• Joe Malandruccolo

Semper Firebird - Saint Katherine's Bryan Baptiste



Bryan Baptiste had one choice to make, one of those life-altering choices that impacts everyone around him.

 

His college decision had arrived almost nine years after graduating high school. But the choice didn’t come down to the school with the nicest facilities or best extra-curricular activities.

 

Instead, Bryan’s decision came down to continuing on the path he painstakingly carved out or forging a new path into the unknown.

 

“Definitely not an easy decision. I probably lost sleep some nights thinking about it,” said Bryan.

 

Well certainly Bryan received helpful guidance from his family, yes?

 

“My mom is the one who was strongly against it. My dad was supportive…he told me, 'If that’s what you want to do you should do it.’”

 

So one vote for no and one vote for decisiveness. What did Bryan’s wife have to say?

 

“She was actually more with it than me!”

 

It seems like a hung jury. Did Bryan’s decision arrive expeditiously?

 

“I debated on it for almost a whole year. Maybe six, nine months to a year…I talked to a lot of people about it.”

 

MIDDLE SCHOOL MELANCHOLY

Throughout most of his childhood, basketball came second for Bryan, who focused more on football with a dash of hoops on the side. “I didn’t take it serious when I was young,” Bryan said.

 

And who could begrudge him? Growing up in Atlanta, football stood front and center.

 

But as he grew up, Bryan shifted his focus from the gridiron to the hardwood, making basketball his priority and, eventually, his dream. Bryan now set his focus on playing college basketball.

 

Bryan stumbled early: he did not make his middle school basketball team. Not the start he wanted, but perhaps not surprising given his new commitment to the game and lack of instruction on the court.

 

After getting cut, basketball would find a way to fuse with Bryan’s soul even further.

 

“I was outside playing one day and I didn’t even know what happened,” Bryan began. “But I know the ambulance and a bunch of fire trucks pulled up.”

 

Bryan’s mom, Harriette, had suffered a stroke.

 

“And my mom was unconscious and her body was like…her face and a whole side of her body was paralyzed and she was in the hospital for a long time,” recounted Bryan.

 

Doctors did not expect her to survive.

 

With his mom in the hospital, Bryan didn’t want to go to school. On some days, he didn’t even want to get out of bed.

 

But during those desperate weeks, Bryan had basketball. He continued to work out and use the game as an outlet. Bryan coached himself, and his mom taught him a little something about perseverance.

 

Despite the initial prognosis from doctors, his mom pulled through.

 

“She wasn’t even supposed to make it,” Bryan recalls. “They always say it was a miracle or through the grace of God that she made it…Definitely a blessing that she’s still here.”

 

After a moment so frightening, and with her recovery on the horizon, Bryan felt inspired. He says the ordeal encouraged him to be better and work harder.



HIGH SCHOOL HOOPING & HOPING

Through middle school and into high school, Bryan continued to work on his game, still without coaching. He turned his attention towards the high school team, and at this point, he felt comfortable about his development as a player.

 

“I’ve always been a great defender, partly from playing football,” he said. “I was a point guard in high school but I couldn’t shoot so I was just a good passer. Great passer, great defender…I just kind of made it on my own. Basketball, everything I did I got on my own.”

 

Bryan’s high school coaches opted to play without him, cutting him from the ninth and tenth grade teams. The college basketball dream took another stumble.

 

“It was kind of depressing. You know, you try to dedicate your life to something and you just keep having setback after setback after setback…It was depressing that I wasn’t seeing success early,” Bryan bemoaned.

 

Success finally broke through when Bryan secured a spot on his 11th grade team. After hardly seeing the floor that year, he would have only his senior season to impress college coaches.

 

Bryan started 12 games for the Arabia Mountain Rams as a senior, serving as the team’s second-leading scorer with 9.5 points per game on 50% shooting from inside the arc. He dished out 2.6 assists, swiped 2.2 steals and gathered 2.1 rebounds per game.

 

With the season now over, Bryan’s focus turned towards the next level. But, the next level did not turn its focus towards Bryan. His season yielded zero interest from any colleges. And not a single conversation with any college coaches. And without the funds to pay for tuition, any shot of being a walk-on went out the window.

