Born at nearby DeKalb Hospital, Gebereal “G” Baitey may have seemed destined to attend Emory University, but it was a trip to Atlanta during his senior year in high school to discus playing football at another college that helped make it a reality.
“Emory wasn’t really on my radar. Football was the sport I was more heavily recruited to play,” he recounted. With a deep interest in African-American history and studies, he took a trip to Atlanta to talk about playing football at Morehouse College, a historically black college. “While I was down there, Coach Z (Emory head men’s basketball coach Jason Zimmerman) told me to come by and talk to him. I found out about the program, how good the school was, and he talked about UAA championships, NCAA tournament appearances, and the guys on the team. He really sold me on the program and the school.”
“Chris McHugh (then Emory assistant coach) found out he applied here,” Zimmerman recalled. “We didn’t know much about him, but we liked what we saw, and he had an unbelievable spirit.”
LIVING IN NEW JERSEY
Baitey grew up with his parents and four siblings in Maryland until his parents separated while he was in the third grade and his mother moved with the children to New Jersey. “We were all really involved in sports and I quickly realized the lengths to which my mom went to make sure we had everything we needed,” he recalled. “The AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) basketball schedule was really taxing, but she coordinated transportation and made sure I was always where I needed to be.”
His mother’s commitment to her children’s success started with academics. “With my mom, it was always a matter of which college I was going to, not whether I was going. That was profound because not all my friends had that,” he commented. “She did everything within her power to ensure I got a good education, including sending me to a private high school, and I respect her so much for that.”
Gebereal Baitey with his mother Simone Baitey, and sisters Nia Ladson (standing) and Imani Ladson (seated)
Baitey vividly recalls one instance where his mother made it abundantly clear what his priorities should be. “I was naturally a pretty bright kid, but if I got a phone call home about a grade, it was bad,” he laughed. “One time in seventh grade, I had a C in science midway through the marking period, simply because I hadn’t turn in all my assignments. My mom sat with me for four hours, making sure I did every one of them. I couldn’t go outside, go to travel basketball or go out with friends who stopped by. It was annoying at the time because I was 13 years old, but my time management skills and ability to prioritize came out of those experiences.”
Football and basketball weren’t the only sports Baitey played growing up. “I always loved baseball. I quit it in middle school to run track,” he recalled. “It was tough giving up baseball. I didn’t like track and wasn’t very good at it. It did help me get my running technique down and I got a little faster. It definitely helped my endurance.”
“My mom knew sports were important to us,” he remarked. “We hoped it would be a ticket for me to see parts of the world I never would have otherwise and to meet people I would not have ordinarily met. She made sure I had the tools I needed.”
Baitey was excited to be accepted into Emory, but not without reservations. “I had my doubts about Emory because it was the best school I got into and it was far from home,” he stated. “My mom has been really encouraging throughout my four years here.” He began as a sociology major and added African-American studies as a second major after his sophomore year.
Gebereal Baitey with his sisters Nia Ladson (L) and Imani Ladson (R)
He appeared in 105 games in his four-year career, every game in his final three seasons, and started each game as a junior and senior. The Eagles qualified for the NCAA Division III Men’s Basketball Championship each of his four years and captured two UAA titles. Baitey averaged 9.8 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game in his senior season.
February 12,2017 - Chicago vs Emory at Gerald Ratner Athletics Center in Chicago IL. (Credit: Dean Reid).
“From his sophomore season, I knew he was a very good basketball player,” Zimmerman said. “He was a heck of a player for us and a stabilizing force in the starting lineup the past two years. As much as we needed his jump shot and his defense, it was the other things we needed even more. He wasn’t vocal all the time, but he always had a great presence in the locker room, on the court, and off the court. Those things predominated how good a player he was.”
In February, Baitey was one of 12 student-athletes chosen as members of the Emory University 100 Senior Honorary for the Class of 2019. The honor is given to the 100 most outstanding seniors in the undergraduate schools who have made a significant impact on the Emory Community through academics, athletics, leadership, volunteerism, or even through personal relationships such as mentoring or helping other students.
Baitey with Emory University President Claire Sterk at Emory 100 Senior Honorary
“There were a lot of guys at my local high school who were more talented than me in basketball, but they didn’t have the grades or a mom literally standing over their shoulder like I did,” he remarked. “That carried over to being a part of the UAA. I was now self-imposing those barriers, whether it meant putting my phone on “do not disturb” or deleting my Instagram and Twitter for three or four weeks at a time. I make sure I do what needs to be done first.”
