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UTC basketball star David Jean-Baptiste stuck with Mocs and came out a champ – Yahoo News

Feb. 26—People see the smile on the face of David Jean-Baptiste, effervescent as he skips around the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus, his home for six years now. They see the veteran Mocs basketball player usually rocking a backpack — with the Miami native's Haitian flag, a reminder of his roots, always in tow.
But underneath that smile there has always been an unwavering confidence, one that everything was going to be all right.
Was it always going to be all right? At times, it was fair to question, but he never quit believing.
Asked what his Haitian heritage taught him, he was quick to answer: "To be unfazed."
"If you look at the Haitian flag, the palm trees and just how still they are, I just think no matter what storm that's affecting you, no matter what's happening around you, still unfazed," Jean-Baptiste said this week. "Still being us, still being resilient. I just think the people of the Haitian culture, how resilient they are, it translates to the game of basketball."
'I learned a lot'
Jean-Baptiste made a short move from his hometown to Pompano Beach prior to his junior year of high school to live with an uncle. He was playing at Florida Class 6A power Miami Norland and had helped the program win a state championship as a sophomore in 2014 — the Vikings' fifth of six state titles in program history, all from 2006-15 — and so he didn't want to leave. He also didn't have a car, so he was going to have to figure out how to make the hour-plus commute to school every day.
So five days a week, he took the Tri-Rail, the train system serving a three-county area in South Florida. Classes at Norland started around 7:15, so Jean-Baptiste would get up between 4:30 and 5 every morning to make sure he got to the station on time, then ride from Pompano Beach to Golden Glades, which put him 10 minutes from Norland. From there, he could take a school bus or walk.
When the school day was over, there would be basketball practice or related training, and the team wouldn't be done until around 7:30. The last train of the night departed at 8, so he'd have to hustle to the station or risk having to wait around until 11 or so for a ride home — just to turn around and do it again the next day.
"I'm not going to lie. It's been some nights," he said. "I missed that train more times than I've got fingers on my hands."
The challenges were there, but Jean-Baptiste never considered doing things differently.
"I knew there was way more to life than what I was seeing at the time," he said. "But the thing about those train experiences was I learned a lot. I had times where I'm waiting, and I'm just talking to people about life. I'm 16, 17 years old, and I'm talking to 30-year olds about their outlook on life and learning from there. I can't tell you how many times I'd miss that 8 o'clock train, and I'm having to wait until 11 and I'm talking to an older man or an older woman.
"I learned so much about life."
It was that perseverance that sold Matt McCall, UTC's head coach from 2015-17 after working on Billy Donovan's Florida Gators staff, when it came to recruiting and signing the three-star guard. McCall, now toward the end of his fifth season at Massachusetts after leading the Mocs to their most recent Southern Conference tournament title in 2016, said that learning that story "immediately gave me this respect level for him."
"It's like, 'All right, this guy has got the work ethic," McCall said this week in a phone interview with the Times Free Press. "He's got the drive to be a really, really good player, and when you watch him and he plays the game with such joy and a smile on his face, but yet so competitive and was at such a high level of effort.
"I'm not surprised at all by the career he's had, and I think it speaks to his character. When he first got to UTC, he was homesick, but to see him six years later stick it out and grind and have the career he's had, I'm not surprised just because of the effort he made in high school to be able to attend Norland and be coached by Coach (Lawton) Williams, and want to be coached every day."
Williams was at the helm for all six of Norland's state titles, the last three with Jean-Baptiste on the roster. It didn't take the coach long to realize how special the player was either.
"He's a great worker, so I expected this," Williams said of Jean-Baptiste's success in Chattanooga. "To this magnitude? Maybe not, because he's got stuff outside of basketball. He's been extremely successful there.
"But I'm not surprised."
Nearing the end
Jean-Baptiste redshirted as a freshman, his lone season under McCall before former Wisconsin assistant Lamont Paris was hired as UTC's head coach. The outbreak of the coronavirus two years ago led to the NCAA issuing a blanket waiver that granted athletes an extra year of eligibility, and Jean-Baptiste took it, giving him five seasons on the court with the Mocs.
But to William's point, it's not only on the court that Jean-Baptiste, who competed his undergraduate studies during the 2020 spring semester, has succeeded.
In 2020, he was awarded the prestigious Blue Award from the chancellor's office. One of UTC's top honors, it is given to students who have displayed excellence in academics and involvement, service and dedication to the university. He was the first student-athlete in school history to achieve the honor.
He's a proud member of Omega Psi Phi, and wears his fraternity colors proudly.
But in the current world of college basketball, where transfers are frequent and easier due to NCAA eligibility rules updates, he's a unicorn of sorts. Not only has he chosen to stay at UTC for a long time, he did so through a coaching change and even as the roster around him underwent regular turnover.
Jean-Baptiste bloomed where his feet were planted. He's been the on-court foundation of the resurgence of the Mocs, whose season will end in a national tournament for the first time since 2016, thanks to clinching the SoCon's regular-season title this week.
Resilience and perseverance could easily define Jean-Baptiste's career, which will rank among the best in Mocs history where individual stats are concerned. He's fourth in UTC's record books in scoring with 1,692 points entering Saturday's regular-season finale at home against Samford, and he is the Mocs' all-time leader in 3-pointers made with 280. Nobody has played more games for the program, and the only players with more starts than Jean-Baptiste's 118 are Greg Pryor (125 from 2014-17) and Willie White (119 from 1981-84). Nobody has played more than his 4,417 minutes.
He has also been part of the program's ascension from No. 10 seed in the 2018 SoCon tournament to the top seed for next week's event in Asheville, North Carolina. The Mocs won a combined 22 games his first two seasons; Wednesday's clinching win at East Tennessee State was the Mocs' 23rd of this campaign alone.
It was also his 79th at UTC. There were four other victories during his time that he missed due to a brief hiatus from the program toward the end of the first semester of the 2020-21 season.
But he never wavered in his belief: in better things in life, in better things for the Mocs.
"I never worried about it," he said. "I talked to myself and just reminded myself that no matter what happened today, everything I'm doing now is going to make me better tomorrow. Everything I'm doing now, it's like, 'Man, I get to wake up and go to workouts?'
"It's like a blessing that I'm here."
Early this season, Paris expressed pride in the commitment Jean-Baptiste showed to UTC and said he knew the veteran player's future would be bright: "I told him after practice the other day that I can't wait to see what life looks like for him at 35 years old, because it's going to be really good."
Saturday afternoon, Jean-Baptiste will be the fifth starter announced and the fifth senior, joining Darius Banks, Silvio De Sousa, Josh Ayeni and Avery Diggs on the court. Legendary UTC announcer Scott McMahan will make the call, "And at guard, a 6-foot-1 senior from Miami, Florida, number three, DJB, David … Jean … Baptiste!", and "DJB" will run through the line, high-fiving teammates before doing his pregame handshake with guard Tada Stricklin, then turning to the growing UTC student section and striking an archer's pose to fire an imaginary bow and arrow — which will prompt the entire student section to fall down, mimicking as if they'd been hit.
"Saturday is going to be unreal," he said. "All the years, just the vibe, the city showing love, the fans, all the support. They've had my back, through everything. I can't wait to go out there one last time, and what a way to go out, cutting nets down in front of them for the last game."
One last moment. One last time. He bet on himself again and again, and in the end, he's won.
Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.
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