Crum follows dream, changes minds, inspires the country
Five summers ago, the head coach at Arizona Western junior college received a tape from a New Mexico high school.
"The tape was from the state championship in Albuquerque," Kelly Green recalled. "I don't know if you've been to 'The Pit,' but it's a big place. The film was taken from the very top of the arena, so the players looked like ants."
One of those ants was Dax Crum, a three-year starter at Kirtland Central High who averaged 15 points and 4.6 rebounds in his senior year. Even as Green squinted to watch, he wasn't impressed enough to grant a scholarship and sent Crum a polite invitation to try to make the Matador squad as a walk-on. So the coach was surprised when, soon thereafter, he found a letter of intent bearing Crum's name in the athletic office.
"Turns out the school had offered Dax a soccer scholarship," Green explained. "So I was talking to the soccer coach about him one day, and he said, 'You know, he's only got one hand.' And I said, 'C'mon, that's not true. I've seen him on tape.'"
Green found out soon enough what that wide-angle video couldn't show him. When Dax Crum was born, his right arm ended at the wrist, with a thumb-like stub where his hand would have been. Crum's disability presented numerous obstacles as he chased his dream of playing Division I basketball -- his story is one of sacrifice, dedication and choosing the path of greater resistance.
"I've never really thought of myself as different," Crum said. "I feel that I can do anything other basketball players can do, and there are things I think that I can do better than most."
First, however, Crum had to prove himself. He competed harder than the four other hopefuls at Arizona Western's open tryout, and his new coach told him there was a place for him in the program.
On the practice squad.
"Dax never outwardly said, 'You don't know what you're talking about, I'm better than that,'" Green said. "But you'd look in his eyes and you could tell that he didn't believe you."
"It's been hard for a lot of coaches to understand," said Crum, who can dribble three times on his right side. "It takes a while to realize, yeah, I can get the ball to the spot where [the coach] wants it. But I can't do it the way that most people do. But I can do it."
Crum did, though it took some time. Turning down Green's offer to redshirt his first season, he barely set foot on the floor during his freshman year. But the next season, when injuries hit the Matadors' starting rotation, he made the most of the opportunity. He became a crowd favorite in Yuma due to his relentless intensity and toughness.
"He was so good on the defensive end," Green said. "He would use that club arm of his, just reach in on people. Other coaches would ask me about his handicap, and I told them he doesn't have any handicap. If he'd had a hand, then lost a hand, then that would be a different issue. But he's been like this all his life, he doesn't know anything different."
During his sophomore year, Crum was a key seventh man for a team that won 31 games and was ranked No. 1 in national juco polls. But on the soccer field, a place where the use of hands is generally forbidden, he was an unquestioned superstar. A left-footed striker blessed with a devastating rocket foot, Crum was a dangerous and potent scorer. At 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds, he was bigger yet more agile than many defenders who tried to stop him.
As Crum's short juco career wound down, he was pursued by Division I colleges -- not for what he did on the basketball court, however. Dayton and UC Irvine came calling, offering full soccer scholarships.
But that's not what he wanted to do.
In 2005, Crum transferred to Southern Utah University in Cedar City, a Division I school with no men's soccer team. He intended to finish a business degree -- and to play hoops.
"It's hard turning down free money," Crum said of his decision. "It's hard to make the choice of the road less traveled. And I like being a striker, I do have a scorer's mentality. But in basketball, you can have a bigger effect on the game more often than in soccer, and I really like that. I just think I was supposed to be a basketball player. It's my destiny, I guess."
At first, SUU didn't see it the same way. Crum had to start at the bottom of the ladder again, convincing skeptical coaches to let him try out before hanging on the edge of the roster during his junior year. Despite a horrendous 10-20 season for the Thunderbirds, the 6-2 guard with one hand barely saw action. He ended up with just 49 minutes in 11 appearances, averaging a single point per game.
And the adversity kept coming.
After suffering a separated shoulder early in his senior year, he accepted a redshirt for the 2006-07 season. He worked on his bachelor's degree, played on a club soccer team (that was appreciative to have him around) and spent hours in the gym working on his game. But when a new SUU coaching staff was installed in the summer of 2007, after yet another early exit from the league playoffs, new coach Roger Reid offered Crum a familiar message: Don't expect to play much.
Crum felt beaten. "It was so frustrating," he said. "I didn't know if I wanted to do this anymore."
But staying in Cedar City also allowed Crum to continue a romance with the captain of the SUU women's soccer team, who pushed him to keep following his dream.
"I knew as an athlete that you have to put everything into it," said his wife, Ashley, with whom he tied the knot last year. "You can't look back and regret anything. I thought about the regrets I had at the end of my playing career, and I didn't want him to have those. I wanted him to put all his heart and effort into it so that in the end, he could say he did everything he could, no matter the result."
