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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / McCallie's David Craig (44) drives to the basket during a game at Chattanooga Christian in February 2020.

David Craig would like nothing more than to be treated just like anyone else. That's very difficult, considering he's 7-foot-1 and just turned 18 years old.

He has seen the stares as he walks into gas stations, even fielded numerous conversations about his height.

Moments after an interview with the Times Free Press during an AAU basketball tournament in Louisville, Kentucky, a man walked up to him and started a 10-minute conversation about how he knew Craig was "going be in the league," a reference to the McCallie senior's NBA prospects. The man got Craig's schedule for the rest of the weekend and promised to come see him play.

That's fine, but Craig wants to be seen as more than just a tall person. His height came as a surprise to him and his family, and some struggles came with that. He's a deep thinker who came to Chattanooga from Johannesburg, South Africa, with the hopes of playing professionally someday, but he also happens to have grown 16 inches in the past four years.

Yeah, 16 inches. Craig was 5-9 at the beginning of 2017, when he was still in South Africa. By the end of that year, he was 6-5. When he arrived at McCallie in January 2019, he had grown to 6-9, and he has tacked on at least four inches since.

His growth spurt caused him to go see a counselor for about three or four weeks recently as he struggled to understand just what was going on.

"The struggles came from not really understanding a lot of things," Craig said. "It comes from a lack of understanding of who you are, a lack of understanding of why things are happening to you and the lack of understanding of what you put your faith in. I think ultimately that can only lead to a rabbit hole, because you can get trapped into pessimism because you feel like there's something working against you. But realistically, you're being built for something.

"My counselor described it as a statue, and every time you have an experience, a rock gets chipped out of your statue, and sometimes it's very small and you don't even notice it. Sometimes it's really big and it hurts."

If it weren't for basketball, Craig probably wouldn't be at McCallie. He'd be back in South Africa, working with others — he considers himself naturally a compassionate person. With his sudden growth, he has learned a lot about himself and his own mental health, so it's been a bit frustrating to him that he can't be viewed as anything more than a basketball player.

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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / McCallie's David Craig, left, battles Boyd Buchanan's Karson Gay for the opening tipoff during a game at McCallie in January. The 7-foot-1 Craig, who is from South Africa and will be senior this season, has grown 16 inches in the past four years, and his college basketball recruiting profile has risen significantly this summer.

He couldn't have seen this challenge coming: His father stands 5-10; his mom is 5-6. Craig said he had an uncle who was in the range of 6-5, but there was little reason for him to expect to be this tall based on his family — not that it's a reliable forecast.

According to multiple medical studies, parents' stature is no sure indicator of what their child's might be, as there are more than 700 genes that have a small impact on height, according to a post on littleninjaparenting.com.

"Each parent contains these genes in a myriad of combinations," the post reads. "When the genes pair up in offspring, it is highly unpredictable what the pairings will be."

The genes that affect height include those related to bone length, the amount of cartilage, genetic diseases that inhibit growth, cellular growth patterns and collagen metabolism, according to the post, which also noted that "for every single human trait, each person contains two genes in a unique combination. When these genes pair up in procreation, of the four possible genes, only two pair up for each trait."

But the fact is that Craig finds himself exceptionally tall, which has thrust him into a spotlight where he's treated just as much as a novelty as he is a person.

"It's a little bit of a tough situation being the person I am physically, because I see it as a distraction to some people," he said. "It takes people that look beyond the surface to really experience and learn who I am. Basketball is just a part-time job realistically; you don't do this 24 hours, seven days a week."

Let's be clear, though: Craig does love to play basketball. He was an all-region selection for McCallie last season, and his recruiting picked up tremendously this summer, with numerous Division I programs taking notice. Because he wasn't always this size, he grew up working on an entirely different skill set, so he has displayed a nice shooting touch while also showing room for improvement.

"He's very mature for his age, and he was excited to be here," McCallie coach David Conrady said. "I think one of his greatest attributes is his desire to get better, and those are a couple of things I noticed right away as a freshman. To come to not just a new school, but a new country, he displayed a pretty high level of maturity as well as a real desire to try to get better and improve as a basketball player and as an individual.

"He's a highly competitive kid that manages that in a pretty positive way. I feel he's done a great job of being able to maintain his cultural characteristics and combining those with doing a great job of fitting in at McCallie and doing the things that help make McCallie such a special place."

Craig grew up playing basketball with a completely different expectation of what life was going to be like for him. The way things have turned out has taught him a lot: a lot about patience, a lot about understanding. But he's still who he is, and he doesn't want to be put in a "box."

He wants to play basketball, maximize his potential in the sport and spend time with his friends. He doesn't really want all the looks that come from daily activities such as going to the store, or the never-ending questions about how tall he is or if he's going to play in the NBA.

He just wants to be an 18-year old kid — as hard as that may be for others to understand.

"When I talk about the box, I'm talking about how much is really dictated by you and not by other people," he said. "Everybody has their own box, so I don't want to see other people being dictated by things that they're not even doing and just about what other people think about them.

"I feel there's so much freedom that comes with knowing that everything you're doing, you're doing because you want to do it."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.

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