Yet, watching him sob openly after the Wildcats final game, an NCAA Tournament loss to Marquette, was one of my more memorable sports moments of the year.
And I don’t think the contribution of Crawford to UK basketball lore should be missed. Along with Ramel Bradley, he made sure that UK’s worst season in years still wound up where all UK seasons seem to wind up — battling for an SEC Championship and playing in the NCAA Tournament.
The following is the piece I wrote about Crawford immediately after that tournament loss.
UK’s Crawford shoes his true color: Blue
March 21, 2008
They had come to get University of Kentucky senior Joe Crawford for the postgame news conference after yesterday’s 74-66 NCAA Tournament loss to Marquette, but Crawford wasn’t quite ready to leave the locker room.
“You need something?” someone asked him.
“They went to get me some Kleenex,” he said. “I need some Kleenex.”
For most of the past four years, Crawford has been stoic and a bit reclusive. He’s even quiet around his teammates.
That made it all the more remarkable that yesterday, after the most memorable performance of his college career a stirring 35-point effort that nearly single-handedly kept UK in the game until the final moments Crawford spoke with reporters with tears streaming down his face. He stopped between sentences to sniff and did nothing to hide his sobs of emotion.
Teammate Ramel Bradley said it was a day four years in the making.
“Joe’s not a guy who’s real emotional,” Bradley said. “It just goes to show you how much he loved this university. It’s over now, and he understands that, and he can’t hold it in anymore. It’s been too long.”
Crawford could not be contained yesterday, in any way.
For much of his time in Lexington, people questioned whether he really wanted to be there. When he went home to Michigan during the semester break of his freshman year. When his family’s home burned and his thoughts, understandably and justifiably, were elsewhere. When he seemed to clash with new coach Billy Gillispie.
Yesterday showed, perhaps more clearly than anything, that Crawford didn’t want to leave.
With Marquette surging in the second half, Crawford scored 16 of UK’s first 20 points. When Marquette led by eight with a minute to play, Crawford scored five straight points to make it a one-possession game. The last of those and the last basket of his UK career was on a three-pointer from the top of the key with a hand in his face. He couldn’t get another shot. He fouled out with three seconds to play, and Marquette guard Dominic James came over to console him.
Crawford hit 13 shots in the game. The rest of the team made 10.
Marquette coach Tom Crean said he knew the Golden Eagles would have to stop Bradley and Crawford.
“Everybody knew it (this season),” Gillispie echoed. “And nobody did anything they couldn’t do anything about it. … Those guys still got 54 points today. So that makes it even more amazing.”
Crean said of Crawford: “We’ll see him in Milwaukee, you know. I don’t know if he’ll be a Buck, but there’s 29 or 30 other teams he could play for. He’ll be a pro, and I believe Bradley will be as well. Those guys are just too talented and too tough.”
Gillispie was asked about that pair in his postgame news conference, and he went on for 700 words. That’s longer than this column.
Crawford’s outburst was UK’s biggest single-game effort in the tournament since Tayshaun Prince scored 41 against Tulsa in 2002. Only three Wildcats have ever scored more in a tournament game: Prince, Jack Givens and Dan Issel. Crawford finished his career 19th on UK’s all-time scoring list with 1,438 points, just ahead of Kyle Macy and just behind Johnny Cox.
I don’t know if, during some of those tough times, Crawford would rather have been somewhere else. I do know this: Given the company he has joined, the dedication he showed this season and the emotion he showed yesterday, he’s earned himself a permanent place in UK memory.