By Carleen Surrena
All he needed was a place to play.
The search, driven by his love for basketball, led Etienne Ettlinger to five countries, cost thousands of dollars and even caused him to drop out of high school at one point.
His pursuit has landed him here, in Livermore. He has earned a position on the men’s basketball team as a guard and hopes to help lead the Hawks back to the playoffs.
“I don’t think I sacrificed too much,” Ettlinger said. “Sometimes there was a family event that I might have missed because of a game, but my other friends were playing sports, too.”
More than 7.6 million students in the United States played high school sports during 2010-2011 according to an article published by U.S. News last year. But Ettlinger is from Switzerland. There are no high school sports programs. No varsity hoop teams. No state championships. Only club teams.
In a country where education trumps athletics, finding a basketball hoop on a school playground is a rarity. Ettlinger’s elementary school, in his hometown of Romanshorn, bought a basketball hoop and it was breaking news.
“It was a big deal,” Ettlinger said, smiling shyly.
When he was 10, he picked up the soccer ball he was playing with and started shooting hoops instead of goals. It was about at that age he went home and told his parents he wanted to play basketball. He had their support, but little did he know of the challenges that awaited.
The first one was figuring out where to play. He found a club in Switzerland and played for the first couple years of his career. He sought a more competitive atmosphere, so he went to Germany.
There are different levels of club basketball in Switzerland each level up increasing in competitiveness. He practiced daily with his club team and traveled on weekends to play in tournaments. It was such a huge enough commitment his grades suffered at times.
When he was 17 he got an opportunity to be an exchange student in British Columbia for a year through an exchange program. He went to St. John Brebeuf high school in Canada.
“The school had not been known for basketball,” Ettlinger said. Hailing from Switzerland brought his new team extra attention, and he was also able to graduate high school.
“It was a really special, emotional and successful season,” Ettlinger said. “I wanted to stay and play college basketball but there were only partial scholarships being offered.”
Ettlinger returned to Switzerland, where challenges remained. Since he had not graduated from a Swiss high school he was not eligible for college there.
He tried to finish his degree while playing for a club team in Austria. But, again, he struggled to keep his grades up and hoop. Part of the problem was that he had an American perspective on student athleticism and believed school to be a means to his basketball dreams.
High school and college athletics is huge in the U.S. In Switzerland, education is the top priority.
“The teachers thought I was lazy,” he said. “They thought I needed to study harder. I started to take basketball really seriously at that time.”
Ettlinger’s trainer in Switzerland also had a base in California and encouraged him to apply to community colleges. He sent emails and film footage to basketball programs up and down the state.
He got a response from The College of the Desert. In 2014, basketball took him nearly 6,000 miles from home to Palm Desert. Calif.
The start of official practices before the 2014-15 season was approaching when his left knee began bothering him. He really felt it buckle after a dunk he performed for a teammate. As his luck would have it, tendonitis killed his season before it began. He stayed in school for one semester and left.
“I didn’t know why I was supposed to be there since I couldn’t play,” he said. “I was homesick.”
Instead of making the trip straight home, he drove to Northern California. His church community in Germany connected him with a family that was willing to sponsor foreign exchange students. All Ettlinger needed was another college to give him a shot.
One coach responded to him: James Giacomazzi of Cosumnes River College.
Ettlinger drove from Palm Desert to Sacramento and invited the coach to watch him play and talk about the possibilities. Giacomazzi liked what he saw. But he was in the midst of a season and didn’t have an open spot.
Discouraged and broke, Ettlinger wasn’t ready to give up on college hoops in the U.S. His trainer encouraged him to share his story online and to create a fundraiser. Through a Swiss website called, “I believe in you,” people funded his case.
“People came up to me and told me that they really wanted to help me,” he said, “because they never had the courage to leave their home country.”
He had a meeting with one other university in Canada but the coach cancelled. He then learned that Giacomazzi took a job coaching at Las Positas.
The former Cosumnes River coach told Ettlinger there was a roster spot open for him. He couldn’t guarantee him playing time. That Ettlinger would have to earn. He was soon on a flight to the Bay Area.
“He is a great kid,” Giacomazzi said, “and he has a great work ethic.”
With a student visa, Ettlinger must keep a fulltime school schedule or face being sent back to Switzerland. According to International Student Program Coordinator, Cindy Balero the school reports semester updates of his progress to the SEVP (Student and Exchange Visitor Program) to make sure he is on track.
The journey that began playing basketball with a soccer ball in elementary school now has led him to the Tri-Valley Area, living out his dream.
Ettlinger lives with a few teammates in an apartment in Livermore. He trains daily. He is up at 5:45 a.m., eats, goes to the gym and works on his core muscles to help keep him and his knee strong. He shoots around a bit before heading straight to school.
It’s a daily grind, trying to manage the rigor of basketball and the weight of school. He can’t fail like he has in the past.
He doesn’t get a lot of time to talk to his parents or older brother in Switzerland due to the difference in time.
“I’m really close with my brother,” Ettlinger said. He’s always hard on me and wants me to do well.”
Ettlinger watches Roger Federer matches for inspiration and an injection of Swiss pride.
“He is from Switzerland,” Ettlinger said. “A country not known as a big tennis nation, he became number one and is now known as one of the greatest of all time. He’s a good person, a nice person, and I always look up to him.”
It has been almost a total of two years since Ettlinger has been healthy and feeling good. He is still getting used to American basketball, which is different than the European style he is used to.
But all the effort, all the resources, and perseverance is finally paying off. All he wanted to do was play college basketball. And now he is.
“For a true hero isn’t measured by the size of his strength,” Ettlinger said, reciting a quote he really liked, “but by the strength of his heart.”
Ettlinger has a tattoo of a husky on his right arm. He said the breed known for excellence in sledding, is part of a team pushing together toward a goal and never giving up.
His tattoo is of a husky, but he couldn’t be happier to be a Hawk.