Married life meant more responsibility. Crum took three jobs, working as a custodian, fitness center desk clerk and paid intern at a financial center. And with Ashley's support, he attacked the 2007-08 basketball season with a passion and a vengeance, turning the heads of his new coaches.
"You never had to tell Dax to pick it up," said Thunderbirds assistant Johnny Brown. "When we held races, he would usually bust out in front. Nobody worked harder than Dax."
The coaching staff awarded Crum a scholarship in January when one became available, and others around the league starting taking notice, too.
"When we first played Southern Utah, our scouting report never brought that up," said IUPUI coach Ron Hunter, whose team Crum tallied two points and three assists against on Jan. 5. "During the game, I had no idea. It wasn't until the handshake line at the end of the game when I realized that he only had one hand. Right afterward, I talked to my team about him. I told my players, we may have won this game, but that young man is the biggest winner on the court. If he can overcome that, we can overcome all the little things in our day-to-day lives."
By February, Crum earned a spot in the starting lineup -- and his team won five of the six regular-season games he started. Against North Dakota State on Feb. 16, he registered the best performance of his college career. In 30 minutes, he scored 11 points, grabbed three rebounds and made all four of his foul shots in a 72-67 Thunderbird win.
"He's a real inspiration," said NDSU coach Saul Phillips. "But it's certainly no fun when he's competing against you, he's a good basketball player. Forget any ailments he might have, he can just play. He drew our top perimeter defender in that game, he beat the best we threw at him."
The incredible tale of the one-handed basketball player garnered national attention. The story was written by newspaper columnists, splashed across Web sites, passed around via e-mail, even covered by ESPN's "College GameDay."
"After 'GameDay,' we were flooded with calls from parents with kids in similar situations," said Southern Utah athletic director Ken Beazer. "They were commenting on what an impact it had on their son or daughter. When we played at Western Illinois, there was a family that drove six hours, each way, with their son to meet Dax and get his picture taken with him; he had the same deformity as Dax. It's such an amazing, feel-good story, and it's remarkable is that Dax has stayed so humble in the face of all of it."
And in recent months, the humble one-handed hero has often been approached and asked for advice in dealing with disability.
"The usual thing I tell people is that it takes a lot of work," Crum said. "But I tell them it's all worth it. There are so many obstacles in overcoming a disability other than the disability itself. It's hard to overcome people's thoughts and perceptions how basketball should be played, or how life should be lived. But if and when you do, it's worth it."
Crum's college basketball career came to a regret-free close March 8, when Southern Utah was abruptly eliminated in the Summit League playoffs by IUPU-Fort Wayne.
"You always wish you had more time, another year," Crum said. "I loved this year, because I finally got to play. I wish we could have gone further in the tournament. You're always sad to move on, but I think I did pretty good with the time I had."
Soon afterward, Crum completed his Master's in Business Administration from the school and took a full-time job as a banker at Wells Fargo in Cedar City. He enjoys the work, and the MBA makes him good at it, but his mind occasionally drifts back to basketball.
Or rather, more than occasionally.
"I like the company and I have a lot of good friends who work here," Crum said. "But it's been a big adjustment, a big lifestyle change. I've come home a few times, and my butt's been so sore from sitting all day."
But the baller-turned-banker is staying connected to the game. In late July, he'll travel to Italy to help lead a youth skills camp. Just the mention of teaching kids makes his voice crack with emotion.
"I know I'd make a good coach; I'm pretty basketball savvy," he said. "With everything I've been through, I think I can inspire kids to work beyond their talent. I think that's one of the problems with American basketball: Kids nowadays rely on their talent and forget that it takes work. And if they don't have talent right away, they can use effort."
Crum's first college coach, at least, thinks he'd make an excellent addition to the fraternity.
"In film sessions, I'd constantly hear Dax chirping from the back of the room," Green said. "He was always critiquing everything. He'd be the first to mention it if someone should have been doing something, or if someone was doing something wrong. 'Why didn't you block out?' 'You should have got over that screen!' Things like that. But the thing was, he was always right."
And it turns out that despite every naysayer, converted or otherwise, Crum was always right about a few other things -- never yielding in the face of physical and societal challenges, and never giving up on his hoop dreams.
"Dax was driven by a much higher purpose than himself in all that he's done," Ashley said. "Deep down, Dax knew that basketball was never the easiest choice or the easiest route. Dax loves basketball, and he did that part of it for himself, but all the sacrifices he made were to help others. This year proved that he was able to accomplish that goal, he's been able to touch the lives of so many children and adults around the country."
Kyle Whelliston is the national mid-major reporter for Basketball Times and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
MORE COLLEGE SPORTS HEADLINES
- Penn State crowned volleyball champ again
- CSU-Pueblo drops Minnesota St. for D-II title
- Georgia swim coach reinstated for next meet
- AD Luck exits WVU for new job as NCAA VP