Sports Illustrated’s annual “Where Are They Now?” issue catches up with the stars and prominent figures from yesteryear. The Basketball Tournament deals in nostalgia, as well. Former college and NBA stars are sprinkled across the league's rosters. The league's 2017 regional rounds tip off Saturday, with a slew of games featuring blasts from the past.
With that in mind, The Crossover caught up with three stars of the TBT, who also once starred on a different pervious: Ohio State's Aaron Craft, UConn's Josh Boone and Missouri's Kareem Rush.
WATN: Aaron Craft will (still) outwork you
There was a time when Aaron Craft's name was on the lips of every college basketball fan. What they had to say wasn't always that flattering, but his exploits for Ohio State were front of mind, and he worked hard to get there.
“I had to be doing something right,” Craft said. “These people did research on my mom and my family and my girlfriend (now wife). They were so angry that they went that low? That was a good feeling. I definitely enjoyed playing that role.”
Craft's rise to national prominence was somewhat unlikely. As a 6’2” distributor and defender, Craft's game wasn't always easy on the eyes and he didn't always look like the best player on the floor.
Glance at his all-time numbers and you’ll see an accurate description of who Craft was as a player. He never averaged more than 10 points per game, but in the Big Ten he rates first in games and minutes played, first in steals and third in assists. Of course, he’s also fifth in turnovers and fourth in personal fouls committed.
But whatever aesthetic Craft lacked was replaced by know-how. He made the right passes, he dove for loose balls and he lived inside the jersey of his opponent on defense, which became his calling card at an early age. For Craft, who averaged 2.3 steals per game for his career, there was just as much enjoyment to be gleaned from shutting down a big time scorer as there was from dropping 20 himself.
"It’s a lot of fun when you are frustrating other guys,” Craft said with a chuckle. “I wanted them to know that every possession I’m going to be there doing the same thing, crashing it the same way. So as the game wore on I think I really started to frustrate guys, because I wasn’t going to back down.”
And while he made it look easy at times, expending that type of energy can be tough for even the best athletes in the country. Every fan saw his defense for 32 minutes per game, but Craft said he couldn't have done it without his conditioning and the trust of former Ohio State coach Thad Matta.
“I wanted to be the best conditioned player on the floor every time I stepped on it,” Craft said. “It’s just something I had to do because I’m not the fastest or quickest or most athletic. But I can outlast people, and that was something I could work on by myself. I didn’t need to have special talent to do that.”
The work didn't stop after Craft's highly decorated four-year career with the Buckeyes. When he left the Ohio State his aggressive style transitioned to the next level, where he won Defensive Player of the Year with the D-League’s Santa Cruz Warriors before taking his game overseas and playing in Hungary and Italy for the past four years.
"The last few years we’ve played overseas, my wife and I have gone over,” Craft said. “There’s a lot of positives. Obviously, I’m still playing basketball, making a living doing that, we’re getting to travel and we have a lot more free time to do those types of things, so that part’s great."
When Craft isn’t playing basketball in another country, he’s back in Columbus, Ohio. Several former players still call the city their home base and play together during their off-seasons. He faces off with former teammates there, including David Lighty, Jon Diebler and Greg Oden.
While Craft was once a major staple on ESPN, he's rarely seen on national television now, save for the occasional NCAA tournament montage. That'll change soon. Craft called on his old Ohio State crew and they'll all take the court together again in the The Basketball Tournament with $2 million on the line. And, yes, Oden will be on the court with Scarlet and Gray, the Buckeyes' alumni squad.
“To be able to play together again in something that honestly has a lot on the line I think is going to be a lot of fun,” Craft said. “It has an NCAA tournament feel, and that was always the best time of year when you have a good team.”
The stakes are high and the stage is different, yet Craft doesn't intend to change one bit. — DeAntae Prince
WATN: Who is Josh Boone?
National Champion. Big East Defensive Player of the Year. First-round pick in the NBA draft.
Only five players in history can claim all three of these accomplishments: Patrick Ewing (Georgetown), Harold Pressley (Villanova), Emeka Okafor (UConn), Josh Hart (Villanova), and Josh Boone (UConn).
Hart was drafted by the Lakers this spring, following an illustrious four-year career at Villanova. Okafor was one of the most dominant college players of the early-2000s, leading his UConn team to a national title in 2004 and joining the Charlotte Bobcats as the No. 2 pick. Pressley led the 1986 Villanova Wildcats to the most unlikely national championship upset in tournament history over Patrick Ewing and the seemingly indomitable Georgetown Hoyas. And Ewing went on to become a Hall of Famer despite a chorus of naysayers.
But who is Josh Boone?
Growing up a diehard New Jersey Nets fan in southeastern Connecticut, I didn’t have to ask that question. In fact, I think I may qualify as one of the few people outside of Josh Boone’s immediate family who has watched every single televised game he’s ever played on American soil.
Over the course of his three-year career at UConn and even into his NBA days with the Nets, Boone played a style of basketball that was unmistakable to a kid my age. Bullying guys on the block, devouring offensive rebounds, pinning shots to the backboard or swatting them into the stands, Boone exemplified a sheer force of will and imposition of power that every 7-year-old boy had no choice but to recognize and respect.
