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Updated: March 24, 2022 @ 8:48 am
David Jean-Baptiste (3) navigates the court after obtaining the ball. Tuesday, November 16, 2021.
David Jean-Baptiste (3) navigates the court after obtaining the ball. Tuesday, November 16, 2021.
Within a red uniform stands a 6-foot-1-inch guard that embraces the white letters across his chest. Those letters are “Haiti” for David Jean-Baptiste. Below is a flag, two bars of red and blue. In the center is the coat of arms of Haiti, “L’Union Fait La Force” which translates to “Unity Makes Strength.” For Jean-Baptiste, this jersey and country are part of his identity. The guard, however, is from Miami, Florida, not Haiti, but the nation and DJB share a common trait – optimism through adversity.
The nation of Haiti, which shares its borders and island with the Dominican Republic, is less than 700 miles from the beaches of Miami.
The physical makeup of the land is one that should be, and is, featured on travel brochures across the globe. Bassin Bleu, a mini paradise snug in the hills of Haiti, looks straight out of a movie. Its waterfalls feed the turquoise water in the lake below, and its eroded walls rival the Grand Canyon. Kokoye Beach is a tourist’s dream destination. The white sands, electric blue water, and palm tree canopies make it a true paradise on earth. And those are only two examples of the endless beauty the nation has to offer.
Sadly, the endless beauty has been coupled with what seems to be endless societal turmoil that resides within the Caribbean nation of just 11 million.
The nation turned to democracy in 1991 which was followed by a coup d’état, a sudden, violent, and illegal overthrow of the government. This seizure of power by the Armed Forces of Haiti resulted in a large increase in crime and harsh military rule.
After the restoration of power in 1994, another violent coup d’état began to take place in 2004, this time the U.S. government was forced to intervene in order to save the lives of those in power.
In 2010, Haiti was shaken from the core of the Earth as a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated the country. It is estimated that the death toll ranged from 100,000 to 300,000, and the country is still recovering to this day.
Present-day, disaster continues to plague the nation. In July, Haiti President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated by an alleged group of mercenaries. Just over a month later another catastrophic earthquake struck – this time with a magnitude of 7.2. Over 1.2 billion USD of damage was incurred and at least 2,250 people died.
But even through all the turmoil and hardships the country has been through, the Haitian people remain strong. L’Union Fait La Force. Unity makes strength – the perfect maxim for the country that came together in 1803 and overthrew the French to become the first independent black republic in the world, and a great motto for a basketball team.
As a son raised by a single mother, DJB is no stranger to adversity. His coaches became his mentors and would guide him and instill the morals he upholds today.
Jean-Baptiste attended Miami Norland Senior High School, a secondary school that lies within the grid of houses. Prior to his arrival, Norland had already left a footprint in high school basketball. One year earlier in 2012, Norland won the Florida High School Athletic Association basketball state championship.
The championship sparked a once-in-a-lifetime run.
From the 2011-2012 season to the 2015-2016 season, Norland compiled a 130-26 record (.833 win percentage). Norland accomplished a feat that no other Miami-Dade team has
accomplished: to win four straight state championships. During Jean-Baptiste’s junior year, Norland won the championship with only one senior on the team. Nobody predicted their success after replacing 10 varsity players from the previous year.
“We had really good teams during my first two years, so during my junior year we were written off by every newspaper,” said Jean-Baptiste. “They were like ‘The dynasty was over and ‘what a great run.’ The game to get to state was a standing room only. It was one of the loudest crowds I
have ever played in front of. And boom, we won it. The whole city was talking about it.” Jean-Baptiste, now an all SoCon selection and leading scorer for Chattanooga, was not even the best player for the state champion Miami Norland. Dewan Hernandez, who attended the University of Miami, Florida, and later was a 2nd round draft pick in the NBA, was also on the squad, and his notability got DJB where he is today.
