Diaspora

Mocs' David-Jean Baptiste's big moment shines in Haiti – Chattanooga Times Free Press

PITTSBURGH — Last week, David Jean-Baptiste mentally went back to that train station bench in Golden Glades, Florida.
He remembered all the nights he didn't have money for the ride north to Pompano Beach and would have to sneak on the train. The nights he would miss said train entirely and sit there, praying he could find a way to make the 25-mile trip back home.
As the sixth-year senior guard absorbed all the adulation and national acclaim that came from making one of the most iconic shots in the history of University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball, he realized why all of that mattered.
“I know a lot of people may ask, and it's the question I asked myself, even before that moment happened,” he said. “I would ask, 'Why does it feel like everything is happening to me?' And now it's like, 'This is why.' Now everything is flowing the way it's supposed to. It's why I just stayed on that boat, never getting too high, never too flow. Just staying afloat, and I think now that's what I'm doing, embracing every moment and just embracing the journey.”
So after Sunday night's NCAA tournament selection show, Jean-Baptiste stood on the McKenzie Arena floor where he played so many games, soaking it all in. The 6-foot-1, 195-pounder posed with three little girls who held balloons that spelled out “DJB.” He spoke with everyone: white, Black; young, old.
Jean-Baptiste is a unicorn of sorts who in the coming years would probably stick out even more. With the shifting landscape of college basketball, it's less and less likely players will hang around for three to four seasons at a single program, let alone six. But that time — the product of a redshirt year, the NCAA's extra season of eligibility due to the pandemic and his loyalty — has allowed him to create a legacy with the Mocs, at UTC and in the city of Chattanooga.
It's an environment where he's been given the freedom to grow, make mistakes and come out on the other end.
Even with March Madness brackets in place and games beginning for the 68-team event, there's still been a buzz regarding the 35-foot (or so) shot Jean-Baptiste made in the Southern Conference championship game, sending the Mocs to their first NCAA tournament since 2016. There was a buzz in Chattanooga, where the Mocs' team celebrity of sorts had grown. But there was also a buzz back in Haiti, where word of the winning 3-pointer by Jean-Baptiste — whose father was a Haitian immigrant — had traveled around.
“I had Haitians from all over the world reach out: WhatsApp messages, Facebook messages. I had family contacting me through people from Haiti, talking about, 'Hey, we saw it. Jean-Baptiste is a name now,'” he said this week, proudly sporting the Haitian flag around his shoulders. “I'm getting calls from my family, telling me random people are coming up to friends of mine. Come on, man.
“The fact I'm attached to that is such a blessing. All glory to God; it's just surreal, man.”
No person has been attached to his college basketball career more than Mocs coach Lamont Paris, who has experienced most of the ups and downs Jean-Baptiste has endured at UTC. The two have been together for 151 of the 158 games Jean-Baptiste has played as a Moc, so there isn't much that Paris doesn't know — or doesn't understand — about the player or the person.
“I can't imagine who the person would be that would meet David Jean-Baptiste and then feel like they didn't like him,” Paris said. “I wonder who that would be in the world. He's extraordinarily unique when it comes to that. Just a great personality, he can talk to anyone from any walk of life and make them feel like we're having a real conversation, and so there's a lot of value in that. That's one of the reasons why I think he'll be so successful in life, regardless of what it ends up being that he ultimately decides to do when he's 40 years old. I just don't see him not being successful at it.
“I think the legacy for him is off the court stuff. It's very unique, who he is and how he is as a person, and then you combine that with a pretty good basketball career, too.”
The Mocs (27-7), seeded 13th in the South Region, will try to extend their successful run when they face fourth-seeded Illinois (22-9) at 6:50 p.m. Friday at PPG Paints Arena on TNT. Whenever the season ends, Jean-Baptiste will finish his UTC career fourth on the program's all-time scoring list — he currently has 1,746 points, and Willie White is third with 1,969 — and he's already the all-time leader in 3-pointers made with 287.
Off the court, he's always that person greeting people with a smile and a word. White. Black. Young. Old.
And when he takes the court, he'll be representing Chattanooga. Miami. And also Haiti.
“There's not a lot of positive images from Haiti,” Jean-Baptiste said, “and the fact that (for) one night I could be one of them, just a vessel and have a positive light for my country — at some point, maybe after the first game, maybe a few weeks after the season is over and everything that has settled down, I'll think about my legacy to this city, but right now we're playing and we have our team and the moment is here, so why not us?”
Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.
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