Another birther movement burgeons on the shores of the Potomac. It kicked up last week, in the wake of Bishop O'Connell's 68-48 rout of DeMatha, for decades the touchstone hoops program in the nation's capital.
The win put O'Connell in ESPN's top 25 prep hoops rankings for the first time this year. It also brought a lot of attention to Knights forward Junior Etou, a 6-foot-7 forward and recent transfer, who dominated DeMatha with 19 rebounds. Etou, deemed "one to watch" by ESPN's Dave Telep in 2011, has been one of the main reasons O'Connell has bounced back after posting a 14-18 record last year, the worst in 12 years under head coach Joe Wootten.
Over the weekend, the Washington Post thought enough of Etou to make him the lead of a massive story about the superior quality of D. C. schoolboy hoops. In previous articles, the paper had identified Etou as a cousin of Serge Ibaka of the Oklahoma City Thunder and said that he's attracted recruiters from Clemson, Miami, Temple, Cincinnati, West Virginia, Rutgers, Southern Cal, and Xavier. Kansas has reportedly recently begun courting him, too.
Fans and coaches of rival high schools in the D.C. area have suddenly taken stock of Etou, too, but for another reason: They're grumbling among themselves and on local hoops message boards about the apparent, um, maturity of the imported talent.
O'Connell says Etou is 18 years old, but even those with leanings toward the school had their doubts.
"It was like watching Chris Webber play a bunch of high school kids," an O'Connell alum told me after watching Etou dominate DeMatha.
And maybe the grumblers are onto something. Junior Etou's full name is Luc Tselan Tsiene Etou. He is originally from the Republic of Congo. Turns out that in 2009, Luc Tselan Tsiene Etou played for the Congo Republic national team in the FIBA Africa Championship in Tripoli and Benghazi. The roster for that tournament lists Etou's hometown as Pointe Noire, the second-largest city in the Republic, and his birth date as "4 June 1992." That would make him 20 years old, not 18.
He's also on the roster for the Congo Republic team that participated in the Africa U18 Championship in May 2010, which shows Etou's birthday as "04/06/1992."
And in August 2010, Etou is listed among the participants in a Basketball Without Borders camp in Dakar, where the entry under his name shows "Date of Birth: 4/6/1992."
All those events were overseen by FIBA, basketball's international governing body. Via email from the Geneva-based group's headquarters, a FIBA spokesman says that "according to our database," the June 4, 1992, birthday for Etou is accurate. For every FIBA-sanctioned event, the spokesman says, the national federation of each participating country must provide FIBA "with all necessary eligibility information such as copy of passport(s), birth registry, etc."
If FIBA's stats are right, Etou is more than a year older than Bradley Beal, the first-round pick of the local pro team, the Washington Wizards, in the last NBA draft. A gaggle of other 2012 first-rounders—all of whom, like Beal, had already spent a year in college before being drafted—are still younger than the FIBA Etou: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Andre Drummond, Austin Rivers, Moe Harkless, Evan Fournier, Tony Wroten Jr., and Marquis Teague.
That would also make Etou too old to play ball at O'Connell: The Washington Catholic Athletic Conference bars anybody who turns 19 years old before Sept. 1 of his senior year. If Etou was indeed born on June 4, 1992, it would mean he is five, even six years older than some of the players sharing a court with him. DeMatha point guard Alani Moore, for instance, just turned 15.
O'Connell's basketball coach/athletic director Joe Wootten, son of legendary former DeMatha coach Morgan Wootten, did not respond to phone messages or emails for this story.
But Katy Prebble, president of O'Connell (an administrative position, not a student body office), says that Etou's good to go, as far as the administration is concerned.
"The school has the documentation, including his passport, verifying the age of Junior Etou to be 18," Prebble says.
Prebble added that Etou's "documents have been found to be in order" by the WCAC. Asked if he was satisfied with the information on Etou that O'Connell had turned into the league, WCAC commissioner Jim Leary says, "At this point I have no comment."
There is at least one spot that lists Etou to be a younger man than FIBA purports. Luc Tselan Tsiene Etou has a Wikipedia page that lists his birthdate as June 4, 1994.
That page was created in 2009, not long after after Etou's appearance with the Congo Republic team at the continental championships in Libya. And at its creation, the Wiki page listed the June 4, 1992, birthday. The edit history, however, shows that on Jan. 24, 2011, an unregistered user going by "Ethoka" changed Etou's birthday to "June 4, 1994." Two days later, 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.
At the time the Wiki change was made, Etou was playing for Arlington Country Day, a high school in Jacksonville, Fla.
The IP address for the computer used to make the latter edit (126.96.36.199) traces back to Jacksonville.
The only footnote link on the page takes you to a website for the 2009 African tournament that says he was born in 1992.
Etou himself appears to have claimed the older age before. 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."
A board lurker asked tselan-tsiene/Junior where he's from. "je vien du congo précisement de pointe-noire," he responds. Translation: "I come from Congo, from Pointe-Noire."
The age and hometown claimed by Junior in 2007, in other words, correspond with the records FIBA posted for Luc Tselan Tsiene Etou beginning with his playing in the African championships two years later.
On that French message board post, Junior requested that any clubs wanting his service contact him at the email address firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today, you can find Etou on Facebook under the name Luc Junior Tselan Tsiene. His handle there is "bayanho94."
Etou told the Washington Post he came to D.C. for his senior season because players "play harder and have more skills here." But it ain't like they're slouches at the Florida school Etou left behind. Arlington Country Day, where Etou played for two seasons, is ranked 19th in the nation by the Blue Star Poll, and according to the school has 13 male alums currently playing NCAA Division 1 ball, including last week's ESPN national player of the week, Rodney McGruder from Kansas State. Coach and athletic director Rex Morgan says eight of the kids on this year's team will play D1 when they leave.
Morgan says he "doesn't remember the exact date" for Etou's birthday, but says he knows that the date on his I-20 student visa and his passport showed that he was of eligible age when he enrolled at Country Day in 2010. The rule in Florida is that players can play only until they are 19 years and nine months old, Morgan says, meaning even at his FIBA age Etou would have been eligible to play at Country Day last year. But he'd have been too old to play this season.
While it's not kosher to play high school ball as a twentysomething, there are positives to being a vicenarian preppie. If Etou's really as old as FIBA says he is, he'll likely be the only guy in his O'Connell class who can drink legally during beach week.
Dave McKenna is a writer in Washington D.C.