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A complicated ode to Jae Crowder's memorable Suns tenure and its tumultuous ending

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
March 15, 2023

The tumultuous, drawn-out end to his time with the Phoenix Suns wasn’t what Jae Crowder or the team envisioned. After becoming a fan favorite during two seasons in the Valley, which included a run to the 2021 NBA Finals and a franchise-record 64-win campaign, Crowder’s slow-burning departure was a messy divorce that blindsided almost everyone involved.

Tuesday’s home game against the Milwaukee Bucks — with Crowder now suiting up for the very team that bested Phoenix in the Finals two years ago — made it abundantly clear there were still some lingering feelings about whatever spawned the “mutual” decision to hold him out of training camp until Phoenix could facilitate a trade.

Crowder, coach Monty Williams and general manager James Jones have all remained on the same page about keeping the nature of those conversations private. It may be years before the truth comes out about what exactly happened, but so far, there are two prevailing theories: Crowder either wanted a contract extension over the summer, or it simply boiled down to Williams telling him that Cam Johnson would be the new starter.

Either way, Bossman quickly made it clear that he wouldn’t report to training camp, and their unceremonious separation was framed in a certain light to ensure neither side looked like the guilty party.

“This is a mutual understanding and agreement that we’ve said since day one, and those factors haven’t changed,” Jones said back in November.

Unfortunately, the process dragged on until the 2023 NBA Trade Deadline, with Crowder finally being included in the Kevin Durant blockbuster deal and then rerouted to Milwaukee. Speaking to reporters ahead of Tuesday’s matchup, Crowder admitted he wasn’t sure what kind of reception he’d get in his first game back in the Valley since last year’s traumatic Game 7 playoff loss.

When the Suns played their brief tribute video for Crowder during a first-quarter timeout, the Footprint Center’s response was predictably mixed, but surprisingly positive as well. The fans who cheered were right to recognize how he helped the franchise turn itself into a contender again. The ones who booed were just as entitled to realize how unexpectedly ugly things got.

“I really didn’t know what to expect,” Crowder said after the game. “Things ended in a bad way, on a bad note, so I appreciate the love and I appreciate the applause that I got tonight.”

While Crowder didn’t speak at length about the end of his Suns tenure, he acknowledged that it felt odd being back in the building as an opponent after forging bonds with his Suns teammates and the fanbase in general.

“I’ll say leading up to [the start of the game], it definitely was a little strange, definitely a little unfamiliar,” he said. “But I got a great ovation, from just the time I walked into the building, from ushers, a lot of people that I saw on a daily basis. So that felt great, that had me feeling great. But like I said, once that ball goes up, it’s basketball. It’s time to eat.”

And eat he did. In a 116-104 win, the Bucks extended their lead on the NBA’s best record to three whole games, and Bossman was once again a thorn in the Suns’ side, making his former team pay with the type of opportune buckets he used to hit routinely for Phoenix.

In their first meeting a few weeks ago, Crowder only notched 7 points against the Suns, but he drilled back-to-back 3s in crunch-time to help Milwaukee claw its way back to an eventual 104-101 win.

And on Tuesday night, Bossman added 11 points on 3-of-4 shooting from deep off the bench, including the final dagger 3 to add to Milwaukee’s 116-104 victory lap. None of it should’ve been surprising, considering this was the guy who shot 7-for-14 from downtown in the clutch and was a +90 in 94 crunch-time minutes for Phoenix last season.

“I mean, that’s just something I do, you know that,” Crowder said with a smirk.

It probably felt vindicating, since Devin Booker lit up the Bucks for 30 points and talked his usual trash after hitting a big jumper over Crowder to close the third quarter.

It was all love between the two former teammates, but even though Book got the best of their individual matchup, Crowder looked at it differently.

“What you guys didn’t know, training camp, I want that matchup,” Crowder explained. “I want him, because if I can guard him, I can damn near guard anybody in the league. So that’s just like a glorified practice right there, what you saw. Lot of trash-talking, a lot of bumping, but Devin’s a hell of a scorer. And I feel like if I can make it tough on him, I can make it tough on a lot of guys.”

Booker reciprocated that mutual admiration.

“It’s always fun, just a high-level competitor,” Booker said. “We know what it is. We have experience together, and I got a lot of respect for him and we just leave it on the court.”

Book’s approach reflected what Crowder’s former teammates have been saying all season. Going all the way back to Media Day, the Suns have emphasized the separation between the basketball side and the business side, even as Crowder’s business side impacted their basketball side.

“I’d say it’s a little unfortunate,” Booker said in September. “Jae came in here a couple years ago, and we’ve done a lot of really good things here and we’ve shaped and shifted this culture. But at the same time, I wish him the best moving forward. That’s a friend and a brother that I’ll have forever, and ultimately it comes down to a business.”

“What I know is that everybody has to do what’s best for them,” Paul added. “I’m always gonna support any one of my teammates, especially somebody like Jae, who is a huge reason why we were even successful the past few years.”

Deandre Ayton called Crowder his guy and said he knew he’d do what was best for himself. Mikal Bridges, whose yellow shoes were originally inspired by the ones Jae Crowder wore with the Miami Heat in the NBA Bubble, said he loved “Nine-Nine” to death and that he was one of his favorite vets ever. Ish Wainright, who’s tried to model his game as “Jae 2.0,” called Crowder “his vet” and a big brother.

