COLUMBUS (WCMH) — For the last six years, Aaron Craft lived his childhood dream of being a professional basketball player.
“Basketball has been a part of my life since I was a little kid,” Craft said. “It’s pretty much all I’ve done for the last 10-plus years.”
Now, priorities have shifted as Craft is starting to create a family with his wife, Amber, and 16-month-old son, Owen. Playing overseas had always been an adventure, but being far from family was always hard, which became even more apparent this year with the Craft family being thousands of miles away in Italy when COVID-19 hit.
So, Craft made the tough decision to retire from professional basketball.
“It felt like it was time to start going down a road with a little more stability. Being closer to family and friends that we can be around that won’t miss as much,” Craft said. “Being back in the United States, in Ohio specifically, just gave us a sense of calm and a sense of peace, even if we couldn’t really see anyone. We are excited about the opportunity to just be around for a Thanksgiving, or a Christmas, which we honestly haven’t been then last five or six years.”
Craft did have one more basketball event on his calendar: The Basketball Tournament, an event he and a few fellow former Buckeyes known as “Carmen’s Crew” won last year. Craft decided TBT would be the stage for his final basketball games.
Then, fate stepped in and the tournament moved to Columbus.
“It doesn’t seem like a coincidence. It’s an amazing thing for me to be able to do this,” he said with a smile. “It’s great to know that we’ll be right down the road, even though there won’t be fans just having that familiarity will be very nice. I’m glad the TBT was able to organize it well enough and get Governor DeWine’s approval for something like this. It wasn’t easy I’m sure.”
Linda Logan, Executive Director of the Columbus Sports Commission, can attest that the planning has been challenging, but Columbus has set itself apart and impressed many with how it has handled the coronavirus crisis.
“The fact that Ohio was really one of the first states to take this seriously and I think that does pay off in the long run for all of us,” Logan said. “Three months ago, we were the first state to really put strict guidelines on sport events and at the time we had to scramble and understand what that meant, but in the big picture of things now with hindsight that helped us and I think being the first to close down big sporting events and reopen in many ways does show that there’s progress being made.”
Ohio reopening safely was a big part of that progress, which fit with the extensive health and safety plan TBT put together. Testing is the backbone of the plan. Players must be tested before arrival, they’ll be tested on site and then tested again once inside the quarantined facilities.
If a player tests positive at any time, his entire team will be removed from the competition.
While TBT came up with the health and safety plan, Logan worked to make sure all the logistics were in order.
“Finding that great facility to host all the games, but what does that partner look like in the hotel and lodging for the players to feel safe and also feel at home since they’re going to be there for a couple weeks too,” she said.
Usually, her team is working to create marketing for fans that promotes Columbus and all the activities the city holds. With no fans allowed, the usual plans wouldn’t work this time. So, Logan and her group found other ways to promote Columbus.
“You want those athletes who are here to really understand Columbus the way we do. So, we want them to feel at home, we want them to feel very welcomed while they’re here, and obviously the health and safety piece too,” she explained. “Think of them as ambassadors for Columbus for the future too. So, what can we do from a safe distance of course to make them feel happy while they’re here?”
With other sporting events happening in the next few months and some sports organizations looking for locations, TBT is Columbus’ chance to show what a successful event looks like during this time.
“I do think that we all learned a lot through the process here for TBT and so certainly some great examples that we can use for the NHL and also for the meetings and convention business,” Logan said. “Those are all things that we’re looking forward to and we certainly got to learn a lot through this process.”
Craft said he wishes his final games could be in front of fans, but he knows even if he can’t hear them yelling and cheering inside Nationwide Arena, the support is there.
“For it to come full circle, it could be one game, hopefully it’s four games, but the last game I get to play will be surrounded by brothers that I love, that I consider family, and it’ll be in a city that I’ve called home for over a decade,” he said. “I’m really excited about it.”
He’s also excited about the next phase in his life when he begins medical school at Ohio State in August.
“Trying to find a balance will be tough, especially when people start leaving to go overseas, and prepare for the next season and I’m still here will be interesting.,” Craft said. “I’m excited about the challenge and we’re going to attack it just like anything else. I’m excited about the opportunity to go back to campus, be back, be a Buckeye again, and see what it’s like to get back in the classroom.”