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COLUMBUS — When Aaron Craft passed to LaQuinton Ross for a layup on Ohio State’s first possession of the second half against North Dakota State on Dec. 14, it gave Craft more assists than anyone else who has played men’s basketball for the Buckeyes.
When he leaves the university after this season, though, those assists won’t define his career, just as his record number of steals, and the floor burns and bruises he acquired along the way, will not — not to him, anyway.
“He made the comment to me before the season started that he realized that athletics was not the most-important thing he was ever going to do in his life,” said Craft’s father, John.
More important to Craft are the assists he has been able to make off the court by taking advantage of the opportunity provided to him as an Ohio State athlete.
“That’s one of the better positives about this whole thing,” he said. “You get busy, and you can’t do everything you really want to do. But I can go talk to a group of kids, and they’re going to listen just because I play basketball.
“It’s nothing I’ve really done. I’ve just played a small role in what Ohio State has done in my years here. I just try to make the most of it. It’s a platform that not everyone gets to have.”
Craft was the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year as a sophomore, an all-Big Ten first-teamer as a junior, and a preseason all-conference selection this year. He was nominated for the Wooden and Naismith awards, given to the nation’s best player.
But he also received the Preston V. McMurry Scholar Athlete Citizenship Award from Ohio State in October, and he has been nominated for two national awards presented to student-athletes for involvement in their communities.
Since his freshman year, when he shadowed senior Jon Diebler like a kid brother and became involved in Athletes in Action, a Christian ministry, Craft has shared his faith with churches and other community organizations, read books to schoolchildren, visited sick kids in hospitals, served meals to the homeless and gone on fundraising walks.
Last summer, he joined his fiancee on a weeklong mission trip to Haiti, where they spent time with children, planted trees and took on other tasks.
Craft said he was involved in community-service projects in high school, but “It got to a whole ‘nother level when I got to college. I really started understanding what being a Christian and kind of living that out (entails), and that’s kind of really what sparked my life, what gives me my purpose for doing things like that.”
Diebler’s older brother, Jake, who joined the Ohio State men’s basketball program this season as its video coordinator, has known Craft since Aaron was a preschooler running around his father’s middle-school practices in Fostoria.
Jake and Jon Diebler were coached by John Craft.
“He’s discovered what he’s passionate about, and he’s kind of decided to chase that,” Jake Diebler said. “Whether that’s basketball or his faith or his family, he carves out time in his very busy schedule to make those things a priority. It’s been neat to see the man he’s become and the leader he’s become.”
Craft shares an off-campus apartment with four others he met through Athletes in Action. ESPN.com dispatched a reporter to Columbus last month to interview the roommates and maybe unearth the vice or two that Craft undoubtedly must have. The worst they came up with: He eats ice cream every night.
Mention the “perfect child” to his parents, though, and Craft’s mom, Wendy, rolls her eyes and tells you about the caricature of their three children hanging on a wall of their home that perfectly captures Aaron’s “(conniving) grin.” Conniving was not her word.
Or about the time Aaron and his older brother, Brandon, were caught using black permanent-ink markers to color on the brand-new carpeting in the Fostoria coaches’ office.
Or the time, John Craft adds, when Aaron, with a BB gun, tried to shoot off a piece of bark hanging from a birch tree in their backyard, missed and took out a neighbor’s porch window instead. He let his older brother take the fall for it until, late that night, Aaron’s conscience could handle it no longer — and maybe because he knew his father had expended all his anger on Brandon and had none left for him.
The two-time Academic All-American is nothing if not analytical.
His swift solution of a Rubik’s cube that was shown on the Value City Arena video board a few years ago can still be found on YouTube. But he first did that in 10th grade, his father said. Then, wanting to do it faster, to maintain an edge on his classmates, he tore apart the cube on the kitchen table, greased the gears and put it back together so he could twirl the sections faster.
“When he started that, the term geek entered my mind,” John said.
There was the Ohio Graduation Test in 10th grade, when the teacher casually mentioned to the class that no one at Liberty-Benton High School had ever achieved a perfect score. “Aaron took that as a challenge and aced it,” John said.
There were nights when, having gotten home late from practice and then having to study, he laid out his clothes for the next day before going to bed so he could grab an extra 15 minutes of sleep the next morning.
He still weighs his sleep options. A roommate told ESPN.com that, after returning to Ohio State in the wee hours from a road game, Aaron will gauge whether he can get more sleep by spending the night in the locker room rather than driving home and sleeping there.
“He has taken everything he’s been born with and blessed with and taken it to higher standards,” John said. “He’s never been satisfied with just what’s been expected.”