Making the best of it

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan basketball coach John Beilein started building the Wolverines' program long before he got to Ann Arbor.

He was in his third year at West Virginia when he noticed the lanky 7-footer at the West Virginia team camp who would become his first commit at Michigan. Ben Cronin was then a sophomore at Henninger High School in Syracuse, N.Y., with only four years of basketball under his belt. Beilein immediately noticed his hands and made sure to note the big man's name.

Beilein kept close tabs on Cronin. During one game with Beilein in attendance, Cronin blocked 19 shots -- still five short of his career best.

Not long after, Cronin received a scholarship offer from West Virginia and was on the verge of accepting it when Beilein took the Michigan job. Beilein was inheriting two big guys but was determined to bring along Cronin if there were enough space.

Sure enough, he made space.

"Everyone told me I had pro potential, and I bought in to it," Cronin said. "I saw Beilein as the one to get me there, whether he was at West Virginia or Michigan. I wanted to play for him. My family wanted me to play for him."

Early stardom
His first autograph was at age 13.

At the time his hand-me-downs were going to his older brother, whom he'd outgrown five years earlier. High school girls would ask for his number before learning that he was actually in seventh grade. People stopped him on the street asking for photographs.

"Do you play basketball?" they'd asked.

"Yes," he'd reply with a smirk, not adding that it was a homeschool league.

But it wouldn't have mattered. Everyone expected big things from Cronin.

The aspirations for a 7-footer in basketball are more like expectations, as Cronin was expected to go pro. And Cronin worked to make it possible. Part of that was enrolling at a public high school with an established basketball program.

During his senior year at Henninger, Cronin's father passed away unexpectedly. Basketball became his outlet. His coach became his father on the floor, his teammates became his brothers. At home, life was unfamiliar. He took on the role of dad for his two younger siblings.

Slowly, his body began to defeat itself, as he tore his labrum. But he wouldn't stop playing. The sport was his medicine to a pain that had no cure.

Beilein knew of Cronin's hip injury, and they considered having him undergo surgery before Cronin even stepped on campus. But 6-foot-10 Ekpe Udoh transferred from Michigan, and Cronin looked to be a solid backup for 6-foot-10 Zack Gibson.

So he played and was thankful for it, as his first semester at Michigan was his hardest. He felt like he had left his family. But the more he threw himself into basketball, the more life seemed normal.

He loved Michigan and the team, but it was clear he needed surgery.

It went off without a hitch, according to the surgeons, but Cronin knew something didn't feel right. Rehab helped but didn't cure his injury. That summer he attended every conditioning drill and workout with the team.

"Coach used to always joke about how I was able to run a sub-6:00 mile with one hip," Cronin said. "But all I was thinking was, 'This hurts. I want to play. I don't want to run on the track. How is this helping?' "

As a sophomore he returned and again was sidelined by injury. The limp was still there, his hip hadn't fully healed, and progress turned into regression.

The doctors gave him an ultimatum: Play basketball for a few years or have another surgery, quit and be able to play with his children. He sat in Beilein's office with the doctors and they made the decision. He had to retire.

"I was angry at first, that was the easiest thing to be," Cronin said. "It was, 'I'm a student-athlete; I'm 7 feet tall; I'm supposed to be really good at this,' but I couldn't even walk."

That afternoon they told the team together.

"I remember the day vividly," senior guard Zack Novak said. "Coach looked like he was about to cry, and Ben is standing next to him, and it was like, 'Ben can't play anymore. His career is over.' At first it was kind of shocking, like, 'What the hell is going on? There is no way this could actually be happening.' "

Beilein gave him the option to walk away with his scholarship, knowing that staying around the sport could be too painful. But Cronin stayed on as a student coach -- trading his sweats for suits, his spot on the bench for a spot between the other student coaches and assistants. He attended every practice and game, worked with the big men, rebounded for shooters and was there when a player needed to rant.

"Basketball was going to end someday," Cronin said. "My father would've wanted me to stick with it. To keep my promise to a coach who kept his and took care of me."

He molded the players who stepped into his spot and helped others that were leading the life he missed.

Cronin, an education major, used the opportunity to work on his teaching skills.

"It's been good for him," Beilein said. "I see him being a high school teacher and coaching the varsity team someday. He's so bright about the game. ... What a wonderful kid to be able to handle all this adversity in his life."

He came in as Beilein's first recruit and will leave as that, though few know his name. And the questions will always continue: You're so tall. Do you play basketball?

Slowly, he has become more comfortable saying no. He knows he was a part of the program, even without the uniform or number. He knows he helped build it, even without the stats or accolades. He knows that Beilein and a few others understand the sacrifice he made for himself and the sport he loves. For him, that's enough.

Chantel Jennings covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. She can be reached at jenningsespn@gmail.com or on Twitter @chanteljennings.