Hernandez, a 5-star center and top 30 prospect in the nation received interest from colleges around the country, especially in Florida. University of Florida basketball assistant Matt McCall would come to games and practices to recruit Hernandez, but David would always catch his eye.
“He would always say, ‘If I was the head coach I’d be recruiting you myself. You’re a great player,’” said Jean-Baptiste.
Though a great compliment, David never took it too seriously. McCall, in fact, was not the head coach of Florida. Those words would never amount to anything.
Until they did.
Prior to the start of the 2015-2016 season, McCall would receive a call from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He was offered a head coach position. One of the first people he called was DJB to extend a scholarship offer.
The only problem was that David had no idea what or where Chattanooga was.
“Right after he called I had to go look it up. The first thing I saw was the bridge. I was expecting cowboy hats, boots, horses, but then I looked and went on a visit and fell in love with the city.”
Jean-Baptiste committed to UTC, filling a position that would lose three guards after the season.
In Jean-Baptiste’s senior year, Norland was poised to extend their record-setting streak and reach a five-peat. After beginning the season on a 10-game winning streak, the house was stacked against any other team that did not possess the maroon and white Viking like Norland.
Then, the unstoppable force began to sputter. Over the course of a month, Norland would drop three games before the conclusion of the regular season. The last loss came in the final regular-season game.
Once the tournament came around, Norland found their winning way again. After stringing together seven more wins, the only opponent in the way of state was the Dillard Panthers.
“A team full of seniors played against a team full of juniors,” said Jean-Baptiste, recalling how Norland was in the same situation in his junior year. “They had a chip on their shoulder. They played like we did my junior year and they played hard. We played like we were already going to state. We ended up losing that game.”
The Panthers defeated the Vikings 59-47, breaking the championship streak and ending Jean-Baptiste’s high school career.
His first few years in Chattanooga were nothing special. A starter and key contributor, DJB was successful as an individual but had yet to reach his true potential. That was until a life-changing experience was offered to him.
In 2018 Jean-Baptiste received the opportunity to represent his mother’s homeland in a FIBA qualifier. With both of his parents being Haitian citizens, Jean-Baptiste was automatically granted citizenship in Haiti.
With the invitation to represent Haiti, DJB got to experience something very few had ever done. He was playing for something more than basketball – the pride of a nation. He, like other former notable Haitian athletes, Nerlens Noel and Skal Labissiere, would be beloved by a fanbase much bigger and more passionate than any he had been a part of before. Labissiere, the number two overall high school prospect in the class of 2015 and a former first-round draft pick in the 2016 NBA draft, was a part of last year’s Portland Trail Blazer squad. Noel, the number one overall high school prospect in the class of 2012 and 2013 NBA lottery pick, is now in his ninth year and his second with the New York Knicks. Jean-Baptiste, unlike the other two stars, would actually get to rep the nation on his chest. He was chosen to be a part of the country’s first national team in nearly 40 years.
“We had a chance to make history being the first team in so many years. To be a part of that is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s something I’ll never forget and always cherish,” said Jean-Baptiste.
At the FIBA AmeriCup qualifiers, Haiti was undefeated, 4-0, with an average win of 32.25 points. After their contest with the Bermudas, conflict arose with FIBA and the Haitian National Team. Prior to their next game against Saint Lucia, FIBA disqualified the Haitian team because of naturalization issues with certain players.
Following the disqualification, FIBA required Haiti to play its final game. Against Saint Lucia, Jean-Baptiste posted 11 points, 57.1% from the field, seven rebounds, and two assists. Jean-Baptiste received the most playing time in the game, as Haiti cruised to a 100-62 win to seal an undefeated, yet troubled, FIBA tournament.
“We couldn’t compete for the championship, so after the last game we were soaking it in. With all the fans wanting to take pictures, us having the [haitian] flag we embraced it. It felt like ‘we did it.’” said DJB.
To represent his parents’ nation, helping lead them to an undefeated record, is what someone typically only dreams of. The 6-foot-1-guard is passionate about his roots, even if those roots are 689 miles away.
