Waiting and hoping for the real Chris to rebound

Ten years ago he wouldn’t have been home for Christmas. Instead 23-year-old Chris Craig from Arizona was over here, playing with and coaching Kieran Donaghy and the Tralee Tigers. The National Cup semi-finals and final were in January and he had a team to prepare.

Waiting and hoping for the real Chris to rebound

He would do that well. So well that the Tigers would win the cup. So well that within two years he’d be the youngest head coach in all of American college basketball. So well he was tipped to be a head coach with one of the top college teams in that country.

Now Chris Craig is not so well. He won’t be home for this Christmas either. Instead he’s spent the last few months in a state hospital, treated for severe bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Already this year he’s been in prison. Last year he was arrested for bursting into a college classroom wielding a Bible. He has been detained in Israel, called President Obama the AntiChrist and tweeted old Tralee teammates that Armageddon is near. This month his sad story has made a seven-page spread in Sports Illustrated.

In Kerry old friends have followed his downward spiral with sympathy and surprise. The Chris Craig that they’ve read about is not the Chris that they once knew.

For sure he was intense. Rus Bradburd would have coached the Tigers to a league title the previous season and taken in one of their games when he was back over from America on a short visit. He kept a particular eye on Craig as he had recommended him to Tralee, Bradburd having been a long-time assistant coach at the University of Texas El Paso (UTEP) and Craig having later played for the same programme. “I remember watching Chris warm up and within 30 seconds of taking the floor he was dripping sweat. He was very tightly wired.”

Mike Quirke was also struck by his zeal. “He would have had no problem stopping a practice to tell me, Kieran, [John] Teehan or one of the other Americans that they weren’t doing something right. He could get quite animated that way.”

Quirke just attributed that to the guy’s passion and asserting his authority among Americans and veterans that were older than he was. As a player, the guy was one of the best point guards to play here while off the floor he was hugely likeable. “Every Saturday night after a home game he’d be in the Greyhound Bar like everybody else. He was great fun, a great guy.”

That January they would have particular reason to celebrate. Tralee would win the National Cup, beating holders UCC Blue Demons by three points in the semi-final, and then in the final triumph St Vincent’s of Dublin, 90-81, with 22 points from Craig.

His coaching success in Kerry would not go unnoticed. The following summer he took a job as an assistant coach with a junior college team in Utah and two years later would be chosen over 56 other applicants to become their head coach, making him the youngest head coach in all of America.

By 2010 he had taken the school to the Final Four of the national championship. D1 school Northern Colorado came calling, wanting him as an assistant coach. “A lot of us in coaching believed he was going to be the next Rick Pitino,” says Bradburd. “He was brilliant, driven, charismatic.” With a beautiful young wife and child as well, he seemed to have it all.

Chris though also had demons. Part of what had made him so good in basketball was because his home situation had been so bad. His parents divorced before he was 10. His father was a well-known neuro-biologist but the long hours that entailed meant Chris and his sisters were primarily raised by their apathetic, troubled, pot-smoking mother, Debbie. With little love or attention at home, Chris would live in the school gym, while in college it was not unusual for him to lift weights or go for long runs at 3am on a game day.

He’d go on to have a fine two-year career at UTEP but for him it wasn’t enough. His sister would later find carved into a wall behind a Michael Jordan poster in his room was the date he’d planned to start playing in the NBA and after failing to make it she’d spot self-inflicted cuts on his arm.

The real devastating blow for Craig though would come in 2011. In Northern Colorado, too many of the tasks that went with being an assistant coach were too menial for him so he took a job as a head coach with a junior college team in Texas. But there a scolded player would run up and strike him in the face unconscious and a few days later in hospital he would discover one of his assistants and best friends, Brad Barton, had died from a diabetic seizure.

Often Craig would have helped the forgetful Barton take his medication during previous seizures. Because he hadn’t been there for Brad, Brad was no longer there at all. And with that, any reason for Craig to coach seemed to pass away too. Instead he’d turn more towards the Bible, especially the Book of Revelation.

In early 2013 Bradburd sent on some of Kieran Donaghy’s wedding pics to Craig and other Americans that had played with the Tigers. “That’s when I got looped in to Chris’s frightening emails,” says Bradburd. “The rants just didn’t make sense, no matter your religious affiliation.”

Quirke was similarly perplexed and concerned. “He was tweeting to us that we’d to get away from the coast and go to higher ground, that this tidal flood and the end of the world was near.”

He’d blog that Obama was the AntiChrist. He’d call himself the Archangel Michael. He’d travel to Israel where he’d be detained and sent back after blogging that Obama would be assassinated. He’d drive around Texas with a car sprayed in Biblical text. He’d also visit his mother, Debbie. It was too much for her. Shortly after she’d write a card to Chris’s wife, Tara, and her grand-daughters: “Happy Father’s Day. Don’t let the girls ever forget me.” Later that day she was found dead in her bathroom.

Debbie all along had suffered from bipolar disorder. Ten percent of people with schizophrenia have a relative with the same disorder. And 45 percent of diagnosed schizophrenics recover and maintain what you might call a normal-enough existence.

Whether Chris Craig will fall that side of the statistical line is uncertain. Last April Tara was still living with him until they got into an argument and Chris drove off to their daughter’s Maiya’s school, wearing a turban and robe. There awaiting police officers arrested him.

Tara and Maiya still visit Chris in the state hospital. Tara still sees enough moments of the old Chris to hold out hope for him and them but Chris’s own sister Julia thinks maintaining contact will only hurt them, especially Maiya. Tara accepts the school incident has severely affected her daughter. “She’s just terrified of something happening to her,” she’d tell Sports Illustrated, “like someone taking her away.”

Something that’s certainly been taken away is a basketball career that once seemed so bright and shone over here alongside Star Donaghy.

But as Bradburd notes, “The saddest part is not that his once-promising career has crashed. Rather, it’s the wife and daughter at home, waiting for the ‘real’ Chris to come home.”

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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

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