High School Sports

David Mitchell: Ette Ndem able to smile through tough times

In death, grief is often borne out of regret. Regret for time missed or company lost, for something that could have been said or done differently.

Those who are fulfilled and satisfied with a relationship often find it easier to look upon the time together fondly and celebrate the life rather than grieve the death.

That is the case with former Calvary Christian star basketball player Ette Ndem, who died in New York on March 21 at age 27 after a nine-year battle with cancer. Steve Smithwick, who coached the 2005-06 team that Ndem led to the GISA state championship game, was relaxed when asked to discuss Ndem on the phone a few days later.

"I can talk for a long time about Ette," he explained.

Smithwick told stories about Ndem, who played three years with the Knights after spending his freshman season at Hardaway.

How he was a freak athlete who, despite being just 6-foot-1, could rise up for awe-inspiring dunks. How he played around with the elementary-aged kids at Calvary when he was a senior, teaching them basketball and interacting with them in their classrooms. How he always wore a smile, as if amazed he was allowed to be alive.

And how, when contracting lymphoma in 2006 and being faced with his own mortality, he fought. How he was convinced, even two and three years into his battle, that he would recover and be able to take advantage of the basketball scholarship he received to play at Columbus State. How, even in the worst of times, he maintained his positive outlook and signature smile.

"I'm painting a mighty flowery picture, but that's truly who he was," Smithwick said.

On the court, Ndem was a terror.

While he didn't have outlandish size, his athleticism was second to none. So good, Smithwick said, that opposing teams would always come and ask him which one Ndem was when they met for a game. When the Knights went to the GISA championship game in Ndem's senior year, a game they lost by one point, Smithwick said it wasn't so much the game that filled out the bleachers as it was the player.

"People were there to see him," he said. "When he threw one down, he made a scene. He was only 6-1, but he had a vertical that was out of the gym."

Smithwick said that jump was 48 inches and that he ran a 4.4 40-yard dash on asphalt.

Kevin Williams was a teammate of Ndem at Calvary in his junior and senior seasons. Williams said he knew of Ndem because of playing ball around the city throughout the years. His reputation was so good, that it was intimidating to be around him.

"He was always just such a great athlete," Williams explained. "He was kind of intimidating because he was big and could jump. Once the game started, he was all business. It was always a joy to play with him because you knew you were getting his best at all times."

People were so intimidated that many were afraid to approach him, Williams said, which was, of course, their loss. Because when they did, he said, they learned how laid back, inviting and funny he really was.

"He loved company," Williams said. "He invited people. He could always pick people up when they were down."

Williams recalled one instance when Ndem pulled the best player on an opposing team aside after Calvary had ended its season in his senior year.

"Ette told this guy that he saw the potential in their team and that they could have a great season the next year," he said. "It was amazing to me that he would care. The rest of us were just like, those guys aren't on our team, they don't matter. But it meant something to him. That spoke a lot to his character."

So, too, did his approach to his disease.

Williams, Ndem and other friends continued to play pick-up basketball over the summer after their senior years at Calvary. Ndem had been awarded with a scholarship to play basketball at Columbus State and planned to join the team in the fall.

One day, Ndem told Williams he couldn't play that day because he had to go to the doctor. He was having pains in his chest and needed to get it checked out.

"The next time I talked to him, he told me he had cancer," Williams said. "He was always a jokester, and we told him it wasn't a funny joke.

"The way he told us was just real nonchalant, like he had a cold or something.

"That's how he fought it the whole time. He never complained. He almost didn't want to talk about it, like it wasn't worth his time."

Instead, he was more interested in the NBA or March Madness, Georgia Tech football (especially this past season) or how things were going for others. He paid close attention to Williams and the Knights after Williams returned to be an assistant coach from 2008-14.

Ndem fought the disease for nine years before finally succumbing to the disease last week. He never was able to get back on the court and play the game he loved again.

"It's terrible," Smithwick said. "It was terrible to watch him experience that because he was so gifted. He really thought he was going to kick it and he would go back to playing, but of course that didn't happen."

But he did come back to Calvary on occasion and watch its games when he could. And whenever he did, there was always one thing that cancer never changed.

"He smiled," Smithwick said. "He was always happy whenever you ran into him. He was an exceptional young man."

-- Update: Funeral arrangements have not yet been finalized by the family.

David Mitchell, dmitchell@ledger-enquirer.com. Follow David on Twitter @leprepsports