This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's March 18 One Day One Game issue. Subscribe today!
"AARON CRAFT AND I have a date tonight," Michigan senior Alex Lipnik tells me, some three hours before his Wolverines will face the hated Buckeyes. "I'm going to wine and dine him. Hopefully, we'll have a nice chat. But at the end of the night, I hope he leaves here heartbroken. I want him to be miserable."
For this date, there will be no red roses, chocolate hearts or bottles of Argentinean malbec. Instead, there will be yelling, screaming and a flood of foul language. Lipnik, a communications major, has stood outside for nearly nine hours in temps in the low teens with the lone goal of telling the Ohio State junior guard exactly how he feels.
"You suck," Lipnik yells during pregame warmups. "I hate you. You're terrible at basketball. You shouldn't even be out on the floor. You should be paying us to watch you."
Craft ignores the taunts. He dribbles to the other end of the court, also packed with testosterone-laced Michigan fans, to shoot jumpers.
"This isn't JV, Craft."
"Go home! You're too small to play this game."
"You suck, Craft. And I'm not just saying that to be mean. You actually do suck."
For Craft, it's just another night on the road in the Big Ten as one of the country's most polarizing players. "They hate me," he admits.
What has he done to deserve this? Why have students like Lipnik counted the days (353, to be exact) until Craft returned to Crisler? Because he's a pest. Because his physical, in-your-face defense can fluster anyone, even Michigan's Player of the Year candidate, Trey Burke. And because of something else -- something difficult to pin down.
Twenty-four hours earlier, in a meeting room in the heart of Michigan's campus, some 65 members of the Maize Rage, the UM student section, are squirming in their seats.
They are there to organize outfits and cheers, taunts and jeers. All agree Craft certainly will be a target. But then the group is asked to vote, by a show of hands, if they would feel differently about Craft if he weren't white. The students pause. Deliberate. A few hands gradually pop up. And then a few more. When it's clear that it's socially acceptable to do so, nearly half the students in the room -- a room where everyone, coincidentally, is white -- raise their hands.
FROM THE REACTION, it's obvious that most of these fans weren't really aware they enjoy insulting a white player partly because he's white. It's easier to believe they hate him just because, and to keep tricky racial biases relegated to the subconscious.
Lipnik, though, is more open about his predilections than most. "I'm thrilled you said that," Lipnik says when asked about the role Craft's skin color plays in his long-brewing animosity. "I didn't want to be the racist guy who calls out the white thing. But that's exactly one of the main reasons I hate him. He's that rural white guy who thinks he's hard-nosed, the my-dad-taught-me-how-to-play-defense, I-can't-score-the-basketball-if-you-paid-me guy. And everyone hates those guys. They're just ... just annoying."
By "those guys," Lipnik doesn't mean every white player. They are not white international guards like Steve Nash, or mean white big men like Christian Laettner, no matter how despised they might be for different reasons. They are not pure scorers like Jimmer Fredette or wings with a sweet stroke like J.J. Redick. He means strictly this guy: the short (by basketball standards), overachieving American white kid who doesn't pass the eye test, struggles to average double figures yet somehow thrives in the college game.
It's a club reserved for the likes of former Dukies such as Bobby Hurley (1989-1993), Steve Wojciechowski (1994-98) and Greg Paulus (2005-09), Purdue's Chris Kramer (2006-10) and Indiana's Dane Fife (1998-2002). Duke, with its rep as a bookish program with pesky tendencies, has more members in the club than anyone else. Craft's least favorite player growing up was none other than Paulus, now a friend and Ohio State video coordinator. "Slapping the floor and the way he carried himself, I didn't like Greg at all," Craft says. But being a Blue Devil is not vital. They just have to be, as Lipnik puts it so aptly, "that guy."
There aren't many candidates for the position. On the 75 rosters in the six major conferences, only about a third of the players appear to be white, and five of them (including Craft) are as small as 6'2", play at least 20 minutes and shoot at or under 40 percent.
And yet only Craft, with his rosy red cheeks and hitch-plagued jumper, fits the bill perfectly, dominating games with the swagger of a swingman who drops 20 a game.
"The easiest one to hate on," says Kramer, the former Boilermaker, describing this rare species. "You're not scoring points. You're not grabbing rebounds or getting many assists. You're the target. You're easy to pick on."
"We're boxy figures," adds Fife, who set the Hoosiers career steals record in 2002. "We don't walk athletic. We don't look athletic. And then the game starts and we are in your face, taking the ball from you. We're doing whatever we can to beat you. And for some fans and players, they don't know how to handle it."
