Standing in a corner of Welsh-Ryan Arena on Tuesday afternoon, Drew Crawford is stoic. Just like any other day, the media want to talk to Northwestern’s star, and he naturally complies. He is business-like, even mechanical – well aware that his senior night is now just two days away, but insistent on focusing on the game that will follow the ceremony – his ceremony.
But what Crawford may not realize is that this is the beginning of the end. It’s one of the first of many "lasts." Tuesday marked the last time Crawford would stand in that corner, answering question after question, before a home game at Northwestern.
"I’m trying not to be too nostalgic about it at this point," he said Tuesday. "Right now, all the focus is on winning the game."
But then Crawford admits to the inevitable, the unavoidable: the irresistible emotion.
"Once the game gets here, when I’m walking out, knowing it’s the last time I’ll play on this court, I’ll definitely feel something then."
And in that fleeting moment, a career will symbolically be encapsulated. Memories will resurface. A legacy will be left, and a love will be confirmed.
"Northwestern has given me so many great memories," Crawford says. "I really appreciate all the people at this school and everything they’ve done for me, and I’ve just tried to reciprocate it by working hard."
And that perhaps exemplifies the manner in which Crawford makes his heroic exit. Northwestern has left a lasting impression on Crawford, and he has done the same for his university. He therefore will not exit stage right, nor will he exit stage left; rather, he will exit, but forever remain stage center.
"It’s sad that he’s leaving," coach Chris Collins said Tuesday. "But when you go somewhere and you have the ability to leave your mark, then you’ve done a lot of good things. And that’s what he’s done for this basketball program.
"His character [defines him]. He’s very classy. He’s a loyal guy. He loves his teammates, they love him. He’s respected by anyone who’s around him. And he’s earned that respect by the way that he carries himself and the way he’s performed.
"He’s an outstanding player, outstanding athlete, and going forward, as we build this program, we want to have young men like Drew Crawford. Leadership qualities, excellence in the classroom, [etc.]… he checks off every box. He’s a model of everything I’d like this program to be about."
But as his career comes to an end, it’s startling to realize that it realistically could have been significantly different. After sitting out much of last year – what would’ve been his senior season – due to injury, Crawford became eligible under the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule to swap Northwestern for another school of his choosing and play right away, without having to take a year off.
In fact, over 40 percent of college basketball players transfer at some point in their career. So given the situation, given his talent and his choice of schools, it almost seemed probable that he’d leave. And he gave that option serious consideration.
"It wasn’t easy [for him]," Collins admits. "It’s never easy going through that kind of transition. And he’s coming off an injury, and all of a sudden it’s a rookie coach who has never been a head coach before; so for him to believe in me the way he has, to lock arms with me in this first year, I will always have his back for that."
Collins though also recognizes that the decision wasn’t primarily about him or his coaching abilities. Instead, for Crawford, it was about this program, and this institution.
"First and foremost, he loves this school," Collins says. "He’s so revered around this place. He’s been a great student – he’s an Academic All-American – so for him, it has been the combination of both playing basketball at a high level, but also excelling in the classroom. He loves this school. He loves the people."
And in the end, Crawford couldn’t leave this campus. He couldn’t leave home. The thought now is outlandish, even preposterous.
Despite the team’s struggles on the court, Crawford says, "I don’t question that decision for a single second. This is the place where I belong; with this unbelievable coaching staff, with my great teammates, with the university. Northwestern is where I belong."
And furthermore, it’s a place to which he’s become attached.
Having done nearly all he can for Collins and the program, Crawford’s direct influence on Northwestern will soon cease; but his emotional connection never will. And if/when future success comes, Crawford will have played his part – and he knows it.
"[Being able to say that this was the start of something special] would mean the world to me," Crawford says, his mind drawn to that possibility. "I really hope that this is the start of something great here, and I’m confident that it will be. Coach Collins is an unbelievable leader, an unbelievable coach, and I think the program is going to continue to get better."
And with that in mind, as Crawford takes the Welsh-Ryan court one last time Thursday, there will be no thoughts of regret. There will be no dwelling on shortcomings, no ruing a lack of success.
Drew Crawford’s career is coming to a rather peaceful conclusion. And while he may not have accomplished all that he hoped to – namely taking Northwestern to its first NCAA tournament – he’s gotten more out of his college years than 99.9 percent of college basketball players around the country.
And he’s helped lay a foundation; a foundation for a future that he will unfortunately not be able to experience first hand; but a future of which he’ll always be a part.