The Pursuit of Happiness

Kirby Lee/AP

I’ve spent my whole life trying to get out of my head. 

It started when I was a kid. I remember having this constant feeling that I needed attention all the time. I could tell my teachers were trying to help me out, trying their best to keep me out of trouble. But I just couldn’t avoid it. I was always cracking jokes, and I was really good at mocking people. Like, I had this math teacher that would always say parallelogram funny. She’d be like, paraLLELogram, and so I would repeat it, paraLLELogram. And you can guess what would happen next. I got kicked out of class for stuff like that all the time. I don’t even know how to explain it. It was like compulsive almost. I felt like I was being ignored.

I just couldn’t accept authority as a kid. I rejected discipline. My mom always said it makes a difference when your dad isn’t around. I know it’s a cliché or whatever you want to call it. But at the same time, it’s still vital. When my older brother, Curtis, would pick on me, I needed somebody to stick up for me. But that didn’t happen. So we didn’t like each other, and we didn’t have anybody to make us like each other again. We just stayed out of each other’s way, out in the streets, both looking for attention.

I may not have had a “dad,” but I did have a lot of fathers in my life that I’m very grateful for. When you don’t have a real dad, the Black fathers in our community step up. They parent everybody in the neighborhood. So I had Uncle Tutu. And I had Uncle Snoop. I had Hezekiah Walker…. He was the man. He died when I was like 11 years old, but he really looked after me. And then I had Dwayne Scott.

I was about eight or nine when Coach Scott found me. He was the coach of a girls’ basketball team called the Motor City Top 10, and somebody told him to come check me out at the Boys & Girls Club. When he came, I’ll never forget, he kept looking over at me like he was scouting me or something. I just remember thinking, What is this man looking at? The way he tells it now, he was trying to figure out where the girl was because I always just looked like a dirty little boy. Hahah. I ended up playing with the same AAU team throughout high school, and a lot of us went on to Central Michigan together, so I was pretty much with the same girls all the way through college. 

I always say I was born to hustle. If my mom gave me five dollars for school, I’m coming home with at least 40.

Crystal Bradford

Getting with a basketball team was one of the best things to ever happen to me because I had tons of energy balled up inside, and it finally gave me something to channel it into. Basketball is always moving, moving, moving, up and down the court. And that’s what I needed. My mom had me and Curtis in all of these after-school activities. I remember I played the African drums for the longest. But basketball was my thing.

I always say I was born to hustle. If my mom gave me five dollars for school, I’m coming home with at least 40. However I could hustle, that’s what I did. In the cold winters of Michigan, I would go outside with as many clothes as I could wear at once, and shovel the snow off people’s driveways, for $20 a house. I couldn’t have been older than seven, at the time. Then I would take that money and use it to buy a whole box of peanut M&M’s, and I’d stand outside of Home Depot and places like that, selling candy to people on the go. Man, I could make as much as $90 off of a $35 box! Even as a little kid, I could always flip a dollar. I was never lazy, you know what I’m saying? I had a really good work ethic. I think that’s why it was so hard for people to understand why I couldn’t follow basic rules and stay out of trouble.

Then I finally figured it out. I remember this one day, I got called to the office at school, unexpectedly. My mom was there to pick me up early. This was sixth grade. The front office lady came over the intercom like, “Crystal Bradford, bring your stuff to the front, you’re going home.” And I was lit. I remember this day so vividly. It was before lunch, too, so the first place we went was McDonald’s, and I got a McChicken. Then my mom took me to the doctor’s office.

As a kid, when you go to a doctor’s office, you’re really proud when you can answer all their questions on your own. I thought I was answering really well, because I was agreeing with everything. “Do you feel like you’re easily distracted? Do you find yourself being the last one to finish up your work sometimes?” I was answering with flying colors. “Oh yeah, I do that all the time. Yep, absolutely.” Then they had me go into a waiting room while the doctor talked with my mom.

