Bobby Croft was the first Canadian basketball player to be offered a scholarship to a Division 1 school in the United States. He became captain of the University of Tennessee Volunteers in his fourth year and was touted as one of the top professional prospects in the game.
In 1970, he was selected in the eighth round of the NBA draft by the Boston Celtics, opting instead to play in the upstart NBA rival American Basketball Association. He wound up playing a single season of pro hoops, later regretting the decision to not sign with the Celtics.
The 6-foot-10, 200-pound centre first won notice for his play at Hill Park High in Hamilton, Ont.. Stuart Aberdeen, the former coach of the Axemen at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., took a coaching post at Tennessee and was instrumental in getting Croft a scholarship offer.
The centre became a starter for the varsity squad in his sophomore year.
“I had excellent coaching at Hill Park but when I got to Tennessee they made me change everything,” he told the Hamilton Spectator in 1995. “I hadn’t had specific coaching about my position. It was frustrating being yelled at every day. But I wanted to make it really bad so I could show that Canadians were a good basketball commodity.”
He was rebounding leader his final two seasons with the Vols and named to the All-Conference first team by the coaches in 1970. (He was named to the Southeastern second team by the wire services AP and UPI.) The pressures of being named captain and playing in a basketball hotbed led to the development of stomach ulcers.
“He’s a good shooter,” Haywood Harris, the sports information director for the Vols told the Montreal Gazette in 1970. “His outside shooting is great and he’s real good on the boards. He can be tough and he’s a good jumper.”
He was selected by Celtics at No. 123 overall. His ABA rights were claimed by Dallas Chaparrals. At age 22, with two young children, Croft and his wife did not want to live in Dallas. He and another centre, Dan Issel of the University of Kentucky, an all-American known as Mr. Kentucky, were traded to Kentucky Colonels. He rejected Red Auerbach and the Celtics in favour of signing with the Colonels, the deciding factor the greater money ($30,000 plus a chance at a $10,000 bonus) on offer by the Colonels.
“It was the biggest mistake of my life,” Croft said later. “Auerbach was known for bringing people along slowly. I would have learned a lot. With the Colonels I was thrown right into it.”
Croft quickly became a benchwarmer in Louisville behind Issel, who went on to lead the ABA in scoring in 1970-71 with an average of 29.9 points per game. Croft was traded midseason back to the Chaparrals, where he completed a miserable season.
He was cut before the start of the next season, had unsuccessful tryouts with other ABA and NBA teams, went on to play pro ball in Italy and Mexico. He was also a member of the Canadian national team, a spot he had first won as a Grade 11 student.
After retiring as a player, Croft eventually returned to Ontario, where he worked for Westinghouse and Dofasco for almost 30 years. He also operated a 40-hectare cattle far, near Cayuga, Ont. The farm was sold in 2010.