Looks like an already-messy situation on the D.C. hoops scene is about to get messier. Junior Etou, a breakout star at Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington, Va., is about to turn 18 all over again.
Simon Wilkinson, a spokesman for FIBA, tells me in an email that the Geneva-based international basketball sanctioning body has just received "official documents" that indicate Etou was born "4th June 1994 and not 4th June 1992," as the group had previously stated.
In response, FIBA will likely lop two years off Etou's official basketball age, despite having in its possession an "official" copy of Etou's birth certificate that gave the 1992 birthdate. Also, in our first story about Etou, we found a 2007 message board post apparently written by Etou in which he refers to himself as 15 years old, which would put his birthdate in 1992. At 20 years old, he would be too old to play at O'Connell. The Washington Catholic Athletic Conference bars anybody who turns 19 before Sept. 1 of his senior year.
Wilkinson said the new documents were submitted by the basketball federation of Etou's native Republic of Congo and came from a "civil court" case there. Wilkinson said his office would not discuss that case or anything else about the documents.
No matter when FIBA changes Etou's birthday, it'll be too late for him to make his own league's all-star teams, however.
Coaches in the WCAC, likely the nation's most powerful prep basketball alliance, refused to vote the 6-foot-7 forward onto any of its all-star teams. They think he's too old.
At the annual coaches meeting on Saturday, O'Connell coach Joe Wootten nominated his senior transfer student for all-league honors. Under normal circumstances, he'd be a sure first-teamer. Though league-wide stats aren't record, Etou is acknowledged as the top rebounder in the conference (he had two 20-rebound games), and he put up 18 rebounding/scoring double doubles on the season. During his nominating pitch, Wootten said Etou also averaged five block shots a game, which would doubtless be a league-best stat. (One of Etou's monster blocks made a national high school plays-of-the-week video compilation last week.)
The talent evaluating website Rivals.com says Etou is one of only nine players in the country on its Top 150 roster who has yet to declare what college he'll attend. That's not for a lack of suitors. Clemson offered him a scholarship, and talk around D.C. hoops circles this week has Miami in the lead to land Etou.
But according to two coaches who were at the meeting, both of whom requested anonymity, officials from rival schools unloaded on Wootten as soon he made the nomination. They directly accused him of cheating by playing Etou.
"Everybody said, 'Look, Joe, we know you're playing a kid who's almost 21 and that's bull!'" a WCAC coach told me.
Before that meeting, all the grumbling about Etou's age by league coaches and administrators at member schools—and there's been oodles of grumbling all season—had taken place in more private settings. Nobody with any standing was willing to publicly take on Wootten, who is also O'Connell's athletic director and, more importantly, the son of local legend and basketball hall of famer Morgan Wootten, of DeMatha fame. The Woottens run some of the most popular—and lucrative—hoops camps and clinics in the region, and for decades any D.C.-area high school coach looking to jump into the college ranks has made a point of getting on the father's good side, because of his connections at the next level.
The bile ducts opened at the meeting, however. After the yelling stopped and the votes were tallied, Etou was left off the 10-player all-WCAC first team and the five-man second- and third-teams. Historically within WCAC, any player who is nominated but not voted onto an all-league team has been named honorable mention.
But when the WCAC releases its all-league basketball teams today, in time for the conference tournament's tipoff, Etou won't even be on the honorable mentions list.
"His coach asked me to remove the player's name from honorable mention," says Joe Reyda, the athletic director at Gonzaga College High School and the man responsible for compiling the all-league teams.
Coaches at the meeting say the all-star vote was not a judgment on Etou's play but a referendum on his age. And there's more than enough evidence showing that Etou is indeed too old to be playing high school ball.
Mr. Etou, going by his full name Luc Tselan Tsiene Etou, played for the national team of his native Congo Republic in 2009. His birthday on the roster was listed as June 4, 1992. A year later, he was named to his country's 18-and-under team that competed in the junior African basketball championships. He was listed on that roster as an 18-year-old with that same June 4, 1992 birthday.