 

After working out the rest of the summer and into the fall, Bryan’s basketball options had fully depleted. Not wanting to get stuck at home, Bryan audibled to his plan B. But that plan B didn’t stand for basketball, it stood for basic training.

 

SEMPER FIDELIS

“I was talking to a Marine Corps recruiter in high school my senior year already,” Bryan retold. “So I was already kind of in the delayed entry program. The program you’re in before you actually join, before you get shipped out to basic training.”

 

Bryan had Marine blood in his veins. Having a Marine for a dad and uncle, Bryan felt the strong influence of the Corps as he navigated high school. He officially enlisted in the Marine Corps and left for basic training.

 

Bryan and his dream had run out of time. The gym lights turned off and his basketball aspirations had expired.

 

“Once I decided to join the Marine Corps my focus was solely off of basketball,” he said. “I was solely focused on just starting a foundation for myself and just focusing on my life.”

 

But basketball had become part of Bryan’s life. Despite it no longer being the focus, it laid there dormant…waiting.

 

LOVE AT LEJEUNE

Very few destinations inspire romance as strong as Marine Base Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C. At least that’s how Bryan and his now-wife Raynn saw it when first stationed there in 2013.

 

How ironic that Bryan would be stationed in North Carolina: a state so rich in college basketball history and home to some of the most legendary figures in the game itself. But Bryan had no trips along Tobacco Road any time soon.

 

Raynn and Bryan enlisted around the same time and worked together on the base, where their relationship took off on a fast break. They had their first daughter, Sierra, in 2013 and married in October 2014.

 

Happily married and a proud dad, it wouldn’t be long before Bryan found a new love while in the Marines. Or better yet, rekindled an old flame.

 

RISING UP THE RANKS

While the ship had sailed on his college basketball dreams, the game itself never left Bryan’s heart.

 

“Even though I gave up basketball, you still love basketball, you still follow the game,” said Bryan. “So I still played pickup, still go to the gym…I’d just walk in the gym, shoot around.”

 

Shootaround and pickup games quickly evolved into playing intramural, which led to dominating intramural and being invited to a varsity level practice. Marine varsity basketball sees teams travel to other bases to play games.

 

“I didn’t even know basketball or sports in the military was even a thing,” admitted Bryan. “It just happened so fast.”

 

Playing organized games gently stoked the fire of Bryan’s passion for basketball. Still, Bryan’s primary focus remained the Marines. He’s playing basketball for fun in his free time, but playing varsity level represented an entirely different undertaking. It’s an invitation that Bryan nearly refused.

 

“I don’t even think I’m gonna go. I don’t want to play…I don’t want to get back,” he told Raynn. “Because once I get into it I know how I get. Once I get into it I’m into it. And it's going to go to another level.”

 

It’s all fun and games until Bryan Baptiste locks in. Still, Bryan couldn’t pass up the opportunity to check it out. He decided to go to the practice, just not fully dressed.

 

“I didn’t even take my shoes. I go to the practice just to look,” Bryan said. Both he and Raynn attended as astute observers, a decision that would change Bryan’s life.

 

Bryan sees what looks like a real, formal practice; his eyes light up as he gazes upon the room with amazement. Before the end of practice, the team offers Bryan a spot in an upcoming tournament.

 

But Bryan’s self-doubt creeps up.

 

“I’m like, ‘Man, I haven’t worked out, I haven’t taken it serious enough,’” he admits. “Now I’m doubting myself a little bit, second-guessing myself. I don’t even think I could play because this is pretty good.”

 

Raynn recalls Bryan’s uncertainty despite his early success. “I have always had more faith in Bryan than he has in himself,” she said. “I did not know much about basketball other than the basics but watching him play…he was doing A LOT better than the other Marines.”

 

After grappling with it for a little, Bryan gets his shoes, laces them up, and goes to that varsity tournament.

 

Unsurprisingly, at least to Raynn, Bryan earned selection to the all-Marine team for the first time in 2016, a group consisting of the best Marine hoopers in the entire country.

 

“Like I said, I never had a true trainer. So once they started putting the bug in my ear about all-Marine, telling me about the competition…now I’m kinda starting to lock in,” said Bryan.

