Nobody is having more fun than Crystal Bradford
The Atlanta Dream guard spent six years out of the WNBA but has become one of the league's most unorthodox players and most liked teammates
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Everybody loves Crystal Bradford
There is something undeniably authentic about Crystal Bradford. Watching her play basketball is like binge-watching the next big show — we’re always grasping for more. But we almost didn’t get it.
In 2015, the Los Angeles Sparks selected Bradford with the seventh pick in the WNBA Draft. She had the potential to etch her name into history: she was the first Central Michigan player drafted. She was one of the rare mid-major talents to skyrocket to the WNBA. And she had an enticing personality that was ripe for storylines and brand deals.
But shortly after she arrived in the city of angels, the training staff gave Bradford some untimely news. She had an undiagnosed PCL injury. She played sparingly during her rookie year, and at the end of the season, the Sparks cut her in favor of signing proven WNBA veterans. That was nearly the last we heard from her — she played in Brazil, Finland and Israel for six years before arriving at the Dream’s training camp in April.
But she’s right here, right now. And everybody loves her.
Right here, right now
Everybody on the Atlanta Dream has a Crystal Bradford story. The first came from free-agent signee Cheyenne Parker, who couldn’t control herself when imitating Bradford’s training camp jokes. Next came Courtney Williams, who applauded her humor and energy on the court. Eventually, everybody wanted to talk about Bradford.
According to interim coach Mike Petersen, “no one on in America” expected her to make the final roster at the start of training camp. But Nicki Collen — Atlanta’s former head coach who planned to cut Bradford — left for Baylor University with just eight days left before the season. The door for Bradford was suddenly left ajar. It never closed.
Bradford’s team never lost in training camp, and her unique style of basketball never overstayed its welcome. On May 13, Bradford called her mom and let her know that she made the roster.
“Speaking to coach Mike afterward, it felt exactly like I just got off a rollercoaster,” Bradford recounted. “My lips were dry, I just got this [mimics heavy breathing] feeling.” Several games into the season, Petersen called Bradford her hero.
Six years overseas
The overseas game is a mental and emotional mountain that nearly every professional women’s basketball player has to climb. Abroad, there are more spots and more opportunities to get paid than exists in the WNBA, and it offers a stable salary for the world’s best athletes. But it’s also a grueling experience.
Growing up in Inkster, Michigan, Bradford said she had a desire for superstardom. That opportunity doesn’t present itself in the same way overseas.
For almost two-thirds of the year, the women are isolated in a different country, away from their families, friends and American culture. That was an especially difficult transition for Bradford, who said she relies heavily upon her character and what she calls her “no” men.
“You need to have your yes men or your no men, and the people that are usually in my life are the no men,” she said. “When I don't have those people around me, sometimes when I was younger I would make emotional decisions that … I wouldn't say they caused problems, but, you know, they kinda caused problems, just to be transparent.”
That sort of insight is the quintessential Bradford experience — every quote of hers is reflective of a seasoned veteran. She called herself an “experience-based learner,” and at 27 years old, overseas basketball has given her a wealth of experience.
The culture overseas presents drastic differences from American hoops. Overseas, Bradford often plays with just a handful of Americans on the roster. Some teams require players to have a roommate, even into their late 20s. There often a language barrier there. If she needs someone to talk to, online therapists are her best bet. And even then, there are the issues that players bring up even less to the media.
“I know for females, just to be honest, something else we don't talk about enough: our time of the month, you know, that's a very emotional time it's a very hormonal time for females,” she said. “And I think women in sports or just people that are covering it don't talk enough about our times of the month, our menstruals, and that causes emotional decisions as well on top of all the build-ups.”
Bradford said her mental health declines when she can’t show emotion and be her authentic self. She describes herself as a character, which is the antithesis of the model athlete abroad, where the prototype athlete is like a basketball machine. All business.
That didn’t mean she couldn’t be great. Last June, she was named All-Israeli League Player of the Year, Forward of the Year and Import Player of the Year. As we’ve come to learn this year, she is one of the 144 best basketball players on the planet.
But with just 144 spots, the WNBA doesn’t have a lot of time to wait on players to develop. For as hard as it is to play overseas, it isn’t any easier for most players to give up on a lifelong dream. Did Bradford ever think about throwing the game away?
“100 percent,” she said. “Because I'm multi-talented. I know every basketball player asks themselves, 'What would I be doing if I didn't play basketball?' So I was starting to think like, ‘Hey, I can get in touch with music. I could do stand-up comedy. I could do hosting.’ It was really coming to that for me before I got this opportunity.
The WNBA is different. It’s made for her.
“Playing basketball in America, I'm just a fish in the water,” Bradford said. “I can make emotional moves, and it's just fine, there's no malice behind it. It’s replenished my career.”
The joy she brings to the Atlanta Dream
Maybe it is about time we talked about the Bradford we see on the basketball court. That’s why she’s here, after all.
This season, Bradford is averaging 7.4 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1.2 steals while playing just 13 minutes per game for the Dream and depending on how voters view a 2,000-day absence from the league, she’ll be in the Most Improved Player conversation. She also has the highest +/- of any Dream player not named Chennedy Carter, and ranks 10th in PER despite the fact that eight of the nine players above her have been All-Stars.
Bradford is a positionless wonder. She can fit into any lineup, handle the ball, run the floor, shoot the 3-pointer, defend four positions, and play entirely unpredictable. That is, except for that spin move. When Bradford was asked about the spin, she laughed for about a minute straight before gathering an answer.
“That’s funny man, I have no clue why I spin,” Bradford said. “If I think about it, I never use my right hand and when I spin left to right, I can still keep the ball in my left hand. I guess that's why, but I don't know. [Laughs again] And then the half-spin, of course, is so I don't have to go right.”
From the jump, Bradford’s game has been unorthodox. One WNBA talent evaluator told The Next that “She awkwardly gets shit done.” When asked to describe why, she said that she “honestly did not know.”
The joy she has on the court is infectious as well. She isn’t afraid to celebrate. By my count, she’s shushed the crowd twice this season (must be something about Atlanta basketball). Bradford said it herself — she is an entertainer. Everyone loves her humor.
To be clear, Bradford’s game is not perfect. She has the worst free-throw percentage in the WNBA. The ball can tend to stick in her hands for stretches of the game when teammates are open. But she’s proven that she deserves a long career in this league.
She’ll keep spinning. And her teammates will continue to love her for it.
“The WNBA tells you, ‘no matter what playing field you're in, be yourself,’ ” Bradford said. “The WNBA accepts me. Anywhere else, it’s their loss.”