In response to our report that its newest basketball star will turn 21 years old this year, Bishop O'Connell High School is standing by its, um, man. But that support's not making Junior Etou any younger in the eyes of global basketball authorities, who now say they have an "official" copy of the player's birth certificate.
We wrote two weeks ago that Etou, a senior transfer and power forward at the Arlington, Va., prep school, was known in a previous basketball life as Luc Tselan Tsiene Etou and had played for the national team of his native Republic of Congo in a number of events sanctioned by FIBA, basketball's international governing body. According to Bishop O'Connell, Etou is 18 years old; according to FIBA's database, Etou is 20, with a birthdate of June 4, 1992. That would make Etou too old to play in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, which bars anybody who turns 19 years old before Sept. 1 of his senior year.
What's more, in a 2007 post on a French basketball message board, Etou declared himself to be 15 years old, which would jibe with FIBA's information.
Etou's play, particularly on the defensive end, has attracted the interest of college recruiters from across the land and sparked a fabulous resurgence of the O'Connell program. Last year, the team went 14-18, its first losing season of the century and the worst record under its coach, Joe Wootten. But this year, Etou's first after transferring from a high school in Jacksonville, Fla., the Knights are ranked second in the D.C. area heading into tonight's matchup with WCAC rival and defending city titlists Paul VI.
Wootten, who is also O'Connell's athletic director and the son of local legend and basketball hall of fame high school coach Morgan Wootten, did not respond to several calls and emails regarding Etou's age before our story was published. After the piece came out, however, Wootten told the Washington Post that Etou was only 18 years old and had a passport that proves it. "[Y]ou can put anything on a Web site that you want," Wootten said, adding that he'd already had conversations about the age controversy with Etou's father in the Congo Republic.
The Etou family, Wootten said, was planning to get FIBA to change its records to reflect what he claimed was the player's actual birthday, June 4, 1994. Wootten also told the web site MaxPreps that questioning Etou's age was "like Donald Trump calling out Barack Obama regarding the birth certificate." On Sunday, Wootten told a Northern Virginia newspaper, The Connection, that the Etou age controversy was "a dead issue."
Perhaps it's dead in the administrative and athletic offices at O'Connell. Alas, the issue's still got some life in Geneva, where FIBA's home offices are located.
Yesterday, FIBA spokesman Simon Wilkinson released a statement in response to the Washington Post story and after reviewing Etou's file. Wootten's comments in the Post piece didn't sway FIBA. As far as the group is concerned, Etou was born on June 4, 1992. FIBA is furthermore not aware of any effort by Etou's family or anybody else to officially change the player's birth date from 1992 to 1994. Wilkinson also said that if O'Connell does indeed have documents that differ from those that Etou's home country turned over in 2009 when he played for his national team, the school shouldn't necessarily regard those documents as gospel, given that age tampering is commonplace among African basketball exports.
Please be informed that we have not (yet) heard from the player's family regarding any corrections to be made to our database. It is our understanding that the player, his family and the school maintain that the player is in possession of a passport with a date of birth in the year 1994. While FIBA has never been provided with such copy, we do not challenge the fact that a passport indicating 1994 as the year of birth may indeed have been issued.
We do however confirm being in possession of an official copy of the player's birth certificate issued by the civil authorities of the Republic of Congo indicating the following date of birth: 4 June 1992.
Please note that having not been provided with further elements in this matter and having not received any official complaint or request to investigate, FIBA cannot take a position about the existence of a document indicating another date of birth.
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.
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.
Reached last night and asked for a comment on the FIBA statement, O'Connell administrative president Katy Prebble reiterated that the school will go by its own paperwork, not FIBA's, when determining if Etou is too old to pick and roll in prep school.
"Junior is a fine young man," Prebble said, "and we are proud that he is part of our school community."
Dave McKenna is a writer in Washington D.C.