By Joe Henricksen
In the 14 years of the City/Suburban Hoops Report, there have been dozens and dozens of academic casualties in the world of Illinois prep basketball. We see them every year. The NCAA's emphasis on core classes has spawned a bevy of prep schools that, depending on which one you are talking about, have become eligibility factories for college prospects. We continue to see top-caliber players forced to go the junior college or prep school route in order to be eligible to play Division I basketball. Some never do make it.
There are those players out there, however, that go above and beyond both on the court and in the classroom. We often don't recognize or appreciate them enough. There are still those players out there that set the perfect example. And two of those are Naperville Central's Drew Crawford and Whitney Young's Ahmad Starks. Both of their stories from a student-athlete perspective are refreshing.
Starks is an absolutely refreshing story. Here is a top high school player that fans gravitate to and pull for because of his diminutive size and the way he plays the game. Then you get a little deeper into the person and realize he's the total package. Though a bit reserved outside his inner circle, Starks is articulate, distinguishes himself with leadership characteristics, carries a 3.4 grade-point average and speaks three languages - English, Spanish and French. He's entering his junior year, yet he's still only 15 years old as he was able to skip a grade. He has committed to a high-major school in Oregon State, yet maintains his priorities - right now he's taking ACT preparatory classes as he begins his junior year.
Job well done, Mr. and Mrs. Starks. Those two have made it a point to put education at the top. There are Master's degrees up and down the two family trees, with Don Starks a graduate of Illinois Institute of Technology and his wife, Alisa, a Northwestern graduate.
"It's about balance of life," says Don Starks of what he and his wife have preached to their son. "We have told him you have to be you, but you also have to be versatile. We have been educating him on academics and the importance of it since he was a 3-year-old."
Ahmad, who had straight A's throughout grammar school, has known that if his grade-point average ever fell below 3.0 he wouldn't be playing basketball. Those are his parents' orders. He hasn't slipped a bit, even when his peers don't view A's and B's to be as cool as AAU.
"It's an incredible luxury as a basketball coach to have a kid like Ahmad," says Young coach Tyrone Slaughter. "He's as selfless of a player as you will find. His objective is to win. And his basketball I.Q. is so incredibly high that it minimizes the whole height thing. He's a mentor for our younger players."
Starks, whose I.Q. shines on the floor with the ball in his hands, committed to Oregon State this past summer. The educational background of Oregon State coach Craig Robinson played a big part in the decision, along with the opportunity to play in the Pac-10.
"You just trust this guy," Starks says of Robinson. "And he [Robinson] has such a great academic background."
Just like it was for Starks, the academic foundation was there for Crawford. His parents instilled the "academics first" early on. But Crawford, whose father is veteran NBA referee Danny Crawford, says that since junior high, striving for academic excellence has been self-motivated. Refreshing? You bet it is. As a result he sports a 4.2 grade-point average (on a 4.0 scale) and scored a 31 on his ACT.
In the last decade and a half the Hoops Report hasn't come across many players like Crawford. He's wise beyond his years and carries himself with such poise. He respects the game, himself and others. He's remarkably articulate and mature for his age. When talking with him you forget you're talking to a teen. He just gets it.
"It's unfortunate and I feel for them," Crawford says of the many talented players that struggle academically. "You can see the talent and the bright future they can have, but they aren't able to maximize that opportunity. I think there are some that love the game so much they definitely devote too much time to basketball."
Crawford has found the perfect mix of basketball, academics and outside interests. Despite being completely under the radar, Crawford enjoyed a terrific junior year for Naperville Central. Crawford was featured in the January issue of the Hoops Report, noting the four buzzer-beaters the smooth 6-5 guard hit in a two-month span. He then came into his own over the course of the summer playing for Larry Butler's Illinois Warriors, which opened the eyes of college coaches.
With Crawford's priority in academics and a clear vision of his future off the court, it's no wonder Northwestern is at the top of his list. He's still sorting things out but admits the Wildcats are a slight favorite. Wake Forest is right there as well, with Loyola and Oklahoma State among his top four. He hopes to set up a visit to Wake Forest in the coming weeks.
For all those players that have not taken care of business in the classroom and with all the negativity that comes with it, it's hard not to outwardly pull for class acts like Starks and Crawford.