Walking into Levitt Arena in the off-season is a different experience from attending major sporting events there. First of all, parking isn't a problem. The roundhouse, a place usually full of noise generated by thousands of boisterous fans, seems oddly silent. Then the sound of a basketball hitting the floor echoes around the empty space; a few bounces, then the swish of the ball passing through the net.
Walking by one of the passageways that lead to the court, sophomore Craig Steven Jr. could hear some of his fellow Shockers practicing together. "That's good to hear," he says.
Settling into the team's study room to talk, Steven sports a disarming smile, and his enthusiasm for the team is contagious. In only a year he's come a long way with the Shockers, from walking on as a freshman to traveling and playing in Europe this summer. Now in his second season he is looking forward to the future. It's time for everyone, he says, to get as excited about WSU basketball as he and his teammates are.
From Gridiron to Hardwood
Steven grew up in Wichita and attended Bishop Carroll High School, where he was a stand-out football player. He was named Kansas Football Player of the Year in 1997, was selected twice as a quarterback to the All-City and All-State football teams, and was the unanimous choice for the Wichita Sports Commission Barry Sanders High School Male Athlete of the Year Award.
When the football season ended, he moved to the basketball court, where his talents were also noticed. He played as a point guard on the All-City team. In the spring he played tennis. But his first love was football.
As happens so often, gifts on the field were not enough to guarantee the football scholarship he wanted. He received attractive offers from a number of universities and junior colleges, and finally settled on New Mexico University at Albuquerque, where he would play for coach Dennis Franchione. Unfortunately, Franchione moved unexpectedly and could no longer offer Steven a scholarship; by then the other schools had already signed agreements with other players.
Left without an offer, he found himself in an awkward position. He had always focused primarily on football — had played and excelled at basketball and tennis, but it was a football jersey that had always been the uniform in his future.
Despite his disappointment, he adjusted his attitude and looked for another avenue for success. He began to examine basketball programs and was offered a position as a walk-on at the University of Nebraska, among other schools. But at Nebraska he wouldn't set foot on the court during a game until his junior year, and that wasn't soon enough for his tastes.
It was in the midst of a pick-up game with his father, Craig Steven Sr., that Steven had his epiphany. "It hit me all of a sudden," he explains. "I just knew I would go to WSU."
Family & A Saxophone
Steven has always drawn strength and motivation from his family. "My parents have always been there for me," he says. "My father was always behind me, driving me to push harder, to help me stay focused when I might have given up."
Sports have just about always been center stage for Craig Jr. "Almost since he could walk, he's played three sports at a time," Craig Sr. relates. "He plays hard and practices hard. He's phenomenal under pressure — a born leader." His mom recalls at least one time when basketball, football and tennis had competition for his attention. During his fifth-grade year, he took up the saxophone. "He wanted to be good at it, that's his nature with everything," Linda says. "I remember he learned to play the theme from mash." His foray into the music arena was short-lived, however. The sax ended up in one of his sister's garage sales; his focus promptly returned to sports.
Team Travails & Better Times
"It's always hard coming in to a new program," says Steven, recalling his first year as a walk-on. His freshman season was colored by a university investigation into the operations of the men's basketball program. It was a difficult experience for everyone involved; but Steven remains assured about his chosen team's future. He even credits the experience with creating a tight bond among the younger players. He adds that the team's summer trip to Paris, Belgium and the Netherlands further pulled team members together and healed some of last season's scars, as they took in the sights between games and practices.
The games were tough. They played mostly against pro teams in European leagues, and didn't get any breaks from the referees — there was something of a home-continent advantage. They nevertheless managed to win a few games and, much more importantly, learned a lot about playing together and depending on one other in new situations.
It's the community of the team —built by living together, taking classes together, studying together — that Steven believes is going to make a difference this season. Even at the close of a long day, when he talks about basketball and the Shocker team, he finds renewed energy. He wants to be the sort of leader and example to younger students that some of the older student athletes were for him.
At the end of the interview, he turns back and heads off to the court to join a few of his teammates for a few more shots, a few more points' worth of one-on-one. Another hour, maybe more, but not too long; tomorrow starts early enough, and then he'll have another days' worth of hard work, to make sure this season meets his high expectations.