 

The definition of a coach might be subjective. While not an official trainer, someone supported Bryan’s growth and wanted him to succeed. And he didn’t have to go very far to find them.

 

“Working out gave us time to be together,” Raynn said. “So I started tagging along just to spend more time with him, push him, and help practice. Plus running down all the rebounds helped get my steps in!”

 

As quickly as the basketball opportunities took off, Bryan and Raynn’s world came crashing down just as rapidly that same year. Their second daughter, Londyn, was stillborn. After losing Londyn, Bryan stepped away from basketball for a few months.

 

CHILDREN IN THE CORPS

Eventually, Bryan found the strength to get back on the court and resume his basketball career.

 

Bryan would earn selection to the all-Marine team again in 2017 and 2019. Sure it took hard work but he really only had his deployments and basketball to worry about, right?

 

Introducing the newest additions to the Baptiste lineup: Dre, born 2017, and Loran, born 2018. New teammates of Bryan and Raynn, along with older sister Sierra, to complete their starting five.

 

Sure, Bryan can dribble well, but can he juggle?

 

“Everyday is something different trying to find a way to get this done for them. My son got a doctor appointment today, I got practice tonight, we’ve got a game this weekend,” Bryan explains. “It’s just a day-by-day process I can’t even explain how it goes but it’s just everyday it’s a new challenge. I wake up and whatever happens that day I just go with it, just gotta get it done.”

 

STRUGGLING WITH CONFIDENCE

Positive feedback came from everyone Bryan played with regardless of the level of competition. Words that, little by little, nurtured the idea that he might be good enough for an even higher level.

 

“People were always telling me, ‘You should be playing college, you shouldn’t be in the military...You’re too talented,’ relayed Bryan. “And I’m thinking in my head, ‘I mean yeah I believe them but at the same time, I don’t think so.’”

 

This cloud of doubt continued to hover above. Despite all the games, tournaments and affirmation, Bryan couldn’t quite see himself that way.

 

“I’m my biggest doubter at the same time,” he admitted. “So, I always doubt myself, even in the easy situation…I’ll be in my head like, ‘I don’t even think so, I don’t think I could play college.’ It didn’t hit me until 2019 when I thought I really could play college basketball.”



SHOWING OUT AT MAYPORT

Enter the Armed Forces Basketball Championship at Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, Fla. Bryan’s all-Marine team assembled to challenge the best teams from the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force. But something about the other branches caught Bryan’s attention.

 

Those other branches all have their own Division 1 universities, but not the Marine Corps. As a result, many of the players on those teams had Division 1 talent, which motivated Bryan to turn up the intensity, and he wasn’t taking any chances.

 

“I’m going on YouTube, I’m looking up their stats in college. They’re playing against Duke, Kentucky, you know, big-time schools,” said Bryan. “So I’m looking at these players that I’m playing against right now, I’m looking up their highlights…But the fact that I’m playing against them and I’m excelling and doing well. So now I’m thinking, man, maybe I can play with them.”

 

Bryan averaged 17.1 points per game and started all seven games. He left Florida knowing that he could hang with Division 1 athletes and with a renewed thirst for the college game.

 

Bryan also left with an invitation to the International Military Sports Council World Games, to be held later that year in Wuhan, China. Now on a USA military all-star team, Bryan’s basketball career had reached a new height.

 

STARS, STRIPES & SLAM DUNKS

But before Wuhan, China, there had to be Sacramento, Calif., in September of that same year. Bryan felt like an NBA star. “Just like how the pros go to Vegas,” he grinned.

 

But Team USA bypassed Sin City in favor of Sactown, where Bryan couldn’t help but feel things evolving for him.

 

“And when we get to training camp for Team USA it’s just hitting me more and more. I really feel like I could play college basketball,” said Bryan. “They’re telling me that I could play and now it’s really hitting me like, maybe I can play…I felt real special that I was the only player on the Team USA roster that didn’t play college basketball.”

 

Flirting with the idea of college basketball, Bryan went abroad to China and did his thing.

 

“Probably my most memorable experience playing basketball period was going overseas,” Bryan beamed. “It was definitely a big thing, especially winning a silver medal.”

