Drew Crawford was where he loves to be: in a basketball arena. He was in the company of those whom he loves to be around: the tight-knit group of teammates and coaches that have essentially become his second family. He was seated, not exactly in luxury, but nonetheless, in Vegas. Vegas.
Crawford, however, was anything but pleased with his current situation. He was anything but relaxed. The senior’s face conveyed pain, frustration, disappointment. He leant his body weight forward, confined to the bench with back spasms that motivated team trainers to hold him out of that night’s game against UCLA – though there’s hardly any doubt that trainers’ advice notwithstanding, Crawford would have been out on the court battling alongside his brothers.
As the Bruins stormed to a 14-1 lead, the discomfort embodied by Crawford’s facial expression only worsened. It began to tell a story, the extended version of which Crawford had experienced the previous year. A story of helplessness.
Last season, as a senior, Crawford led a Northwestern team that carried lofty expectations. A first NCAA tournament appearance for the school was, it seemed, well within reach. In December though, Crawford and the Wildcats were dealt a huge blow – the 6-foot-5 guard/forward learned that a shoulder injury would require surgery, and that he would be forced to sit out the remainder of the season… his senior season.
This fall, Crawford was back for another go; a second chance to end his career at Northwestern how he had imagined doing so. But on the flight to Las Vegas, ahead of arguably Northwestern’s two most important games of the non-conference slate, an injury cropped up again. A past that he thought he had left behind was revisited. Crawford, once again, was helpless.
“It’s one of the toughest things. It’s something I struggled with last year, sitting on the bench and having to watch my teammates,” Crawford said Tuesday.
“It’s especially tough in the games where we’re struggling. This past week, it was definitely difficult because I felt like I could’ve been out there helping my team if I was healthy, so it’s always a difficult situation to have to sit on the bench and watch that.”
Crawford’s sense that Northwestern gravely missed him in both games is nearly indisputable. Coach Chris Collins even confirmed exactly that, saying of his leaving the Missouri game, “that lets the air out of the building a little bit. He [Crawford] is our leader. He’s kind of the big brother on the team. I think the guys saw him go down and it knocked them back a little bit. You’re always more confident when your big brother is at your side.”
Luckily for the Wildcats, though, that big brother will be back by their side on Wednesday night. In reality, he never left – Crawford said he does anything and everything he can to aid his team on the bench or during timeouts – but he himself recognizes that it’s not the same. Northwestern needs Crawford on the court, and the senior leader is well aware of that fact.
But above all, if one thing is clear, it’s that Drew Crawford loves the game of basketball. He loves being on the court, competing, playing the sport to which he’s dedicated countless hours of his life. And his time on the sidelines has perhaps intensified that love. It may be somewhat of a cliché, but in certain cases, you don’t know what you have until it’s deserted you for a period of time, and Crawford’s situation may just be one of those cases. Just as he loves playing, he hates not being able to do so, and this hate may have intensified his love.
On that Friday night in Vegas, Crawford’s expression on the bench told you that he wasn’t himself. On Tuesday, he had reverted back to normal. He was upbeat, buoyed by his impending return to action. And if nothing else, that’s just what Crawford yearns for – to be in action.
On Tuesday, he said, “I want to be on the court and doing everything to help out my team, and to show them that I’m leading by example, and have that presence on the court.” On Wednesday, following two tough games without it, that presence will be there, and with it, Northwestern will have a legitimate chance to get their first momentous road win of this season, and of the Chris Collins era, at NC State.