Quicken Loans Arena addressing the 35,000 fans in attendance?
“Of course not,” Crowder said with a smile. “But you don’t know the future or whatever it is. It’s the game of basketball. It’s a business. A lot of stuff happens. But I was up for it. It was a welcoming for myself and my family. I was pretty fired up for it. “