The number on the back of Tori Crawford's jersey has always been important to her, but this year its significance is magnified.
Ever since she was nine, Crawford has sported 24 on her jersey to honor Kobe Bryant, whose competitive attitude, focus on continual improvement, and approach towards the game have inspired her basketball career. But while Bryant was in the midst of a championship run with the Lakers when Crawford first donned his digits, he has since passed away in a tragic accident as Crawford enters her final year at Penn.
Now a senior in the College and a forward on Penn women's basketball, Crawford has become a force on the team with a fast-paced and aggressive style, logging 6.1 rebounds per game last season.
Over her four-year career with the Quakers, one game that stands out to Crawford was a close contest against Drexel just prior to winter break last year. The Red and Blue were down for a majority of the game and with about 10 seconds left on the clock, Crawford made two free throws to seal the win for the Quakers.
But her journey to become such a powerhouse on women’s basketball began early on, as Crawford played many different sports growing up. Aside from basketball, she spent many of her summers playing tennis. Later on, though, a very tall nine-year-old discovered that basketball just made sense.
"When I was younger, [my dad] kind of pushed me to play because I was extremely, extremely tall — head and shoulders above everybody — so I definitely had that advantage going on. And it was the sport that I was probably played the best out of everything else," Crawford said. "So I started playing in the second grade and then started playing competitively by fourth grade when I was about nine."
Crawford's earliest coach was her father, Victor, who grew up playing three different sports, ultimately playing football at Boston College. Crawford described how his deeply competitive spirit as an athlete helped her become the player she is today.
"[He told me] you should never be satisfied with where you are — you always want to strive to get better," Crawford said. "So that's something I've kept throughout my career, but that definitely started in my formative years just being with my dad, shooting with my dad, and him coaching me."
Coach Mike McLaughlin has been impressed with Crawford's impact on the team, both on and off the court.
"You know, Tori is hard-working, completely invested, and dedicated to Penn basketball," McLaughlin said. "She's so motivated to be the best you possibly can be."
Reflecting on her past four years of college basketball and her junior season, Crawford has owned the mindset that sports are a metaphor for life. Especially in facing the tough realities of recovering from injuries, Crawford has learned to draw from these past experiences to help her adjust and adapt to new challenges.
"I think that when you spend so much time doing something, there's bound to be ups and downs, and I've definitely had my share due to injury. But I think that basketball has prepared me so much for life and eventually being in the workplace," Crawford said.
Crawford has made a lasting impact on Penn women's basketball in terms of her game and her strength as a natural leader and a team player.
"I'm really keen on who she is as a person. I know we skip that a lot of times, but when she's out there every day, she leads by example. And she really, really has taken ownership in helping the younger kids develop," McLaughlin said. "And these are really important things not only for her career, but for the health of the program. She's special because she wants to be good for herself, and she wants to leave Penn basketball better than she found it."
If Penn is able to play this year, Crawford will look to lead the Quakers to an Ivy League title and enjoy one more chance to honor her hero.