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GIBSONTON — After nearly two decades, the Watts clones’ similarities transcend physical appearance.
Craig and Caelen, 20 and 17, respectively, possess broad smiles and slender frames, with Caelen slightly taller. Both adore hoops, have worn No. 2 for Lennard High, and pull passionately for the Kansas Jayhawks.
Their voices are auditory replicates. When Caelen — known universally as “KK” — goes on a date, he likes for Craig to drive. Their mom, Nicki, even has noticed they tilt their head the same way when they smile.
“Everybody always says they’re the closest brothers they’ve ever met,” Nicki Watts said. “Even when I was pregnant with Caelen, Craig would talk to my belly.”
The only glaring dissimilarity requires a deeper look at what makes the Maryland-born brothers tick. It’s here, literally beneath the surface, where irony and cruelty converge: While both possess an unabridged passion for basketball, only KK has the heart for the game.
Craig’s heart betrayed him years ago. “Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy,” he says, a tone of concession leaking from each of the 11 syllables. “It got so bad, they took me out of PE.”
Craig played his last organized game as a Longhorns freshman starter in 2007, about a year before the first of his two heart attacks. A half-decade later, he’s ingrained in the Longhorns’ lineup again — albeit by proxy.
“Every day I go out there for him,” said KK, Lennard’s top scorer entering this week’s Class 5A, District 11 tournament at Middleton.
“Knowing that since he can’t play, I do it for him.”
Fate did a 180 on the Watts boys, the oldest of Nicki and Cary Watts’ three kids. By now, everyone figured KK would be screaming himself hoarse for Craig, who would be playing in college somewhere.
This would be the natural order for the siblings who never seemed more than a chest pass apart. From their juice box days outside Annapolis, Md., KK annually leapfrogged an age group or two to join Craig and their dad-coach on the same youth team.
But Craig’s fainting spells ultimately were followed by a sobering diagnosis. By early January of his freshman year, he had played his final organized basketball game.
“It just crushed me,” Craig said.
By age 16, he had suffered his first heart attack, while hanging out at a friend’s house in Ruskin after school.
A genetic disease, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) is a thickening of the heart muscle, making it tougher for blood to exit the heart. As a result, the muscle must work harder to pump blood.
According to the American Heart Association, it occurs in one out of 500 people and is the most common cause of heart-related death in people 30 and younger. Other studies have shown those who manage their condition wisely can reach a full life expectancy.
Problem was, Craig’s heart was breaking even as it was thickening.
“He went into a depression and lost focus,” Nicki said.
When basketball was swiped from him, Craig’s grades suffered. His girlfriend became pregnant, only to deliver a stillborn girl — Aliyah Marie — less than a month before he would have graduated.
Another heart attack, not quite as severe as the first, occurred on an outdoor court near East Bay High in 2012.
“I would say by my sophomore year, my dream was crushed, and I just felt like I had nothing,” Craig said from atop a picnic bench at a park in his family’s Gibsonton subdivision.
“I was just going crazy on the inside and everything started going downhill for me because of my heart. …I lost a daughter and after that I couldn’t go back to school, so I just never finished it.”
Optimism arrived in a burnt-orange jersey, brandishing a smile and jump shot strikingly similar to his own.
Craig’s dark period has subsided as KK’s career brightens. Lennard (16-5), No. 2 seed in the district tourney, is having the best season in its brief history. KK, the catalyst, has reached double figures in all except one game, with four 30-point contests.
His steals average (3.2) is identical to his grade-point average. Longhorns coach Danny Gaddis describes him as a leader by example, with a magnetic gregariousness and bona fide college potential.
“There’s not a doubt in my mind,” Gaddis said. “I can see it already.”
“The real question is what don’t I like about his game,” Craig adds. “His shot, to me, is the most perfect thing I’ve ever seen on a basketball court. I love it. He’s left-handed, his form is perfect, the rotation, everything.”
This is where Craig is careful to insist he’s not living vicariously through his brother. To the contrary, life may be as stable as ever.
He’s now logging full-time hours at an Apollo Beach supermarket and insists he plans to get his diploma.
He takes his meds regularly, though the family carries a portable defibrillator along on any outing where physical exertion may ensue.
To Nicki’s chagrin, he still finds his way into a pickup game every now and then. And he never misses a Longhorns home game.
“Whatever it is, even if it’s not making it in basketball …I want him to do that,” Craig said. “That’s it. I want him to continue to do good in school. I want him to remain focused and I don’t ever want him to doubt himself.”
But as long as basketball remains in KK’s picture, well, what’s the harm co-existing in a sibling’s dream, so long as you don’t infringe upon it? It’s as if KK has rescued Craig from his tattered quest and plopped him down in the passenger’s seat of his own.
So the journey of the heart forges onward.
“I want him to do it for himself,” Craig says. “But honestly, when I see him, I see me. I’m not gonna lie.”
Class 8A-7 at Bloomingdale
Tuesday: No. 3 Plant vs. No. 6 Durant, 6:30; No. 4 Newsome vs. No. 5 Bloomingdale, 8
Wednesday: No. 2 Alonso vs. Plant-Durant winnner, 6:30; No. 1 Wharton vs. Newsome-Bloomingdale winner, 8
Friday: Final, 7
Class 7A-8 at Plant City
Tuesday: No. 3 Hillsborough vs. No. 6 Riverview, 5; No. 4 TBT vs. No. 5 Plant City, 7
Wednesday: No. 2 East Bay vs. Hillsborough-Riverview winner, 5; No. 1 Brandon vs. TBT-Plant City winner, 7 Friday: Final, 7
Class 7A-9 at Steinbrenner
Tuesday: No. 4 Steinbrenner vs. No. 5 Gaither, 7
Wednesday: No. 2 Freedom vs. No. 3 Wiregrass Ranch, 6; No. 1 Chamberlain vs. Steinbrenner-Gaither winner, 7:30
Friday: Final, 7
Class 6A-11 at Leto
Monday: No. 4 Jefferson vs. No. 5 King, 6; No. 3 Sickles vs. No. 6 Leto, 7:30
Wednesday: No. 2 Strawberry Crest vs. Sickles-Leto winner, 6; No. 1 Armwood vs. Jefferson-King winner, 7:30
Friday: Final, 7
Class 5A-11 at Middleton
Tuesday: No. 3 Robinson vs. No. 6 Blake, 6:30; No. 4 Spoto at No. 5 Middleton, 8
Wednesday: No. 1 Jesuit vs. Spoto-Middleton winner, 6:30; No. 2 Lennard vs. Robinson-Blake winner, 8 Friday: Final, 7
Class 4A-9 at Sarasota Booker
Wednesday: No. 2 Berkeley Prep vs. No. 2 Booker, 7
Friday: No. 1 Tampa Catholic vs. Berkeley-Booker winner, 7
Class 3A-8 at Seffner Christian
Tuesday: No. 4 Carrollwood Day vs. No. 5 Bishop McLaughlin, 6
Friday: No. 1 Tampa Prep vs. CDS-Bishop winner, 6; No. 2 Seffner Christian vs. No. 3 Brooks DeBartolo, 7:30
Saturday: Final, 7
Class 2A-8 at Citrus Park Christian
Monday: No. 4 Citrus Park vs. No. 5 Bayshore Christian, 6
Tuesday: No. 2 Cambridge vs. No. 3 Academy at the Lakes, 6; No. 1 Tampa Bay Christian vs. Citrus Park-Bayshore winner, 8
Friday: Final, 7