Boone was a schoolyard bully on the floor. Dunks, blocks, rebounds—you’d give them to him or he’d take your lunch money.
Always more spit than shine, Boone strung together four decent years in the NBA, including a sophomore campaign in which he nearly averaged a double-double with 8.2 PPG and 7.3 RPG while playing only 25.3 minutes per night. But poor free-throw shooting made Boone a liability late in games, which led to his eventual flight from the NBA to overseas.
Bouncing around from Europe to Hong Kong to Australia to a few other foreign locales, Boone has made an impressive career for himself, bringing home a pair of Bahraini championships and an ABL title with Hong Kong this year. He’s currently signed with Melbourne United of Australia’s NBL.
Injuries and bad timing botched Boone’s few attempts at a return to the NBA. Earlier in his career, with some NBA interest percolating back home, he was forced to choose between guaranteed money on the table in China and a shot at the NBA, but an impending lockout loomed overhead. He went with the guaranteed money, later calling it “the single worst decision I ever made in my professional career.”
While he’s found professional success in basketball overseas, Boone lamented the plight of being an American player abroad. The challenge is difficult enough adapting to life, language, and basketball in a foreign country, but Boone explained that the struggle often went far beyond just issues of acclimation, citing frequent contract disputes that leave him and his teammates miring through red tape just to get the money they were promised.
“Sometimes you can get on a team that’s just decided they don’t want to pay you,” Boone explained. Left with no choice but to wait out arduous legal procedure through the FIBA offices, players like Boone are often left out to dry. He details much of this struggle as well as the rest of the experiences he’s had overseas in his blog. — Tim Kiernan
WATN: Kareem Rush is taking one last shot
Months away from the eighth anniversary of the ACL injury that sent him stumbling out of the NBA, Kareem Rush is angling for one final comeback.
The sharpshooting guard hasn’t played in the league since 2009. Since then he’s done a little bit of everything—a rehab stint for his ACL, the NBA Development League, a brief music career, a clothing and fashion line—but most of his projects haven’t really taken off.
He hasn’t left the gym, though, holding onto the dream of one day returning to the league. But the 36-year-old knows time is not on his side. One positive for the aging veteran? Senior Circuit basketball leagues are all the rage this summer. Enter The Basketball Tournament, a tournament that is now in its third year of existence and is filled with former stars like Rush.
“This is me pushing myself,” said the Kansas City native. “This is a personal drive. I never thought my career would end on an injury. Part of me wants to do it for selfish reasons, (but) I also want to have my two youngest daughters see me play. They hear all about how daddy was this big basketball player, but they only know me as a businessman.”
Kareem Rush the businessman has certainly been busy.
He recently moved back to his hometown after a few years in L.A., where he was pursuing an R&B music career. There was lots of hype for his singing around 2010, as he released a single and began work on an album that would ultimately be released in 2015.
Around 2012 he says he started wanting to get back in the game. While he’s no longer pursuing music as a career—like any good opportunist—he’s leaving the door open. “It’s a passion,” he said. “If something takes off then yeah I'll definitely settle back into it.”
He made his way to the D-League for a few months (“just terrible basketball”) and the American Basketball Association before retreating to some business ventures by 2014. Basketball fell to the wayside for the first time. Instead, he was pursuing fashion and design, starting “The Gentlemen Brand.” The social media accounts for the company have fallen mostly silent since late last year, but Rush has always been about the bigger picture.
“I believe that there is never a failure, it's only a lesson learned,” he said. “I've learned that I’m ever-evolving. People always question, they go, 'What have you been up to?' Well, it took time to build relationships, so the last years have been building, planting seeds on a number of business fronts. As I get older, this'll suit me well.”
His career started at Missouri, where he was a standout for three years before becoming a first-round draft pick in 2002. After two years in a backup role with the Los Angeles Lakers, he went to the Charlotte Bobcats and put together a pair of productive years—when he was healthy, that is. He’d go to Indiana, Philadelphia and back to Los Angeles before the 2009 injury.
While he was never an exceptional player, Rush has done what he can over the past decade to stay relevant—reinventing himself off the court whenever he needs to. But he’s staying true to his best asset on the court: shooting.
“I know I got a lot left in the tank,” he said. “You know, the way the game is now with shooting being such a premium, that's what I did. If I can showcase that I can keep up physically, there's no reason why I can't get another shot on my way back to hopefully getting back to the NBA.”
Rush said he doesn’t want to have any regrets when he’s 45 and lacks the NBA-level talent to do anything about it. But you’re mistaken if you think Rush will just settle into a quiet post-basketball career after all this is over.
He’s been talking to new Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin about bringing some of the old guys back to the program. An improved Mizzou squad would only be good news to Rush (and the beleaguered university), and he’ll be in Columbia mid-July for an alumni game. He's also building a basketball mentorship program with a local charter school back in Kansas City, and is developing a 1-on-1 tournament—“NBA Jam, King of the Court-style”—for current and former players.
The buzz from players he’s talked to so far? “They love it.”
But first Rush has a summer of showcases. The spotlight isn’t all too bright, but it’s a chance to spend a few months proving what he’s got it. And if he doesn’t have enough? He’s got a backup plan, or two, in there somewhere. — Tanner Walters