Actually, they know exactly how to handle it: Turn Fife and Craft into villains, taking subconscious advantage of what sports sociologist Jay Coakley calls the social acceptability of a fan base harassing a player of the same race. There's more to our explanation than that; there's also probably a dissertation to be written on whether black fans feel as comfortable trashing white point guards as white fans do. But a theory needs a place to start, and this is it: "You don't want to be accused of racism you didn't intend, or maybe you want to hide your own racism that you don't want exposed," says Coakley, a professor emeritus at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs who played college ball. "It all makes white players safer to attack. You don't have to self-censor as much." So you scream: "You SUCK!"
BY ALL ACCOUNTS, Aaron Craft is the type of young man any father in America would love for his daughter to bring home. He's polite, makes eye contact when spoken to and is the Academic All-American of the Year with a 3.9 GPA in nutrition (premed). He writes Bible verses on his new high-tops and says what limited free time he has is spent at Athletes in Action Christian sports ministry meetings in Columbus.
After a disappointing mid-February loss at home to Indiana, a frustrated Craft answered 15 minutes of questions at a news conference, showered and got dressed, did another 30-minute one-on-one interview and then spent an hour visiting with a boy recovering from brain surgery who wanted to meet his favorite player. The rest of the night, Craft studied for the next day's midterms in organic chemistry and macronutrients. "Our friends back home, we tell him all the time, 'You realize you're the perfect person, right?'" says childhood friend Micah Hyde.
Yet on the basketball court, Craft's talents are appreciated only by the most educated of roundball observers. The way he deftly extends his ball-side hand into the lane to potentially force a turnover. The way he slides across the perimeter with clinical precision, his footwork honed from hours upon hours in the family driveway, sliding back and forth as his father barked instructions. Or the way he always seems to get to the spot -- that uberimportant piece of real estate that determines who will win a one-on-one battle -- first. Once there, he gives that look. No trash-talk. No jersey pop. Just a look that says: My spot. And if you spend half a second complaining about it, my ball.
"People don't respect it," says Kramer. "But people have no idea all the hard work that goes into being someone like Aaron Craft."
Craft will be the first to tell you he's here because of his work ethic and obsession with overachieving. His freshman year at Ohio State, the strength coach made him wear a 25-pound weighted vest while running the mile so he didn't upstage upperclassmen. And he still starts sprint drills 10 yards behind his teammates and straps a trio of weight plates to his back -- often close to 100 pounds -- during pushups. On certain days, his coaches have to force him to take the day off and not pick up a ball.
For those outside Columbus, though, every story, every anecdote, every hint at perfection gets more irritating. "When someone gets praised like Aaron does ... it's like Tim Tebow," says Hyde, an All-Big Ten defensive back at Iowa who happens to be African-American. "Everybody hated him. His faith, how he's really good, how he doesn't do anything wrong. When the media start spinning that story, people get jealous. I watch games [in Iowa City] and overhear people all the time, 'I hate Craft.' They have no idea what they're talking about."
Coakley, the sports sociologist, agrees with Hyde that the media inspire an anti-Craft backlash. Articles like this one, not to mention the inability to watch an Ohio State telecast without experiencing a Craft lovefest, only fuel the disdain. Coakley draws the analogy between Craft and the most-picked-on kids in school -- those with the best grades. "People want to bring kids like that down a notch," Coakley says. "We want to pierce that shell of perfection and expose him for being somebody just like us."
So jealousy too is part of the theory. For most of us, the dream of One Shining Moment died before puberty. Our scouting reports from basketball camp included feedback like "great team player" and "dribbling needs work." Does Craft's success make us wonder, What if we would have worked harder? Trained harder? Shot a couple of thousand more jumpers? Or is he a reminder that we were too lazy and too distracted to dedicate nearly every minute of every day to make it to the Big Dance?
Lipnik quit playing organized basketball in high school yet at one point during the game insists he's "way better than Craft." Joking or not, the dig is a common refrain from his haters. They all think they could be Aaron Craft.
"I'd like to see them try," Craft retorts.
THEY ARE NOT in position to try, so instead they taunt. At Penn State earlier this year, fans chanted the name of Craft's girlfriend. During his pregame introduction at Illinois, the 16,000-seat Assembly Hall erupted with disdain. Three years ago in Ann Arbor, Craft was mistaken for a student manager. Now he's the ultimate bad guy, and not even averaging double digits.
"When everyone in an arena is booing, it's not just students," says John Craft, Aaron's father. "You've got grandparents, professors, people who you would think have some character. But this is what it's like now everywhere we go."
During the first timeout in the game against the Wolverines, Craft's parents hear something they've never heard before. They're sitting amid a tiny cluster of Buckeyes friends and family when they recognize the name being chanted all around them. It's that of Craft's mom, Wendy.
It's all part of the theater of the fan, the competition among students to break Craft down and get him to respond, get him to act in a way that's anything but perfect. Lipnik admits all he desperately wants is Craft to acknowledge his insults. "I know he wants to punch me in the face," Lipnik says. But it's never going to happen. Craft's eyes don't leave the floor or the Ohio State bench. Not once does he extend a particular finger or do anything to validate all this aggression -- a fact that frustrates his haters even more.
