NBA Finals 2021: How Jae Crowder became the NBA's premier role player

Over his nine-year career Jae Crowder has become far more than just a wise veteran on winning teams. The Suns forward has become perhaps the most valuable role player in the NBA. Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

NO ONE WHO knows Jae Crowder was surprised when he punctuated the Phoenix Suns' clinching first-round win over the Los Angeles Lakers by salsa dancing in the general direction of LeBron James.

"I loved it," said Corey Crowder, Jae's father, who played for the Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs before a long career in Europe.

"It was hilarious," said Isaiah Thomas, Crowder's teammate and trash-talking rival for parts of three seasons with the Boston Celtics. "Jae is not taking s--- from anybody."

That is how a junior college journeyman who began his NBA career as a deep reserve with the Dallas Mavericks grows into the plug-and-play role player every winning team wants. It helped that the league trended in directions that favor players with Crowder's size and versatility -- a group that includes P.J. Tucker, who rejoined the NBA with the Suns after several years in Europe and now starts for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Winning has followed Crowder: from Marquette, where he starred for two seasons; to those Boston teams; and now to back-to-back Finals with the Miami Heat -- who never quite recovered from losing him -- and the Suns.

Through it all, Crowder has never been intimidated or star struck. Early in Crowder's third season, Crowder and Mike Procopio, then a Mavs player development coach, were working out in the Mavs' practice gym the night before a home game against the Lakers. Kobe Bryant had scheduled time in the same gym after Crowder, and strolled in early.

Prior to landing in Dallas, Procopio had been Bryant's personal video coach. Bryant caught Procopio's attention and tried to strike up a conversation, Procopio and Crowder recalled. Crowder, who was and is a massive Bryant fan, nonetheless stopped Procopio: It was Crowder's slot, and he didn't care who was visiting. Tossing in some select words, Crowder suggested Procopio get back to work.

"That is what makes Jae Jae," Procopio said. "He has complete confidence -- and a competitive chip on his shoulder that makes the iceberg that sunk the Titanic look like a snowflake."

A favorite Crowder habit among friends is that he texts in all capital letters -- always in your face, even when you can't see his face.

Crowder's inner circle knew he would remember the end of the Lakers' Game 3 win, when James backed him down over and over in front of the Lakers' bench as L.A.'s reserves mimicked James' movements.

"I felt so bad for my son," Corey Crowder said. "But you take your kicks and put that in the back of your mind. Jae has a very good memory. At some point, the tables turn."

CROWDER REMEMBERS HIS father bouncing around pro leagues to earn a good living, and understands how easily his own career could have gone that way -- the G League and Europe -- instead of two long-term NBA contracts worth about $64 million.

The Suns' willingness to guarantee Crowder three full seasons at almost $10 million apiece was a big reason he chose them. Ricky Rubio, Crowder's teammate in Utah, called Crowder to recruit him for the Minnesota Timberwolves, Rubio and Crowder said. The Mavs had interest in a reunion, though they made no firm offer, sources said. The Heat wanted him back, but on a shorter deal, sources said.