“They gave me a sense of belonging. I belong to a group of people. I belong to a place. Even though my parents are from there, not me, I feel like I can call it home. It gives me a sense of pride.” Dave said.
That sense of pride and belonging started to show up on the basketball court. “After that summer, my confidence boosted. I was like ‘I can actually be really good. I just played across the waters.’ Everything started clicking that next year.” Dave continued to build on that confidence the next two years and became a full-time starter for the Mocs, a 16 point per game scorer, and an all-conference selection in the past years. Adversity struck again for DJB last season. This time, the COVID-19 pandemic, but in a much different way than the virus affected most.
To start his Senior year, DJB hit the 1,000 career point milestone, all while averaging 18 points on the way to a 4-0 record. Things seemed to be going great from the outside. But internally, he was struggling.
Chattanooga was quiet now. No students or fans flooded the streets daily like before. All he had on campus was the team, but COVID protocols took that away too. Practices ended and players couldn’t hang out or bond. They had to leave and go be alone in their rooms. David was left with a heavy heart and mind, but nobody to vent to. Drowned in his own thoughts and dreams, Jean-Baptiste entered the transfer portal, a move that shocked the entire community.
Coach Lamont Paris released a statement after the decision came out of nowhere. “Based on David’s deciding to return for his final season, his role on the team, how he was executing it at a high level, our record of success, and our personal relationship, I’m stunned by his decision. I can only surmise from our discussions this is a personal choice more than about basketball.”
And Paris was right. The decision had nothing to do with what Chattanooga had done for him and meant to him. It had everything to do with a childhood dream of playing basketball at a major D1 school. A dream that seemed to be fading away.
But soon after his decision, and much time and prayer, David realized that Chattanooga was where he needed to be. His time in the scenic city wasn’t finished.
In a shocking turn of events, coach Paris let DJB return to the team. Not only because of his talent on the court but also because of the man he was.
“If David weren’t high-character, Jean-Baptiste would no longer be on this team,” Paris said. “I can tell you that.”
“He wanted to be a part of what we are doing and obviously, it was an agreement from both sides,” he added. “It made sense for him and was a good situation for him and for us to have him back on the team. I was surprised when it happened the first time and some things change, obviously, but Dave has enjoyed his time here and he has told me that. He and the team sat down and met, and we were willing to have him back.”
An article from SBNation put it best. “That’s not coach speak. It’s unfiltered truth. That’s what made it so surprising when Jean-Baptiste opted out — he seemed self-made and Chattanooga through and through sold out to the Mocs cause.”
In his first game back David kneeled at center court, said a prayer, and kissed the logo. He had been granted a second chance in Chattanooga, an opportunity that would lead to an incredible season last year, and looks likely to lead to special things this season.
A 2nd Team All- SoCon performer, DJB, and the Mocs looked primed to make a run at the SoCon tournament championship and a trip to the NCAA tournament, but COVID got to them. Just days before the first game of the tournament, the squad had an outbreak of positive tests. Left without multiple starters and key contributors, Chattanooga lost and their season was suddenly over.
Jean-Baptiste is now in his sixth year with the Mocs. He has already graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Business Management, and is now on track for a master’s degree. He has become a prominent member of many organizations around UTC. Regardless of what happens this season, he has left a lasting footprint on Chattanooga but has the chance to once again do something special on the court. Led by the Haitian guard, Chattanooga is the preseason favorite to win the SoCon and a team that nobody wants to see in March.
David has been through it all as a 6th year, super senior, not only on, but off the court. He will be remembered forever as a star for Chattanooga, but he wants his legacy to be so much more than Basketball.
“No matter what adversity hit, that’s the guy who stayed optimistic and saw the bright side of everything.” Said DJB of himself.
And he is making that a reality every day, with every person he meets. Basketball is temporary for DJB, but the impact he leaves on the people of this community will last forever.
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