As recently as January, with the Suns losing players left and right, Paul reaffirmed his support for Bossman’s decision:

Even Cam Johnson, who had every reason to feel insulted by Crowder’s rumored response to Johnson replacing him in the starting lineup, emphasized how great a teammate he’d been.

“You want what’s best for your boys,” Johnson said. “There’s no bad blood between Jae and I. Jae’s looked out for me over the past couple of years. He’s taught me a lot, he’s shown me a lot, and he’s somebody that I could always call and be like, ‘What do you see during this? Talk to me.’”

That loss of veteran leadership, defensive knowledge and overall toughness didn’t manifest itself on the stat sheet right away. When the Suns have been fully healthy this season, they’ve proven themselves as one of the NBA’s top teams. But some of those intangibles have been missed as times, especially when injuries started piling up.

“It was tough to see the news, even see what the things that he said,” Cam Payne said. “He’s kind of been one of our most vocal guys. He keep the locker room together, do a lot of the intangibles that don’t really show up on the stat sheet. So it’s gonna be cool to see who fills those voids. I’m gonna miss Nine-Nine, he a part of that backbone for us.”

“He brought a number of intangibles to the team,” Williams added. “I think all of our guys would speak in that way about him. At the same time, these things happen, when you have to transition and move forward.”

Crowder’s teammates aren’t the only ones who will miss Bossman. The unsavory end to his time in Phoenix left a sour taste in fans’ mouths, which makes it harder to reconcile the legitimately memorable moments he contributed to the greatest era of Suns basketball.

Is it possible to remember the good times without dwelling on how poorly and abruptly it all ended?

After all, perhaps the greatest playoff moment in franchise history, the “Valley-Oop,” came off his fingertips, with Crowder throwing one of the most underrated-yet-high-profile passes in basketball since Grant Hill went long to Christian Laettner:

Crowder could be a streaky shooter, but he never missed when it came to flummoxing Suns opponents with timely late-game buckets, troll-level trash talk or meme-worthy faces.

This was a guy who didn’t mind being cast as the villain, so long as his own teammates and fanbase continued to rock with him.

When an entire opposing arena chanted “F**K JAE CROWDER” at him during the playoffs, Bossman turned those T-shirts into his favorite running joke, even going as far as selling them on his website.

His salsa pose — and subsequent promise to salsa dance with fans if Phoenix won the title — remains one of the best troll jobs the Suns have ever done on the Los Angeles Lakers or LeBron James.

Unfortunately, it’s an unrequited promise now, and one that he’ll never fulfill.

It’s not just the intangibles or fan favorite moments that made Crowder special during his time in the Valley, of course. Despite being undersized for the 4-spot, Bossman’s communication and knowledge of rotations helped make Phoenix’s scrambling defense the terror that it was.

Associate coach Kevin Young once described Crowder as someone who “understands game plans and defensive coverages probably better than anyone I’ve ever coached.” In Milwaukee, he’s already living up to that lofty praise.

“Sometimes he’s doing what we’re supposed to be doing and the guys that have been here for five years aren’t doing it,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer joked. “So yeah, he’s on point. He’s sharp. The attention to detail is very much there and very much appreciated. And that’s coming into a team kind of midseason or trade deadline and whatever that is, 30 or so games left. To have that kind of intelligence, IQ, attention to detail allows him to kind of be impactful.”

Although he’s only been on the team for a few weeks, he’s already fitting in, and the Bucks are 9-2 in the games he’s played for them.

“I think he brings just a winning, competitive, high-IQ perspective,” Budenholzer said. “Defensively and offensively, I think he just understands what goes into winning, makes winning plays that may or may not show up in a stat sheet. And just the human. You know, guys love him. He’s fit in our locker room great. He’s got a voice and leadership. We feel really fortunate to have him.”

Much like his time in Phoenix, Crowder isn’t posting huge numbers on the stat sheet, but he’s enjoying the fit with this veteran locker room despite having to learn a lot on the fly. Being back in Milwaukee, where he went to college at Marquette, is just an added bonus to this stage of the journey.

“It seems full circle,” Crowder said. “A lot of love there, a lot of support I’ve been getting there and I’ve had when I was in college, so everything happens for a reason.”

The one lingering question is why Crowder felt the need for a change of scenery, and why it all felt so petty despite what both sides were saying publicly.

If coming off the bench was the issue…isn’t that what he’s doing right now for the Bucks? After their latest win, his comments about closing games directly contradicted the reported reason he wanted out of Phoenix in the first place.

“Starting, it’s not something that I always got too caught up in,” he said. “I think ending the game means more than starting the game. Even though both of them are pivotal, I just feel like for myself, I do want to be able to put myself in position to close games.”

Maybe Crowder just wanted an extension. Maybe he wanted to start and was later hit with the realization that he wouldn’t on most contenders. Maybe he and Williams no longer saw eye-to-eye as another piece of Game 7’s traumatic fallout. Either way, Tuesday provided a temporary dose of closure for both sides.

Those wounds would immediately reopen if Phoenix were to meet Milwaukee in the Finals again, but until then, or until the day when the truth emerges and the Suns no longer have to linger on what-ifs from the last two seasons, both he and the fanbase seem ready to put the past behind them.

“I just flipped the chapter,” Crowder said. “One chapter, I just flipped and turned to another one, and I’m enjoying the journey of whatever this one holds. And that’s how my mental works.”

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