Craig standing tall as road to Mercer awaits

Craig’s game blossomed in the spring

SOUTH African-born centre, David Craig has taken a gigantic leap in his playing career by committing himself to NCAA Division I University team, Mercer Bears in the United States.

While the ink has dried on the letter of intent Craig signed two weeks ago to join Georgia-based Bears, he reflected on a journey that brought its fair share of pain and disappointment.

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David Craig during the signing of his letter of intent. Pictures: McCallie and Mercer

The 7ft1 former St Benedict’s pupil has lingering memories of a debilitating ailment on both knees which almost halted his progress in his early teens. Then there was also the disappointment of not making a junior NBA team and losing an inter-provincial final in South Africa. This was three years before he joined the all-boys McCallie School in Tennessee.

“Honestly, it’s almost like I have woken up from a very long sleep. It’s like you know what has happened, but you don’t feel it yet. I still remember being that kid who got cut from a junior NBA team. I remember it like it was yesterday playing for Gauteng in an inter-provincial in twenty-sixteen and losing to the Western Cape in the final,” said the colossal Craig, who hails from Ekurhuleni. “Those things are fresh in my head, but I just signed a division one letter of intent. It’s just a relieving feeling knowing that my parents can watch their child play in a division one school in America and not have to pay a single cent for it.”

Craig, who was 14-years-old when he experienced trouble with his knees, says it affected his mobility and relationship with food.

“I had this thing called Osgood Schlatter Syndrome. It meant that I had a lot of swelling around the joints of my knees. They were sensitive to the point that when I pressed my finger on either knee, it hurt,” continued Craig. “It was destructive and impacted everything I did, from the way I walked to the way I ran. Also, when I was not playing, I would sit at home and eat as a way of filling that need for stimulation.”

Following a consultation with a doctor, the prescribed treatment for Craig’s knees was rest. For the centre, the idea of waiting to heal did not sit well with him, and he embarked on a self-driven recovery program.

“My doctor told me the best way to fix this was if I rested, but I was not willing to do that. It took me quite a while to realise that I could conquer this and didn’t need to focus only on rest. I needed to work on my diet and my body. That was the beginning of all this, and truly understanding the meaning of hard work,” said Craig.

The work the big man put in to get his knees right and withstand the rigours of basketball paid off, and with the help of his parents, he earned a scholarship to attend McCallie.

“When I turned 15 and at about six foot seven, my parents saw that I was talented. I worked hard. I was ahead of other players in my age group at the time. So their thought process was, we do not want you to wait for an opportunity to come,” said Craig, who is in his final year at McCallie. “Coming from South Africa, the typical route to the US is through BWB (Basketball Without Borders). While BWB would be a great opportunity, I did not want to rely solely on it, so we started to apply to schools and luckily, I got the financial aid I needed… And here I am.”



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While leaving home for a different country can be challenging from a cultural and mental aspect, Craig says the advice he received from his former coach, Nompumelelo Ramatsoga was affirming and helped put his mind at ease.

“My high school coach from South Africa, coach Mpumi gave me the best advice as she has made that transition before. Coach Mpumi told me I needed to ready myself, try to learn from everything, and not to see the situation as a loss. She reminded me I had what it took, that I was a good player, and everything would work itself out. She has been right so far,” said Craig, who already knew he could overcome difficult hurdles.

The McCallie environment suited Craig as he was afforded the space and time to adapt to the culture of the school and also be up to speed with the physical demands of basketball in America.

“When I came to McCallie, it was a huge learning curve. It’s a prestigious school and houses athletes in different sporting codes. There is also an emphasis on academics. There were a lot of things I needed to adjust, and I got help with that. The coaches stuck with me. I had a lot of growing to do. Growing into my body. Getting my strength and coordination up. The coaches there ultimately knew I would be an investment,” said Craig, who has high ambition for his final season.

“I worked hard and improved throughout the years. Midway through my sophomore year, I was starting to make an impact on the team. In my junior year, I made it to the all-regional team. This year I am looking to win Mr Basketball Tennessee, which would be a great thing. So I am thankful for how much the coaches have invested in me.”

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David Craig signs his letter of intent to play college basketball for Mercer Bears

Craig pointed out that he was not high on the recruitment list of teams until his junior high school year. The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic also threw a spanner in the works.

“I had just finished playing my sophomore season and getting ready to play in the Amateur Athletic Union (basketball). Then Covid hit, everything got shut down and I had to come home,” said Craig. “I did not get noticed until my junior high school season. That’s when realised I had to turn things up a notch because I was going to have one spring season to play in AAU Basketball where all the college coaches go (for scouting).”

It was during the Spring season that Craig’s game blossomed. Coaches who had slept on him took a second look, and the number of college suitors increased. Ultimately, it was the Gary Gray coached Bears who won the race to sign Craig, as they were intentional about having him on board from the start.

“I would say I blew up. I was improving but was not getting that recognition. Once my play improved, coaches would come back to watch me play and started to realise how good I was,” said Craig, who was pursued by the likes of Purdue and Georgia Tech amongst other colleges. “Ultimately, the thing about Mercer was that they were consistent and did not drag their feet. They were straightforward in letting me know I had something they could use and be effective in their system. So, that’s why I signed with them as early as I did.”

With one part of the dream achieved, Craig wants to strive for more and has his sights on playing in the NBA. To him, it does not matter how he gets there.

“… As far as I can remember, it’s always been a dream of mine to play in the NBA. I am going to pursue that. If it means I play elsewhere professionally first, then so be it. But the NBA is my end goal,” said Craig, who wants to inspire future generations with this ambition. “There has not been a South African player in the NBA. I know that I can do that. And it’s something that pushes me every day. It’s constantly on my mind. Ten years down the line I want kids to say a South African played in the NBA. I want to hear them saying ‘I want to be like him.’ That would be priceless for me. I definitely want to play in the NBA.”

There is no doubt that South Africa can produce world class basketball players. Our eyes and ears should be on Craig as he pursues his dream of playing in the NBA. 

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