MARIANNA, Fla. - Jackson County is as much a basketball factory as there is in the Florida Panhandle, producing over a dozen state championships, multiple players of the year, and Division I signees.
One of the best players in recent memory is former Malone High School star, Chai Baker. The Marianna local was the 2014 1A Player of the Year and earned a scholarship to Oregon State.
In August of that year, his life changed as he prepared for his freshman season.
"We were doing some hard conditioning outside, like on the football field we were just running, and it was hard for me to breathe," Chai Baker recalls.
"They were just doing a basic layup drill, and after Chai shot the layup and went back in the line, some of the players saw him fall straight back," Chai’s mother, Niki Baker recounts.
Chai passed out due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an incurable genetic condition that causes the walls in the heart to thicken during exercise. In Chai's case it cut off his blood supply, which could have been fatal. Luckily, the training staff quickly revived him and took him to the hospital, where he was diagnosed. Doctors would not clear him to play.
After spending hours growing up in Jackson County gyms, just like that, Chai's playing days were over.
"When I first heard the news it was devastating,” Chai says, “For me, I thought I could come back from it. I had my mind set that I was and that I could overcome it."
In the months that followed, Chai kept to himself. He still has to limit his physical activity.
"I know how much he loves the game of basketball, and the level of competitor he is,” Malone Head Coach Steve Welch says, “I would say 'was', but he's still that competitor and he has to battle that every day."
It was that love that brought Chai to a basketball court at a Marianna church on June 20th. He was there to watch a pick-up game, featuring the next big thing to come from Jackson County.
As a Marianna high school stand-out, Herman Williams earned a scholarship to Louisiana-Lafayette. But, just like Chai, Herman would not get to realize those dreams.
"I got the call from Chai saying, 'Mama, Herman just collapsed. The exact same thing as me,'" Niki Baker says.
"He took the ball up to the other team, and I heard him fall,” Chai remembers.
Herman Williams died that day, the day after his 19th birthday, of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
"Herman actually kind of molded himself after Chai,” Nike Baker says, “He wanted to be a lot like Chai and he would also tell him a few months before he passed, 'If I can get #2, I'm gonna get #2 to rep that number for you. I'm gonna get it done for you, bruh, I'm gonna do it for you.' So they were very very close."
The entire town of Marianna mourned. The pain affects the Bulldogs to this day.
"A couple of different players have tattoos in honor of him,” Marianna Head Coach Matt Anderson says, “You go home at night, and you're working on practice schedules, and you remember things that Herman impacted. I wish I could explain it, but it's really beyond words."
Herman's death has had a profound impact on Chai.
"That could have been me, and it was actually me in that situation,” Chai says, “But God had a better plan for us. He chose Herman to come home, and He chose me to stay."
Losing his friend and realizing it could just as easily have been him, Chai decided something good needs to come from this tragedy.
"I think it's just given me a voice now. It's given me a voice to open up to kids, or anybody that's willing to listen."
He and his mother are working to raise awareness about heart conditions in sports.
"If you're serious about your sons or your children playing in sports, I would recommend they have EKG or echo done," Nike Baker says.
If you're unsure of the need for testing, look for symptoms.
"If they are unusually tired, have any sort of chest pain or discomfort, or certainly if they pass out at all during any sort of exertion, those are kids that at least need to talk to their doctor, and possibly get a work-up," Dr. Don Davis of Gulf Coast Cardiology advises.
Chai left Oregon State and moved back home to Marianna. For now he's taking classes at Chipola College. He's doing everything he can to honor Herman Williams.
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