LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — It didn't take Jae Crowder very long after joining the Miami Heat to figure out who the veteran leader of the team was.
"Udonis Haslem," he said.
Correct. But who was the person that taught Haslem how to be that locker-room voice, that sage, "the O.G." as the Heat call him?
That would be Corey Crowder. Jae Crowder's father.
Haslem and Jae Crowder are now Heat teammates, competing in the Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics. Corey Crowder is living in Fort Myers, Florida, a couple hours west of Miami, a couple hours southwest of Lake Buena Vista — the site of the NBA's restart at Walt Disney World. And nearly two decades ago in France, Corey Crowder took a young rookie under his wing to show him the ropes. That rookie was Udonis Haslem.
"It's an awesome story, when you think about it," Corey Crowder said.
This tale of things going full circle starts 18 years ago in Chalon-sur-Saône, France, about 200 miles southeast of Paris. Haslem was a 22-year-old kid who went undrafted after his four seasons at Florida and headed to France hoping to kickstart his career. Corey Crowder had been playing overseas for nearly a decade at that point and was the person Haslem gravitated to for advice.
"If Corey Crowder wouldn't have been there, I wouldn't be here," Haslem said this week at Disney, with the Heat set to take on Boston in Game 4 of the East finals on Wednesday night. "I wouldn't have lasted. I'd have (messed) it up."
Haslem spent just the one year in France, lost about 50 pounds when he was there, fought his way into a tryout with the Heat and the Miami native has been with his hometown NBA team ever since. Corey Crowder remembers times during practice with the French club when Haslem would get put on the second team to face the rest of the starters, "and he'd beat us by himself," Corey Crowder said.
"That's when I told him, 'You've got to get to the NBA,'" Corey Crowder said.
Haslem never forgot his kindness or his lessons. Years later, before a Heat game in Utah — when Jae Crowder was playing there — Haslem saw his former teammate in the front row. He called Dwyane Wade over to introduce him as well.
"Udonis comes over and gives me a hug," Corey Crowder said. "Then he calls D-Wade over and says 'I want to introduce you to Jae Crowder's dad. I'm in the NBA because of this man right here.' Now that, to me, was the biggest compliment that anybody could ever pay a person. What I was doing for him, way back when, was not for me. It was for him."
Haslem is 40 now and doesn't play much for the Heat; his role is to be someone who leads by example in practice and leads with his voice in the locker room and off the court. Jae Crowder, who came to the Heat in a trade in February, had a bit of a relationship with Haslem before joining Miami's roster — and said he's even more appreciative of him now.
"To be in a locker room with UD and to hear him and listen to him and try to grow with him and talk to him, it's been very pleasing to me," Jae Crowder said. "And it's unbelievable to hear how my dad helped him over there. Everything's coming full circle for me and my family, and my dad, he loves it."