This is the way he's always been. When Craft was 3 years old, he stuck his father's keys into an electrical outlet while John ran a basketball practice. The shock knocked him off his feet, but the toddler refused to cry. Not until Craft got into the trainer's room and away from the team did the waterworks begin. "He never wants to show vulnerability," John says. "He never wants to give that satisfaction of: You got me."
This tough exterior, which has served him well in college, was honed in his youth, as a kid in the minority -- a white face among mostly black ones. During his days of AAU basketball, Craft would spend his summers trying to prove himself as a kid who could play. In one East Coast tournament in which Craft was playing against older inner-city kids, John recalls his son injuring his knee and parents yelling, "Take him off the floor. He doesn't belong here anyway." John also remembers college assistants telling him, years later, how easy it was to spot Aaron in a gym.
Craft didn't mind the distinction. Before he built a reputation as a lockdown defender, opponents would look at the skinny white kid and assume it would be an easy day. "It was good for a steal or two a game," Craft says. "They weren't ready."
For the most part, though, the kid paid little attention to color -- it was what it was. When his father once commented how much his experience as the team's only white kid would help him relate to people from different backgrounds when he got older, Craft looked back at his dad and asked, "What are you talking about?"
What he did notice was having to prove himself time and again. To this day, in every gym, in every game, Craft -- like the rest of his point-guard club -- has to match up against taller guys with better offensive weapons. Fail and the dream ends. Pass and another challenge awaits.
This mental edge is part of what sets Craft and players like him -- really, any great player who has overcome being underestimated -- apart. Every success along the way, confidence builds. And by the time the lights are turned off and they're running onto the floor for introductions at the Final Four, of course they believe -- and act -- like they belong. That's when even more fans start to turn on them, says Coakley. It's this appearance of belonging -- and overcompensating, some feel -- that rubs some fans the wrong way. "After you pass those tests, you develop a presentation of yourself that fans see more as cockiness than confidence," Coakley explains.
Craft is okay with that: "I like to frustrate people."
CRAFT MIGHT HAVE nailed it. As interesting as these sociological explanations may be, the most profound reason players like Craft drive fans crazy could come down to a word: defense. Fans want to see the amazing. They want to see a guy reach behind his head and throw down an alley-oop, drain 8-of-8 from behind the arc or go between his legs before pulling a double crossover that leaves a defender crippled. Aaron Craft stops that from happening. His role is to make the game less beautiful, less exciting. And he thrives on it.
When asked whether he'd rather hit a game-winning shot or stop an opponent from hitting a game-winning shot, Craft chooses the latter. "Without question," he says.
Maybe it's because he knows his limitations too. With seven seconds left in overtime and Michigan leading Craft's Buckeyes 76-74, Craft has the ball with a chance to win the game. In six dribbles, he drives the length of the floor in hopes of being the hero. Lipnik insists this is exactly where he wants Craft, the ball in his hands, yet in the next breath he admits he's about to have a heart attack.
Craft misses the layup, though the reasons depend on the color of your shirt. Those in maize watch Michigan's Tim Hardaway Jr. stuff Craft's game winner, but those in scarlet see Hardaway's hand slap Craft's wrist. They beg for a foul, but the whistle never blows. Instead, the horn sounds. Michigan wins 76-74.
For many of the fans in the arena and at home watching on television, it doesn't get any better. The sight of No. 4 lying under his basket, hands folded behind his head, a look of disbelief stretched across his face, is just deserts.
In a few minutes, in the tunnel outside the visitors' locker room, John Craft will give his aggravated son a hug and remind him that losses like this one are part of the process. Learn from it and there will be dividends. Wendy Craft will also hug her son and tell him simply, "I love you."
Before long, Craft will sit in the back of the team bus heading to the airport. His mind will endlessly repeat three plays in overtime -- including that last drive -- where he feels he made mistakes. A different decision, another outcome and the only thing he would have heard at the end of a game on the road would have been silence, the sweetest sound in the world.
Win or lose, though, it's Aaron Craft's time. He's the object of hatred and respect and, like his predecessors, will be remembered for his efforts. But basketball isn't needed to save this life. Few see him as an NBA lock; if he continues to improve his jumper and the stars align, maybe there's a role for him somewhere at the next level. If not, a career as a doctor awaits.
Yet in time, another Aaron Craft will show up on a college campus. He'll be mistaken for the team manager. Eventually, the games will begin and the ultra-intense, undersized white guard will be wound up and let loose. Fans will go nuts. The media won't stop gushing about him. And fans of the other side will scream and swear, all the while asking themselves a nagging question: Who does this guy think he is?