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Crawford’s new dream to help grow game worldwide

Dreams of playing in the NBA may be common for Kentucky Wildcats, but those dreams don’t always come true. Sometimes, life finds a different path. New dreams arise.

For Joe Crawford, a Wildcat star from 2004 to 2008, his dreams have shifted from a starlit life in the NBA to a journey across the world, playing in China and Israel, and now promoting basketball worldwide.

After coming to Kentucky in 2004, Crawford quickly evolved from a highly touted recruit of former head coach Tubby Smith to a college star. Despite a few hiccups, including a coaching change between his junior and senior seasons, Crawford carried a significant load in his final two years to keep Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament streak alive.

All along, he had dreams of taking his game to the next level.

“My goal was always to be in the NBA,” Crawford said, “and anything short of that I felt was a failure.”

Crawford’s stats with the Cats wouldn’t hold that dream back. In his time at UK, Crawford averaged 11.3 points, 3.3 rebounds and finished with a total of 1,438 points, which stands 20th all time on Kentucky’s career scoring list. In his final season in Lexington, the 6-foot-5 guard averaged 17.9 points, hit 46.8 percent of his shots and drilled 63 3-pointers.

After his successful years with the Cats, Crawford was drafted 58th overall by the Los Angeles Lakers, but their relationship wouldn’t last long. Unable to make the team and without a guaranteed contract as a second-round pick, the Lakers set Crawford free.

Crawford spent the summer playing in the NBA Summer League and went on to sign with the Knicks, but his stay in New York would face similar results – he was gone before a year had passed.

Instead of letting his dreams die, he rewrote them.

“After my time in college and the NBA I was forced to go overseas,” Crawford said.

Joe Crawford averaged 17.9 points in his senior season at UK before getting selected by the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round of the 2008 NBA Draft. (photo courtesy of UK Athletics)

And away he went.

Crawford’s first stop was in China, where he joined former UK teammate Randolph Morris playing for the Beijing Ducks.

The experience of travelling and playing in a totally foreign country was an experience Crawford said he hadn’t expected, and one that helped shape who he is.

“It kind of opened my mind,” Crawford said.  “I tapped into different cultures, different currencies and the way they do things.”

In addition to the new culture and surroundings, Crawford said he made friendships and connections with the international players, some of whom he still maintains today.

“I definitely keep in contact with the ones I gained friendships with,” Crawford said. “This is something that I want to encourage more of in the international community.”

Crawford’s stay with the Ducks didn’t last long, only playing 16 games with an average of 14.2 points and 2.5 rebounds a game during his stay.

Turning his sights across the world, Crawford moved to play hoops somewhere he said he never expected: Israel.

The transition was easier than he thought. Crawford signed with Maccabi Rishon LeZion in the Israeli Premier League, a league his previous Wildcat peer Ramel Bradley played in.

Crawford said he had kept up with Bradley since his years in Kentucky and he was happy to get to play against him. The two shouldered the load during their junior and senior seasons when the depth of talent at Kentucky was thinner than the program was accustomed to.

“We’re still really close,” Crawford said. “I still keep in touch with him regularly.”

Even though the league held a familiar face, it was still foreign to the Detroit native.

“It’s a different kind of league there,” Crawford said. “The fans, the way they experience the game, it’s totally different. It can get pretty crazy.”

Crawford flourished in the league, however. During the 2011-2012 season in Israel Crawford led Maccabi Rishon with 19.3 points per game. In addition, he averaged 3.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists.

Coming out of the season, new prospects arose for Crawford, but a knee injury would keep him seated for a few months.

In that time, Crawford found a new goal and a new dream: a project to raise awareness of the international basketball community that he had grown to love. Crawford said that his time and experiences had inspired him and his family to teach kids about the opportunities that lie outside of the U.S.

“Me and my mother kind of had a bunch of conversations and experiences going abroad,” Crawford said.  “I wanted to share this and help prepare others for careers overseas.”

Crawford, with the help of his brother Jordan Crawford, who plays for the Boston Celtics, put together the International Hoops Expo. The event will span four days and include both NBA and international players teaching young and old alike about the international basketball community.

“I want to help people prepare, learn about where they’re going and to raise awareness of international sports in general,” Crawford said.

Crawford said that the event will include camps for college and high school players to help them prepare to appeal to an international market, as well as information on and an exhibition of international players and experiences.

The event will be held in Crawford’s hometown of Detroit from June 20-23. This will be the event’s inaugural year, and Crawford hopes it will get enough attention from the basketball community to return in 2014.

To give a true international experience, Crawford said he has reached out to all corners of the hoops world to try and bring players in to share their international experiences, ranging from Bulgaria and Israel to China and Italy.

Crawford hopes that the expo will grow in the coming years and raise more attention to the international basketball community and help young players follow dreams outside of just the NBA.

Even with all his travels and his new focus on international ball, Crawford said that he still “bleeds blue” deep down. After his time with the Wildcats, Crawford couldn’t get the Big Blue Nation out of his veins.

“My time with the Cats was probably one of the best times in my life,” Crawford said.

His interest hasn’t shifted, either. Crawford said he still keeps up with the Cats he’s excited for the future of the program with the recruiting class John Calipari has coming in for next season.

“I love what Calipari has done for the kids and the program,” Crawford said. “It’s really great.”

Crawford, whose teams never made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament after his freshman year, said that he could connect with the effort and heartbreak of the 2012-13 season, but he thought that if anyone could turn it around for the upcoming year, it is Coach Cal and the Cats.

The journey hasn’t been exactly what Crawford had planned earlier in his life, but his love remains with basketball. While he still has dreams of making it back to the NBA, his new dream is sharing the sport he loves with the world.