Professional basketball player Nick Crowder doesn’t remember playing double-digit minutes on his seventh-grade team at Indian Trail – for the entire season.
Never mind averaging 10-plus minutes per game, Crowder says he averaged closer to 10 seconds, and deservedly so.
“I probably played four minutes all year,” Crowder said, “because I was terrible.”
It was a toe in the water leading to a career overseas that would’ve still been almost impossible to foresee for the vast majority of Crowder’s teen years.
He was a 6-foot-6, 185-pound senior post at Science Hill during the 2005-06 season and made 28 career starts while otherwise being a key reserve at Southern Wesleyan, which was an NAIA program that moved to NCAA Division II during his career.
But Crowder steadily blossomed into a 6-foot-8, 235-pound perimeter threat, which has punched his ticket to gigs in the Dominican Republic, Spain, a brief stop in the NBDL and now England.
Crowder is playing in the English Basketball League, National Division 2, where he’s averaging around 17 points and 12 rebounds for the Huddersfield Heat, which has begun the season with a 17-2 record. He says he’s the lone American on a team with five Spaniards and six Brits.
“When I was young I always dreamed of seeing the world,” Crowder said during a telephone interview Thursday, “because coming from Johnson City, you kind of get in your bubble. You never really think that you’re going to see anything much other than East Tennessee. So I’ve been really blessed to get to travel the world and see a lot of places and meet a lot of new people. But it’s definitely nothing that at 15 I would’ve seen myself being able to see all these things.”
Crowder was a football player who kept growing taller. Oddly enough, it was a football player, former East Tennessee State All-Southern Conference linebacker Derek Fudge, who grew Crowder’s basketball game.
Crowder played two years for Mike Poe and two for Ken Cutlip at Science Hill, but recalls working with Fudge at the Boys & Girls Club between his seventh- and eighth-grade years as the key to his career.
“I learned a lot from (Science Hill assistant) Randy Ferrell, uhm, with his quotes, his sense of humor and his work ethic,” Crowder said. “And I learned a whole lot from Randy as far as fundamentals were concerned. And then, of course, there was Poe. … I started dressing varsity when I was a freshman in high school, so I got two years under my belt with Poe. …
“But my favorite coach, believe it or not, was … Derek Fudge. He taught me how to play the game. I grew pretty quick, and was always the tall white kid who couldn’t jump and was slow – who was just godawful at basketball. Fudge spent countless hours with me just teaching me the game and simple fundamentals. He told me that eventually you’re going to grow into your body and figure this thing out, and you don’t have to just be a big man. You can play with these guys like a guard, and I took that to heart.”
Now, Crowder plays on the wings and guards opposing players playing positions anywhere from two through five. He beat the buzzer with a game-winning 3-pointer earlier this season.
“Nick has a really calming personality on court, and rarely gets affected by what's going on around him,” Huddersfield coach Eduardo Perez y Medina said via email. “When he caught the ball, we knew he'd make the shot, no doubt.”
Perez y Medina liked Crowder’s versatility initially, but quickly grew to admire his intangibles.
“Nick has really impressed me,” said Perez y Medina, who got a kick out of seeing Crowder learn to sing a nursery rhyme in Spanish within four weeks of his Spanish teammates’ arrival. “He is a great professional, and despite his relatively young age, he displays a significant level of maturity. … He leads by example and is a vocal leader. It makes things a lot less complex on a daily basis for me.”
Heavy workloads can be attacked with a light heart when you’re living your dream.
“Basketball is fun here,” said Crowder, who spends approximately eight months abroad and four months at his home in Anderson, S.C. “The game of basketball wasn’t big over here, but since the (London) Olympics it’s taking off. It’s really perked an interest and made the sport grow, because obviously I’m in a country where rugby and soccer are the main sports.”
Crowder compared British soccer and rugby fans to SEC football fans, and suggested that doesn’t even do the foreigners justice.
“Between the British media and the British sports fans, they’re pretty vicious,” he said. “You either perform or they’re gonna be at your throat the next day in the tabloids or even meet you after the game. It’s a very different breed of fans here.”
The most hostile basketball environments were in the Dominican Republic, where he said Americans essentially have a target on them. His favorite occupational destination was Italy.
“Italy was amazing,” he said. “The people there were fantastic. A lot of big games there, a lot of big atmospheres.”
The best atmosphere Crowder ever played in might’ve been while playing George Pitts’ Brandan Wright-led Brentwood Academy in the 2005 Arby’s Classic semifinals. Crowder said his Hilltoppers teammates included Omar Wattad, Michael Forney, Landon Turner and Dionte Grey.
“We packed Viking Hall and they were actually sending all of the overflow traffic to the auditorium next door to watch the game (on closed-circuit TV),” Crowder said. “Just playing against Brandan Wright and Coach Pitts and that enormous environment – the Arby’s Classic just brings an intensity about it – playing that caliber of game against that caliber of player and having that many people show up was definitely a highlight. …
“The thing that made us want to win at Science Hill was tradition. We came at the tail end of the Jerome Odems, the Rob Loves, the JaKeith Hairstons. … And you don’t want to be the Science Hill team to let everybody down. … Just between the Chinouths (Shirley Ann and Jack) bringing bubblegum every game to the maroon and gold ball that we did tip drill with in warm-ups to the ‘Topper Clap and just the atmosphere in the old gym – that’s what made us want to play so hard every night.”
Crowder’s had surreal reminders of Science Hill in Europe thanks to classmate Justice Joslin, the speedy Hilltoppers receiver who went on to play football for Mike Ayers at Wofford and was on a German League championship team before taking up modeling.
“I was in an airport in London and he was on some big Nautica ad and I took a picture of him and sent it to him and said, ‘It’s kind of sickening that I can’t even walk through the London airport without seeing your face,’” Crowder said. “There it was, basically a whole life-sized cutout of Justice Joslin. … He’s an international superstar. … Monday, he’ll be in Spain. Tuesday, he’ll be in Paris. He’s a world-wide traveler. He does some pretty big ads for Timberland and GQ Magazine.”
Some 10 years ago, Joslin and Crowder might’ve envisioned their career paths crossing in much different fashion.
“Justice and I signed up for peer tutoring at Science Hill when Connie Huff ran the Special Ed program there, and I just fell in love with it,” said Crowder, who majored in Special Ed at Southern Wesleyan. “It started off with one class a day. I would go shadow a boy in P.E. class and help him get dressed and we’d play basketball in a gym, and it kind of evolved over the next couple of years to where I would go on field trips and Special Olympics trips … and I fell in love with the field. It was easy for me; it was fun. I felt like I had a connection with the kids, and patience, and it just kind of went from there. …
“I’m pretty active in the Special Olympics. I help plan and coordinate with that, and now, over here, I’ve actually been doing a couple of basketball clinics for kids in schools.”
Crowder expects to work with kids and stay in basketball in some capacity when he retires.
“Fortunately, this game is still fun for me,” he said. “I still feel like I’m at the old ‘Topper Palace getting ready for Friday night and that’s a good feeling. It brings back the adolescence and the excitement in the sport that you love. So I’m gonna try to ride this train as long as that feeling’s there.”
Certainly, he’s worked hard enough to enjoy every minute.