Speaking to a full gym in between the girls and boys basketball games on Thursday night at Calvary Christian School, former Knights basketball coach Steve Smithwick had plenty to say about his former player, Ette Ndem.
He talked about his elite athleticism — how he could leap over 40 inches and do it at a speed that allowed him to beat opponents for rebounds with ease. He talked about his leadership on and off the course, how he was a man of God. He talked about how he led Calvary to the GISA state championship game as a senior.
Asked later to describe Ndem, he needed just three words.
“A good man,” Smithwick said. “That’s Ette. He was a good man.”
Ette Ndem, who died nearly a year ago on March 21 after a nine-year battle with lymphoma, had his No. 23 jersey retired during a ceremony at the school. His three sisters, Eileen, Eka and Essie, and younger brother, Brookstone senior Sam, were all present for the celebration of a player who scored over 1,000 points in three years at the school. A handful of his former teammates were also in attendance.
When Knights athletic director Brian Osborne removed the sheet covering Ndem’s white home jersey, the crowd, which completely filled the gym, rose for a standing ovation.
Ndem graduated in 2006 and had received a scholarship offer from the late former Columbus State coach Herb Greene, a moment Smithwick called one of the proudest of his career as a basketball coach. That final season with the Knights, he averaged 16.7 points and 11.5 rebounds, helping them to a 28-4 record and a one-point loss in the state championship game.
Smithwick said it was all thanks to Ndem.
“Ette really changed my coaching career,” he said, repeating a statement he had made during his speech to the crowd. “We had never had an athlete like him around here. The season we had his senior year was really special, and Ette was so special to that team. He brought it together.”
Not long after he received his scholarship to Columbus State, Ndem was diagnosed with lymphoma. The nine-year battle that followed was so straining on the family, Smithwick said, that their mourning period has been tough.
His four siblings present at the ceremony were quiet, offering no words and only posing for a few brief pictures with his jersey. But Smithwick tried to put into words what seeing his jersey retired meant to the family.
“As a man, as a person — to honor him is special,” Smithwick said. “His spirit will echo through these halls forever.”