By Anthony Hooker
Killeen Daily Herald
Nino Etienne should consider a job as a travel agent once he graduates college.
For a man who has taken up residence in at least three countries (Panama, Korea, U.S.) before his 22nd birthday – none through contractual obligation – Etienne has let his basketball Jones help him acquire a basketball pedigree that most people would only accept if they were receiving a six-figure salary.
The 6-foot-3 guard-forward from Harker Heights currently plays for Texas Wesleyan, a private college in Fort Worth. His team also happens to be the defending NAIA Division I champions in men's basketball. Etienne has a diamond-encrusted ring to prove it, but chooses to keep it tucked away so as not to draw focus from his current Ram teammates.
When you say a four-letter acronym describing basketball, people generally assume NCAA. Etienne has gone that route, but decided that it's not the only satisfying path to hoops nirvana.
"My freshman year of college (2003-04), I was recruited by Baylor to come join their club," Etienne recalled. "I was attending the U.S. military prep school and (Baylor) along with a couple of other D-I schools recruited me to come in mid-term to join their program."
"What the (Baylor) coaches were feeding me, it sounded so nice. Going from prep school to playing in the Big 12, where I could be watched on TV, that was like a dream come true. I knew I wasn't suited for the military lifestyle and it was close to family (father Luis was stationed back at Fort Hood) where I knew I'd get support."
It seemed like an easy fit. Scott Drew was a first-year coach for the program and in dire need for good athletes to fill the roster. Etienne was a standout performer for Army Prep averaging 33 points a game. He'd also been a high school standout locally for Harker Heights High School and, after moving overseas in a military move with his family, was named All-Korea his senior year in high school.
"Nino was my silent assassin," Knights head coach Celneque Bobbitt recalled. "He was very strong to the basket. I had he and Jejuan Plair (an all-conference performer now at Sam Houston State) on the same squad. They were both very similar. They were each very humble; their games spoke for themselves."
Perception and reality proved to be a bad mix. Etienne left for Baylor in January and although he played in eight games, was only able to make a minimal contribution, getting only spare playing time. When he met with the Bear coaching staff after the season, his hopes were sunk even more.
"My last meeting with Baylor, they told me that most of the playing time at my position would go to incoming players," Etienne said. "I didn't agree with that because I felt I could do more. I began to feel like I didn't fit."
"It seemed to become more like a business experience: Things that were promised now were not promised."
So, although disappointed, Etienne remained resourceful.
"I learned to adjust at an earlier age. I wasn't recruited by anyone after high school so I promoted myself. So I began to look around at other programs."
Texas Wesleyan became a real possibility shortly. Why?
"I wanted somewhere I could play right away," said Etienne. "I talked to the coaches and decided to give it a chance.
"It was a step down but I was happy as long as I got a chance to play."
Wesleyan was not distinguished in any athletic tradition, but the close proximity to Central Texas satisfied one of Etienne's priorities: family.
"Family comes first," he said. "My father had been on single deployments to San Antonio, El Paso and Germany, which limited his chance to see my games. I wanted to finish school in Killeen but I knew my family would all be together if he left for overseas. I knew I couldn't say no but my father had the decency to ask me (my decision)."
Etienne's father, Luis, says his son's attitude didn't surprised him.
"We have always been a very tight-knit family," says Luis. "Nino grew up looking up to his older brother who is a West Point graduate. That's why he went to the military academy."
Etienne averaged seven points and five rebounds per game his first season but was a breakout performer his junior year, averaging 11 points and seven rebounds. He was named second-team all-conference and had a 59 percent field goal percentage, recognized as the highest career percentage of any Wesleyan player ever.
Even though his team had a 20-win season and five all-conference performers, Wesleyan was seeded 27th out of 32 teams invited to the NAIA national tournament. The Rams exceeded their seeding, rolling past all five opponents, the final one dropped on a last-second three-pointer to secure the first-ever national championship for the school.
This obscure college was suddenly being feted with numerous awards and honors. There were resolutions and proclamations from two city councils, the Texas state Senate and the United State Congress. Even President George W. Bush sent a letter of commendation.
"I couldn't believe we'd won something like that," said Etienne. "A lot of people don't know what NAIA is, but people who do respected what we had accomplished. Talent, hard work and a little luck went into this and I feel special every time I put on my ring. I know how hard it was to get this."
But each year brings a new challenge. The current one was no different. Formerly a wing player, Etienne was asked by head coach Terry Waldrop early in the season to run the point for him.
"I asked Etienne to run the team because he was the only guy who could do it," said Waldrop by phone. "Nino is not a vocal leader but he leads by example."
Resourceful as ever, Etienne perserved through a trying session.
"When I switched to point guard, it was a difficult transition. There were eight new guys in the rotation. It was tough to help them understand what level we needed to play at to be successful. I had to play a new position and make sure that my teammates kept a high level of intensity."
Etienne's shooting percentage dipped to 43 percent, but he came around offensively in the team's final contests, even scoring a triple-double (16 point, 10 rebounds, 12 assists in a late February game against Bacone (Okla.) College. The team nearly equaled its regular-season victory total of a year ago, going 19-9. But a first-round loss in their conference tournament has them in jeopardy of not returning to
Kansas City, the annual site of the national tournament.
Waldrop said tournament basketball in the NAIA is basically the same as the others. "You can't take anything for granted. Your next game can be your last game."
"Nino and my other seniors embraced the challenge I offered this year because of their work ethic and a willingness to adapt.
Scheduled to graduate in May with a degree in kinesology, Etienne also has been contacted by the Panamanian national team. Born in Panama City, he is eligible to join them this summer as they prepare to play in the Pan American Games this summer (late August-early September).
"I am just happy to get an opportunity to continue to play, but I won't forget my time spent here. With the season being possibly over, I've been able to appreciate (last year) more."
"I pulled out my ring today for the first time in awhile. When I put it on, it made me think of all the special moments we made to get it. People who see this ring don't always know what I'm talking about but when I explain the history behind it they understand."
Contact Anthony Hooker at email@example.com