NCAA Tournament 2014: The Aaron Craft problem

Jamie Sabau

Ohio State's supremely scrappy senior point guard is hated by college basketball fans with a passion that few non-Dukies have ever achieved. What's most striking about this is how little Aaron Craft has to do with it. SB Nation 2014 NCAA March Madness Coverage

The reality of it is this: Jodie Foster auditioned for the role of a desperate, cynical teenaged prostitute and Martin Scorsese decided to hire her for the part. He was right, Foster was brilliant and funny and unsettling, and became a big part of why Scorsese's Taxi Driver is one of the more effectively unsettling films of its time. She was just doing a job. Whatever inspiration she gave to psychotic loner and firearm enthusiast John Hinckley Jr. was not part of the deal -- she was just a kid out there doing her best in the role she had, and Hinckley was just an unbalanced person with some terrible ideas and easy access to the sort of weapon that would make those terrible ideas terribly dangerous.

I should be careful, now, to note that I am not strictly comparing ESPN's Rick Reilly to the man who tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. John Hinckley, Jr. had his problems, the most notable of which was reading Jodie Foster's film acting as a coded message encouraging him to try to kill America's most avuncular and forgetful President. Rick Reilly, who has been named National Sportswriter of the Year 11 times, has his own problems, although they manifest in significantly more benign and banal ways. In this instance, Rick Reilly thinks that Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft is a throwback to a simpler and more honest and frankly better time.

This is all tendered as fulsome compliment, if you were wondering. Craft "parachuted here straight out of 1948," Reilly writes, hearkening back to a time when teams mostly still treated the jumpshot as communistic witchcraft. The sport was wholly segregated then, and Adolph Rupp's scrupulously Caucasian Kentucky Wildcats beat Bill Henderson's Baylor Bears for the title that year, by a score of 52-48. No living person misses the basketball that was played in 1948, least of all Rick Reilly, who was at that point a full decade away from even being born. It's important not to be too literal, here, and unwise to base any argument on something Rick Reilly wrote in the year 2014. Also it is important to point out things that are stupid. This is very stupid.

All that projection -- the delight with which he reports that Craft isn't on The Twitter and doesn't even have sex -- is Rick Reilly's business, finally. But, as he gears up for his last run at the NCAA tournament and one more blush-cheeked turn in the spotlight that college basketball's foremost sentimentalists insist on casting upon him, it's worth pointing out that Aaron Craft never asked for any of this. He is just a college point guard, trying to lead a sixth-seeded team to a win, and then another win after that. That is, Aaron Craft is just a college basketball player, and because so many people who talk about college basketball insist on casting him as something else, that is easy to forget.

★★★

For four seasons, Aaron Craft has distinguished himself mostly by playing exactly like Aaron Craft. He has not gotten significantly better during his four years at Ohio State -- Craft still can't shoot, really, and has turned the ball over more this season than ever before. He has not gotten much worse, either. His numbers fluctuate within a notably narrow range. There is a narrative about that, which on the surface is concerned with his consistency -- "you know you can count on Aaron Craft for [Aaron Craft's precise level of production]" -- and at a deeper level has to do with the idea that Craft has demonstrated a unique and admirable ability to maximize his relatively humble athletic talents. The idea is that Craft's statistics are consistent because they represent the absolute outer boundary of his ability; he might do less, is the idea, but he absolutely could not do more.

There are a bunch of things that aren't quite right about that, but Craft is indeed consistent. He will take seven or so shots over the course of a game, and make about three of those; he will have roughly two times as many assists as he does turnovers, and will get back each of those turnovers, on average, with a steal of his own. He will almost score 10 points, but almost certainly won't. He will play exceedingly good, astute, moderately chippy perimeter defense; his cheeks will flush red early in the game and remain as such throughout. Turn off the sound, and you will watch an elite athlete spend the better part of 40 minutes frustrating and flustering his opposite number. Close your eyes and listen to the people broadcasting the game, though, and you will hear Craft described as if he were Jesus Christ performing open heart surgery. That last bit is not Aaron Craft's fault.

None of it is, really. Craft would have been booed in gyms across the Big Ten because that's what happens to opposing point guards; the fact that he's a good student and middling shooter and prone to flush matters less, in ths regard, than the color of his uniform. But the hackish inspirational narrative that surrounds Craft, in which our hero embodies all that is good and sadly absent in the fallen world of college basketball, has conspired to make him a bigger villain than he has any right to be. More than that, it's weird: After four years and nearly 150 games of watching Aaron Craft play exactly the same way, every time, there's something discomfiting about seeing his narrative metastasize while he stays so stubbornly the same.

Aaron Craft is a familiar college basketball type -- the defensive-minded, pass-first point guard whose secret is that he shoots a basketball as if trying to squash a large spider crawling on the backboard -- and has been at Ohio State long enough to be recognizable even to viewers who haven't watched a college game since last March. As such, Craft is useful to color commentator types and the men stuck in the overlit limbo-lobby of the halftime show, in the same way that Miley Cyrus is useful to the chicklet-mouths at Entertainment Tonight. The idea is to talk, and there is not always anything to talk about, and the result is the end result -- Dan Dakich singing soaring hymns to Craft's intangible virtue because he can't think of anything else to say.

There are a number of ways in which all this overdetermined storytelling conspires to pants itself. There's the understatedly hilarious and notably Tebow-ian contrast -- which must not be remarked upon, lest the whole thing collapse -- between Craft's comparatively humble performances and the way in which they're described. There's the fact that Craft's own game subverts his Hard Work And Nothing But story -- shooting is a learnable basketball skill, and Craft has never learned it; his brilliant defense is grounded not just in capital-g Grit, but also in remarkable quickness, coordination and fast-twitch athleticism. But mostly it's just unfair to Craft, as a basketball player and a human being, to make him a character in a cheapjack good-and-evil storyline, especially given that said storyline is significantly less interesting and complex than any basketball game with Aaron Craft playing in it.

College basketball has an undeniable cultural valence and subtext, especially when seen in opposition to the NBA. It is not always sub-, either -- there are people who prefer to watch their basketball played by unpaid teenagers who, for various reasons, can't and don't talk back when their coaches scream at them. Those players tend to be black, the coaches tend to be white, and their relationship of command is, with apologies to Rick Reilly, actually more or less something out of 1948. Craft can be cast as an exemplary character in a particular didactic narrative that relates to this. He is Aaron Craft, a good student and a good kid, who stuck around to earn his degree and succeeded through hard work and dedication and, implicitly, is an example of what all those other kids -- those kids, the ones dunking and getting goofy things tattooed on their throats for want of other available space and becoming millionaires at 20 -- could be, if only they wanted it as much as Aaron Craft does.

And the thing is, Aaron Craft really is those things -- he is a good student, he will earn his degree, he is a talented and determined basketball player, and is admirable for all those reasons. But to jam him into some scolding daddish narrative about the sanctity of amateurism and Kids Today is not just unfair, it's criminally lame. For all the cultural and narrative uses of Aaron Craft, all the roles he can play in the various stories college basketball is resolved to tell us over and above the 40-minute thing at its center, he really is best enjoyed and most clearly understood as a basketball player. He never asked to be anything else, of course.

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