 

Coach Raynn weighed in on what makes Bryan such a unique player: “Bryan's work ethic is unmatched. He makes so many sacrifices in order to be the amazing player he is. He is tough on himself, nothing is ever enough and he never settles...that's what makes him limitless. He is always working to outwork himself.”

 

Basketball had taken Bryan from North Carolina to Florida, out to Sacramento and over to China. He would head back out to California for the next leg of his voyage.



RECRUITMENT: THE SAME BUT DIFFERENT

Oceanside, Calif., houses Camp Pendleton, Bryan’s second duty station. From there, he cruised about 43 miles down Pacific Coast Highway for a varsity tournament at Naval Base San Diego, where one civilian would be the biggest star in attendance

 

“I literally got on base and got in through a friend I know on the base,” said Kevin Williamson, Head Coach of the University of Saint Katherine men’s basketball team.

 

And why would a head coach be at a basketball tournament at a naval base on a weekend in January?

 

“You’re trying to find crazy talented prospects in the middle of nowhere with no resources,” he boomed.

 

Did your search uncover any of those crazy talented prospects? Did you locate Bryan Baptiste?

 

“He was by far and away the best player,” Williamson said.

 

That day, Bryan once again heard a very similar message, but this time from someone whose opinion meant just a little bit more.

 

Williamson believed that Bryan could play at the college level and he let Bryan know that there would be an open roster spot, should Bryan choose to leave the military. Bryan took Williamson’s business card and said thank you.

 

Along his journey, Bryan had always intended to retire from the Marine Corps. As his level of play improved, he felt that college basketball itch. But for the longest time, Bryan said it wasn’t an itch he felt compelled to scratch. That changed after meeting Williamson.



WHAT’S IT GOING TO BE

When the time came to re-enlist in the Marines, Bryan had a choice to make.

 

A choice that would affect his own life and that of Raynn and their kids. On one side, the stability of staying in the Marines and everything that came with it.

 

“I spent eight years of my life in the military and the military is a 20-year retirement. You get paid for the rest of your life, 20 years,” Bryan explained. “So I was just about at the halfway point of retiring early, living the dream…I got a solid foundation, I got my wife who’s taken care of, my kids are taken care of, education, medical, housing, everything. You know, we’re taken care of.”

 

The other side of that would lead to life-altering adjustments.

 

“I’m basically just leaving everything that I've worked eight years for to live as a college student,” said Bryan. “The lifestyle of a college student…you can’t really work while you’re in college and be a student-athlete. Workouts, practices, weights, film, meetings, classes, study halls. So you don’t have time to have a job to support a family. To support the foundation you’ve built for the last eight years…I do have mouths to feed still.”

 

But Bryan also felt the hunger to play college basketball. He turned to his support system for help.

 

Bryan’s dad weighed in with advice rather than a solution. Dad told his son that his indecision would only lead to stronger feelings of pressure and stress. On the other hand, his mom remained adamant about Bryan keeping his commitment to the Marines.

 

And then came Raynn. “She was telling me, ‘No. Get out. You have a gift. You need to go play basketball,’” Bryan shared. “She probably pushed me more than anybody. She is the biggest supporter in my corner.”

 

Raynn saw what perhaps Bryan could not. “He was content in the Marine Corps but I could tell he needed and wanted more. I told him we would find a way, or make one,” she assured him.

 

Perhaps Bryan’s greatest influence came from his favorite teammates, his kids.

 

“I didn’t want to have regret and look back and…I want my kids to know that if you want something, truly want to do something, you should take the chance on yourself and you should go out there, stick your head out on a ledge and try it,” asserted Bryan.”

 

Bryan vacillated on the decision for almost one full year. Raynn says the business card from Coach Williamson remained by their bed the entire time.

 

Bryan left the Marines in January 2021 and joined the Saint Katherine team mid-season. He debuted for the Firebirds on January 27, the 27-year-old former Marine lacing up his shoes to play with teenagers.



BIG MARINE ON CAMPUS

Bryan endured an adjustment period while transitioning from Marine basketball to college hoops. “The speed of the game was a lot different than what I was used to,” said Bryan, “The offensive principles, defensive principles, it was just so much to take on at one time.”