Courtesy Bradford Family

My coach was kind of like a father figure to me, and back then, my mom would have him talk to me about hard things sometimes. The next day he pulled me aside at practice and told me that I had ADHD. He made it seem cool, like I was unique. He was saying all this stuff about how I’m different, and that there’s nothing wrong with that. But the thing is, because I was so different, I’d have to go to special education classes. That made me nervous. I didn’t want to be seen as special ed. I didn’t want to have ADHD.

They put me on Ritalin, which Curtis was also supposed to take, but he didn’t like it. So my mom told the doctor, and they switched us to Concerta. And Concerta was something else. I don’t remember how many milligrams I was taking…. Maybe it was too strong. Because that took me deeper inside my head than you could ever imagine. You know how sometimes you’re in a room, and the only thing you can hear is this loud whooshing of a vent?? It’s like the loudest thing. That’s how it felt being on Concerta. I felt like I was in a hallway with vents. I was hyper-focused. Like a zombie, though. I remember my closest friend would be like, “You taking that medicine? Man, I hate it when you take the medicine.” I didn’t like me on it either. I didn’t like how quiet I got. I felt trapped inside my mind.

People struggle with things they can’t easily explain, or fit into a box.

I almost lost my whole career to fighting — more than once.

Crystal Bradford

I pretty much always liked girls. But I was still afraid to come out. Navigating that was frustrating. I just felt like there was so much more on my heart. Who I was into romantically wasn’t as big of a deal to me. Really, I felt like my learning disability was the bigger thing. That was something to come out about. The depression that I had, that was something to come out about. There was just so much more going on in my mind than my sexual orientation. But it mattered to other people. They wanted to know. A lot of people assumed, but the people that knew me since I was very little needed to actually hear it. 

One day, my mom was like, “Crystal, I’ve noticed that some of your best friends … aren’t really your ‘best friends.’” I was really flustered and started to get defensive. She was like, “Are you gay?” I was like, “Yeah, Ma, I’m gay.” She accepted me. It wasn’t a big thing. Nobody cried. My mom just accepted me. That right there was a big weight off my shoulders. I went to prom with a tuxedo on. I thought that was mad cool. And my mom knew my prom date wasn’t just my “best friend.” Other moms I knew weren’t always as cool. Some of my teammates came out after me, and their moms were just very not great about it. So, I’m really grateful to my mom for helping me live in my truth when I was ready.

I think, because of how I look, one of the biggest misconceptions about me is that I’m hard or aggressive. But I’ve always been a nurturer deep down. Sometimes when people see that in me, though, it’s almost like, “Oh man, you soft.” Some people in our community will try to make you feel like you should be more masculine. It’s like, “Oh, you a bitch. You pussy.” That’s what’s interesting to me about women’s basketball. I wouldn’t say there’s a ton of pressure to be masculine, but it’s like, if you are, you better be, if that makes sense. And it’s kind of funny to me, because in reality, the girly girls in basketball be mean, spicy, and tough as shit. The studs are not that a lot of times.

Listen, I hate fighting. But where I’m from, you gotta know how. You gotta have a “nobody better fuck with me” mentality. I’m from inner-city Detroit. In my city it was just fear all the time.

My senior year of high school, I got into a fight that almost changed the trajectory of my whole life. It was the day I was going to sign my letter to go to CMU. I was 17. Beautiful type of normal day. Two other girls were signing, too, so the school was hype. The event was held in the library, and it was almost like a little press conference. Two of my uncles were there, who with my mom, had supported me all the way and made a plan for me to make it out. It was a really cool day. But, honestly, all I was thinking about was going out that night. I knew I was going out. We had all been planning it. All the players at my school, and everybody that we played against in our district, too. We were rolling deep. That night was supposed to be special. We were going to college. Where I’m from, that’s a big deal. 

So that night, we were in the club living it up. 

