This isn't a story about race. It's a story about understanding what lies beneath Aaron Craft's alabaster epidermis that makes him one of college basketball's very best.
It's about abandoning the laziest conclusions as to why his name is consistently brought up by analysts when listing the sport's top players. It's about translating what constitutes greatness beyond a stat sheet or a highlight reel.
And it's about shaping perceptions through sound basketball comprehension instead of skin complexion, because this isn't a story about race.
Granted, there are purely cosmetic traits that elevate Craft above the fray, but they aren't a function of his coloring: Craft never pops his jersey in victory or slaps the floor when game momentum is shifting. He doesn't trash-talk his opponents or bring his teammates down when he's in a slump.
As deliberately sterile as his behavior is, it's not what makes him one of college basketball's very best.
Right after he missed the last shot in Ohio State’s loss at Ann Arbor, Craft picked himself up off of the floor, found Michigan guard Trey Burke whom he had been attached to for 40 minutes of terrific, fast-paced basketball – and hugged him. But losing graciously does not make him one of college basketball's very best either.
Craft is a great player because he reduces great players to being good. He renders good players average and he makes average players awful. But that's his game execution; to understand what enables the command he has of his opponents you need to get beneath that distracting skin again, both figuratively and literally.
Over the past offseason it was discovered that Craft had played high school ball and then his first two years at Ohio State with a bone chip floating around in his ankle. It would cause stabbing pain in his leg during games (as well as not during games) which would only visibly produce what could best be described as a half-grimace and a slight limp.
When doctors went into his leg last summer to finally get it out they also found three bone spurs that had been caused by that chip repeatedly grinding into his tibia. He had to be convinced to have the surgery, stubbornly intent on playing through the pain instead.
Craft is a great player because he reduces great players to being good. He renders good players average and he makes average players awful.
So Craft is a tough guy, but not in some abstract fairy tale sense. He's just not big on excuses, either pre-determined or in hindsight. As a college junior he possesses the type of emotional intelligence necessary for any high pressure job post-graduation, let alone as a nationally recognized athlete. In that sense he's tougher than most of his peers.
He's probably tougher than you. He's definitely tougher than Michigan State guard Keith Appling. On Saturday during the B1G Tournament semifinal, Appling immediately took the floor jawing into Craft's ear and continued for the game's first ten minutes.
It's unclear whether the onslaught of trash-talk had any effect on his play, but it definitely did not distract or steer him away from his mission: Trick Appling into beating his own team from the inside. Coerce the Spartans to play 6-on-4 basketball instead of 5-on-5. The same plan had worked only a few weeks earlier.
Craft proceeded to make the talented Appling a liability for Michigan State for the second straight meeting. He turned what had been scheduled to be Buckeyes-Spartans into Craft-Appling. This only helped Ohio State, which was in foul trouble at every position but guard while being forced to deal with Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne in the paint.
The Spartans could have banged their way to the free throw line in a close game, but Craft turned off Nix and Payne’s scoring faucet without guarding either of them. He hijacked their feeder and erased a good player yet again. He also led all scorers with 20 points, had one less assist (nine) than the Spartans had as an entire team and stole the ball four times - but his value in the Spartans' demise wasn't on the stat sheet.
That's because Appling didn’t head into the United Center intent on hurting his team, yet he dribbled and shot (and shot, and shot, and shot) his way into doing so – because he was repeatedly goaded into it by the guy who had gotten into his head while inside of his jersey. Craft's complexion was simply along for the ride.
Because this isn't a story about race. It's a story about having a firm grasp on why Craft is so good.
The last time he turned Appling inside-out, Lansing State Journal columnist Graham Couch sheepishly credited him for having a great game before taking the lazy route and turning his focus to that alabaster epidermis:
I also believe Craft receives recognition beyond his abilities for reasons most are afraid to say — he’s a rosey-cheeked (sic) white guy. If he’s not, if he looks like Appling, I don’t think he’d be preseason All-Big Ten or featured in Sports Illustrated. That’s not his fault. But it’s the fault of writers who don’t necessarily understand the game or what he brings to it, but fall in love with his reputation and look.
Unfortunately Craft doesn't look enough like Indiana guard Victor Oladipo, the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year award winner this season. Nevertheless, Craft continues to reduce great players to being good, renders good players average – and now makes your average local basketball columnist look fatuous.
Opposing fans may resent Craft, but it's not because of his skin color. It may be easier to hate him because he's
1/4 Fillipino Caucasian-looking since overt sports villainy is enabled when the variable of white guilt is negated. But there's a very important – Couch might call it "overrated" – reason that white guys aren't universally despised or receive undue recognition in basketball: They actually have to be really good, too.
Craft has perfected the art of driving opposing fans and their beloved players crazy. It's equal parts physical ability, mechanics and game intelligence. He knows how to hand-check effectively and can take a charge without flopping.
He is one of the best lateral-moving defenders in the game and he fully understands both the player he's defending and what's happening behind him. For example, when Burke – who can blow by just about anyone – blows by Craft, he’s smart enough to steer the driving Burke toward the space where he knows there are a whole slew of other Buckeyes waiting.
And if Burke hands the ball to a less capable ball-handler, like Nik Stauskas, Craft immediately switches from contain into attack mode. He doesn't waste his energy trying to overpower physically superior athletes; he works to siphon their advantage from them instead.
Then when he has the advantage, he seizes upon it and goes in for the kill.
Craft's eyes sit just above his rosy red cheeks, but he has perfect 360-degree vision. Whenever the player he’s guarding raises the ball above his jersey number, that’s his visual cue to invade his personal space. When the ball is lowered below the waistline, Craft gives himself more room to guard against a drive – either to prevent it or to steer the player with the ball into a tree.
When Couch attributes recognition of Craft to a melanin deficiency or his adorable red cheeks, it's an open admission that he isn't trying hard enough to understand why his game is so celebrated. Couch has covered Michigan State for almost three months now, which might give him fresh insight into Craft's ability that tenured ESPN college basketball analyst Eamonn Brennan – who thinks Craft is the toughest and most well-rounded player in the game – simply doesn’t see.
Or Reggie Rankin, who like many other analysts believes Craft is the best on-ball defender in basketball. Or Florida head coach Billy Donovan, who doesn’t think Craft gets enough recognition for how good he is. Alas, if only he could be whiter.
Announcers do have a bad habit of saying that Craft tries harder than other players, which probably isn't true. Craft tries longer than other players do.
Announcers do have a bad habit of saying that Craft tries harder than other players, which probably isn't true. Craft tries longer than other players do. He is an every-possession headache who doesn’t take ten-second breathers or allow his mind to wander or stumble.
He can also fake a blitz and drop into space as if he were playing the Leo in Luke Fickell's defense. It’s why Craft's steals happen outside the arc, inside the paint, from behind, from the side and from right in front of your face with your mouth open. They just don’t occur above the rim.
It's trying longer combined with his superior court awareness which separate him from a virtuoso like Oladipo, who spectacularly picks pockets and pins shots high on backboards, but then also matadors several drives to the basket during every game. It's a story of highlights versus consistency.
Most of all, it's appreciating why one of college basketball's very best receives the recognition that he does. It's understanding how he still manages to get the best of his opponents despite being a well-studied player commodity for three full seasons now.
And it's about savoring every game he plays at Ohio State as not a talented white player, but just as one of college basketball's very best. Because this isn't a story about race.