 

Bryan realized that being a college athlete carried more to it than just putting the ball through the iron.

 

“I want to say it was all of the things that you don’t see that took a toll on me…Just being in the gym every day, all day,” he elaborated. “We used to have these individual sessions where you work out and after individual sessions I’m already tired, I’m drenched in sweat, I’m dead already and we still got a full practice to go to and it just took a toll on my body. It was overwhelming.”

 

Marine basic training stresses you and roughs you up, culminating with The Crucible; a 54-hour test of physical strength, mental endurance and Marine morals. Having completed every Marine requirement for eight years, this former sergeant felt the hurt from college basketball practices.



FANTASTIC FRESHMAN

After appearing in eight games at the end of the 2020-21 season, Bryan trained all summer to morph his body out of military shape and into a more suitable build for college basketball.

 

That summer of work paid off in spades. Bryan started all 24 games in his first full season, averaging 10.5 points per game. With that came a series of individual honors. Bryan earned honorable mention all-California Pacific Athletic Conference honors. His grades earned him a spot on the Cal-Pac all-academic team with a 3.7 GPA.

 

As a team, the Firebirds went 19-8 overall and won the Cal-Pac conference tournament for the first time in school history, earning their first-ever appearance in the NAIA Tournament. Bryan led his team with 16 points in the Cal-Pac championship game.

 

Reminiscing on his freshman year, Bryan can’t help but beam with ecstasy. “A dream come true,” he said. “I would never have thought of this in my craziest dreams.”




A BAND OF BROTHERS

One might think that as a former Marine, Bryan would be an easy choice to lead this team. But Bryan insists that the team leadership feels dynamic and that it goes both ways.

 

“They look at me as a leader in life. But I look to them for things, too,” Bryan insisted. “They have more basketball experience than me…So I might ask them, ‘How do you come off the pick-and-roll this way?’ or something like that.”

 

And for the record, there’s no issue with the age gap. “I love my teammates. Love them to death. My brothers. Little brothers,” Bryan grinned.

 

Speaking of little, every good team needs an elite sixth man. Bryan and Raynn welcomed their fourth child, Bryan Jr., in January of 2022.




ON THE HORIZON

Reflecting on his decision to leave the Marines and enroll at Saint Katherine, Bryan recalls what the game of basketball has meant to him.

 

“It’s just the sacrifices I’ve made for it. I basically dedicated my entire life to it,” he said. “Kind of gave up a career for it. It’s just…it’s something that’s inevitable. I can’t stop it now. It’s my passion, it’s what I do, it’s what I’ve dedicated my life to, it's what I sacrificed everything for.”

 

Raynn, a Staff Sergeant (E-6) still in the Marines, recently received orders and needed to pack up and move across the country. In taking all four kids with her, Bryan proposed the idea of leaving school and coming with her, to which Raynn once again supported her husband.

 

“Bryan would never and could never give up on basketball,” she said. “Basketball courses through his veins. Ball is his outlet, when life is too much, he's in the gym. Wilson is his therapist, and the gym helps him think, and find peace. It is more than just a game to him.”

 

So what happens to Bryan Baptiste, the soon-to-be 28-year-old college sophomore, after his second full season of college basketball? Well wouldn’t you know it, playing in college just isn’t quite enough anymore.

 

“I kind of do want to play at a higher level. A lot of people’s goal is the NBA but I’m more of a realist,” he insists. “I want to play professionally…I want to play in a top league overseas…wherever the basketball gods take me.”

 

And what if the basketball gods take him nowhere? They drop him off with Raynn or over in Texas where they eventually want to settle down?

 

“If it fails, I’ll be okay with that but at least to know that I tried to do it,” he says proudly. “I tried to pursue this dream. I tried to go to college instead of saying, ‘I should have went to college’ or ‘I could have went to college.’”

 

Bryan has tipped-off his sophomore season - averaging 22.3 points per game (second leading scorer in the conference). Raynn remains focused on work, getting settled, and the four kids. And come January 2023, they’ll both be expecting the birth of the newest Baby Baptiste. An all-kid starting five with Coaches Raynn and Bryan.

 

The Few. The Proud. The College Basketball Player. Oorah!


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