Everything was normal. There wasn’t any beef. But as we’re leaving, I see my friend outside about to fight. When your friends are fighting, you can’t not have their back. That’s just how I was taught, how I was raised. You gotta protect your friends — your sisters. (But knowing what I know now, you also shouldn’t put your friends, teammates, or sisters in a situation where they have to help you fight. It’s really not cool.) I didn’t even think. I just immediately ran over to help her. It all went down in the blink of an eye. I’m running over, and this girl gets off her bike and walks toward me. She had a shank on her, and she stabbed me in my face and under my arm twice. At first, I didn’t even know. Somebody was like, “Oh my God, the blood.” I didn’t even feel it until I heard, “The blood.” But when they said it, I instinctively knew. I looked down at my shirt, and it was soaking wet and dark red. I ran over to somebody’s car mirror and saw that my face was opened up. My friends got me in a car and rushed me to the hospital. They had to put pressure on the wound to stop the bleeding, and that was like the worst pain ever. I was scared. I thought I wasn’t gonna make it. 

I almost lost my whole career to fighting — more than once. When people look at me, sometimes that’s all they see. But they don’t realize there’s so much to my story. 

It was like one moment of immaturity became my whole reputation. 

Crystal Bradford

Pretty much straight from the jump, my W career has been about me trying to shake off labels. When I got drafted by the Sparks in 2015, almost as soon as my plane landed in L.A., I found out that my knee hadn’t healed from PCL surgery. And when I was finally activated a few months into the season, I was having a hard time getting minutes. Instead of controlling what I could, I just became negative and angry. I’ll admit, I had a bad attitude. So I was in and out, getting a few minutes here and there. Then I get a call from the GM: “Hey Crystal, we’re letting you go.”

It’s the W. Nobody is guaranteed a spot. Even a No. 7 pick. But still … my phone never rang after that. I just couldn’t believe that no other teams were interested. This idea that teams had that I was toxic? That started with me, and I own that. But I just wish teams had a little more empathy, especially with rookies. It was like one moment of immaturity became my whole reputation. 

Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty

I tried to look for opportunities to play overseas, to keep my basketball career in play — and my dream alive. But you have to think, these overseas teams also want WNBA players. So if you’re not in the W, you’re not guaranteed a spot, and even if you are, you’re probably not making the most money. I went a few months without getting picked up, but I ended up getting a job in Israel, in 2017, where I played really well. And after a successful season, I was invited to a tryout in Indiana with the Fever. Unfortunately, at camp I ended up having to go to the hospital because I passed out from period cramps. I was cut after three days. Do you know how it feels to get cut from a training camp?? Your entire family was excited for you. They’ve scheduled their whole year around figuring out how they’re going to get to your games. And then you get waived. And for somebody like me who’s had character issues throughout my life, they’re thinking, “What did she do now?”

That was my shot, and I felt like I blew it. 

I was sleeping on my cousin’s couch, back in Detroit, that whole summer. It was 2018. I stayed with her and her two kids. I started a basketball camp for kids while I was there, and they became part of it. It was called CB Skills Camp. My slogan was “Mentor the youth, and give back the juice.” Kids were there from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., and we played basketball in the morning until we were tired. Then we went into the classroom, where I spoke to them about attitude. I tried to instill in them that saying, “You only get one second to be upset, and then you gotta figure it out.” I demonstrated to them what pouting looks like, because when you’re pouting and you’re angry, you don’t often know how negative you look.

I didn’t need another pill that was going to turn me back into a zombie. 

Crystal Bradford

The camps were such a blessing. Not all of those kids were basketball players, but they all were human. I felt like I could touch people no matter what their aspirations in life were. But it was hard to be a mentor sleeping on the couch. 

I started to abuse alcohol, and my negative thinking got worse. I needed someone to talk to, but I couldn’t afford insurance. When I was finally able to work with someone, I remember asking, “Are there better ways to cope through my days? I think I need a routine.” But instead of giving me tools, the doctor suggested more medication. “We’re going to put you on Prozac.” That deflated me completely. I didn’t want to go down that road again. I didn’t need another pill that was going to turn me back into a zombie. 

That’s when I started to think about killing myself. It wasn’t just for a hot second either. I thought about it for years. There wasn’t really a day that I didn’t think about it, if I’m being honest. I really just wanted to let it all go. 