The Congo team went 3-1 in round-robin play in the junior tournament, winning its bracket and advancing to the elimination round.
However, before that round could get started, the Congo team was thrown out of the tourney and, according to reports from African newspapers, suspended from FIBA events for two years. The reason for the suspension? Age fraud.
By FIBA's reckoning, Etou was a legitimate 18-year-old in 2010. He was not among the players found to be fudging their age.
But with his team suspended, Etou showed up in Jacksonville, Fla., playing for the high-powered squad at Arlington Country Day School. And within a couple months of his arrival, a Wikipedia page set up for Etou—"born 4 June 1992"—after he made the Congo national team was changed to reflect a birthdate in 1994. Shortly after that, an anonymous Wikian, editing his or her own edit, recategorized Etou from a "1992 birth" to a "1994 birth," where Etou has remained ever since. The IP address for the computer used to make the change traces back to Jacksonville. (Etou would've been eligible to play at Country Day last year even at his FIBA age; he would've been too old to play this season.)
But the strongest evidence that Etou has a 1992 birthday likely comes from Etou himself. In 2007, somebody with his name and hometown (Pointe Noire, Congo) went on a French message board to say he was looking to catch on with an amateur basketball team in France. Etou has said he's a cousin of Oklahoma City star Serge Ibaka, also from the Republic of Congo; Ibaka was playing in France for the the club Prisse Macon in 2007. Here's what I wrote in our original post about Etou:
In December 2007, a poster going by "tselan-tsiene" registered with alvoltaire.com, a message board based in France and dedicated to basketball junkies. "Slt je m'appelle junior je recherche un club de basket jais 1m97,jais 15ans,je pése 75kg. je veu intégrer un club en france jais du tallon," he wrote.
Translation: "Hello my name is Junior. I'm 6-feet-5, 15 years old, 165 pounds, and I'm looking for a basketball club to play for."
Tselan-Tsiene used the email handle "bayanho92" in that 2007 post; on his Facebook page, under the name Luc Junior Tselan Tsiene, Etou used the handle "bayanho94." (The Facebook account was opened in 2010.) O'Connell officials did not respond when I asked several weeks ago if they'd asked Etou about the message-board post. Etou deleted his Facebook page shortly thereafter.
Joe Wootten did not respond to questions for this story. But Michael J. Donohue, a spokesman for the Arlington Archdiocese, which oversees O'Connell, said that the school has "done its due diligence" to ensure that Etou was of age, and he called any claims that Etou was ineligible "mean-spirited."
The day the Deadspin piece was posted, Wootten told the Washington Post that O'Connell had all the documentation it needed to show that Etou was eligible for WCAC play, and that Etou's father in the Congo Republic was working with FIBA in Africa to change the 1992 birthday to 1994.
However, that Post story appeared to peeve FIBA officials, who subsequently issued a statement reiterating that as far as they're concerned Etou was still born in 1992, and that neither Etou's family nor anybody else had approached the organization to correct anything. The statement chided anybody who questioned the documentation.
"We must note however that FIBA unfortunately regularly comes across situations whereby young players from Africa seek to obtain identity documents indicating a younger age in order to find better opportunities in Europe or in the USA," the statement read. "FIBA is working hard with FIBA Africa and the national federations in Africa to eradicate these practices which do not serve the development of basketball in Africa."
But now FIBA appears willing to stop arguing. Wilkinson said earlier today that while no final decision has been made by FIBA's legal department on the matter, the group could issue a statement changing Etou's birthday to 1994 as early as tonight.
The all-league snub isn't the only indignity Etou suffered as a result of the age controversy. A day after the coaches meeting, at last weekend's season finale against the top-ranked team in the D.C. metro area, Gonzaga, fans in the student section passed around a placard that read "Happy 50th Birthday to Michael Jordan and Junior Etou." A security guard went into the stands and, with a big smile, confiscated the sign.
Dave McKenna is a writer in Washington D.C.