But finally I got offered an opportunity to play basketball again. I got picked up by Ashdod, which is one of the best teams in Israel, and I made really good money. We were actually No. 1 going into the tournament at the end of the 2020 season, before COVID cut everything short.

Bryce France/NBAE via Getty

Then, after basically being out of the league for five years and grinding to get another shot, I got signed by the Atlanta Dream in 2021. I really thought my life was finally about to change. After so long feeling like I was never going to beat the labels that people put on me, I was back in the W. And it started off great. I was having a good season, but then I broke my foot. Mentally, I was O.K. I knew I could make it back. But then a week after my surgery, as I was still recovering.... This video dropped. 

Maybe you’ve seen it. Maybe you haven’t. Maybe you’ve only read the comments and the jokes on social media. It doesn’t matter. The video shows me and some teammates fighting outside a club, back in May 2021. 

I could tell you about the fight, and why it happened, but honestly, would it change anything? Would it change how you see me? Probably not. If you actually read this story with an open mind, and got to know me a little bit, then you already understand that I don’t fight for no reason. If you skimmed it, or ignored it, then you already got your mind made up about Crystal Bradford. 

To you, it’s all jokes. To me, it’s my fucking life. After the season, Atlanta chose not to re-sign me. I think something broke in me after that. And it just got dark for a while. I felt exposed. Just end it, Crystal. That’s what the negative voice was saying. You’re not cut out for this league. Shit, you’re not cut out for this world.

I started to feel like nobody loved me. Like I could just be gone, and in a few years, even my mom and brother and closest friends would forget. You know how in a movie it’ll cut really fast from one scene to the next? It’s just like that. You go from being in the W in one scene, to not having a job, not having insurance, not being able to get the medication you need in the next. My manager asked me, “In the W, do you get some kind of severance pay or retirement, anything?” 

No, of course not. You go from 100 to 0, like that.

I was out of the league for six years. And that was tougher than you can imagine. There were a lot of days I went hungry and a lot of days I didn’t know what was next for me. There were days when I had to keep getting up, even when it didn’t make any sense to get up. I had to figure out how to survive. It’s been a very hard journey, and it’s taught me to be able to live without much and still keep a willpower within me. Sometimes I say my life is like that Will Smith movie, The Pursuit of Happiness.

My story is mine. I know it’s unique, and that’s O.K. But I honestly think a lot of players can relate to my hoop journey. This is what it’s like trying to make it in our league. You have all of these astonishing women in the world who were born to play this game. I mean, you got women that have shoulders only for basketball. You know what I’m saying? You got women who are six-three, six-four, six-five. They got hands that’s supposed to PALM basketballs. That’s what they were put on this earth to do. But only 120 of us can play professionally and provide for our families.

After Atlanta, I was in and out a little bit. I got signed to the Sky, and then got injured again. Same old story. But I hustled my way back. I went to Athletes Unlimited and got to showcase my skills and my character. Now, when I’m in workouts and training camps, my work ethic is unmatched. I know what it takes to make it, and I have better tools to help me stay focused on what’s important.

This March, everything came full circle. I was signed by the Sparks, the team that drafted me six years ago. And you know what’s funny? The very same reasons that I was waived from the Sparks in 2016, are the very same reasons why they were interested in me — my work ethic and my character. 

I wish I could say that was the end of the story, but life isn’t a movie. Unfortunately, I got cut before the start of the season. It doesn’t feel great, but knowing the work that I’ve put into being here now, I feel like I can be confident in that and move forward in a positive light. I know one day I’ll be back in the W — where I belong.

I’m 29 years old, and I’ve only had three years on contract in the league. I’m still in my rookie season, because I haven’t been playing. Sometimes I catch myself thinking, “Wow, all those wasted years.” But they weren’t wasted. I’m just grateful that I never gave up. I still believe I can have a successful career in the W. I’m not there yet, but I’m finally close to where I want to be.

I still have my learning disability. I still have ADHD. But when people hear my story, I don’t want them to feel sorry. I want them to be like, Dang. She rose above everything. I hope people see my passion, my energy, and my resilience. I’m human, and I’m learning as I go. 

But I am learning. That’s the main thing.