BEING AN ADVOCATE
Baitey’s passions have always extended beyond academics and athletics, consistently reflecting on what it means to be a student-athlete of color. “It has been difficult to engage in conversations about social justice and finding time to do grassroots work,” he explained. “A lot of groups on campus, including NAACP at Emory and the Black Student Alliance, meet at 4:30 or 5:00 p.m., right when most of the athletes are in practice. I needed to find ways to be involved with black students and black athletes on campus.”
Gebereal Baitey with New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and mother Simone Baitey
“There are opportunities to be involved in social justice at Emory, but it is difficult for student-athletes to do so,” he added. “In my sophomore year, when there was another shooting of an unarmed black teen, students organized on campus and held a candlelight vigil on the main campus. I wasn’t able to attend even though I wanted to.”
He has been able to participate in social actions back in New Jersey. “One summer when I was back home, I was part of a march that went through my town protesting the shooting of unarmed black teens. Most of my church community was there.”
Gebereal Baitey with brother Zion Baitey (L) and best friend Matthew McFadden (R)
His faith has been a consistent part of his life and social justice activism, not surprising considering his name Gebereal is Ethiopian for “God is my strength,” chosen by his mother. “I grew up in the church and was there every Sunday, except for AAU weekends, until I was 18 and went to Emory,” he commented. “I would attend Bible studies and sang in the choir. I have always had spiritual people in my life who have shaped the way I carry myself and how I approach life. Particularly with racial issues, people are not always coming from a place of understanding. People in the church instilled in me that you have to listen, hear people out, and listen to understand rather than to respond.”
Although the UAA basketball schedule kept Baitey from regularly attending church on Sundays during the season, he has had the opportunity to attend church with his father, who lives in Atlanta with his side of the family. “I have been able to go to Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr. preached,” he stated. “It’s nice to get back to my roots. There are times when you feel like you are getting swamped and I find myself picking up the Bible. My mom will text me about a good sermon she heard and that helps.”
Gebereal Baitey with his siblings (L-R) Bobbi Baitey, Zion Baitey, and Aja Baitey and their grandmother Victoria Wiggins
As of the latest U.S. census, Atlanta is 54 percent black/African-American, which Baitey has found helpful in his time there. “The large black population in Atlanta has helped bridge the gap for me between the city and the university,” he commented. “The Atlanta University Center (which advances the civic mission of Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, Morehouse School of Medicine, and Spelman College) is a place with people from all over the country, especially New York and New Jersey. It gives me a feeling of belonging while being away from home with so many others who are dispersed from where they are from.”
Gebereal Baitey with his sister Aja Baitey
Baitey believes that, while he was often unable to attend large protests or gatherings, he was able to contribute to the racial discourse on his own team, which is made up of mostly white student-athletes. “One of the most important things as a black man is to know your surroundings. I remember sitting on the bench in a road game my junior year and hearing racial comments from the fans,” he recollected. “During the last presidential election, hateful ideologies were chalked on campus, particularly around the Latino Student Organization and Black Student Union. I was able to address the affect of those slurs with my teammates. It’s only 14 or 15 guys, but I do feel like those are significant conversations to have and I was able to share my perspective.”
“G was constantly a sounding board for his teammates. There was the respect factor for how hard he worked on his game, his commitment, and how much he cared about our team and our program,” Zimmerman stated. “Guys felt comfortable going to him and talking to him. That was something really important he gave to his team.”
For African-American studies, Baitey is writing his thesis about NCAA Division I football and men’s basketball players, scrutinizing the education that the players are receiving. “I set those parameters because they are the sectors of the NCAA that are most profitable and have a large number of black athletes,” he explained.
He examined the education of two former college athletes, Dexter Manley of Oklahoma State University and Kevin Ross of Creighton University. Both finished their college careers functionally illiterate. Ross, who did not make it professionally, eventually went back to Westside Preparatory School, a kindergarten-through-eighth grade school in Chicago. Manley played for 11 years in the National Football League, but he battled drug addiction for nearly 25 years.
Baitey has interviewed Division I football and basketball players from numerous universities, including University of Notre Dame, Rutgers University, American University, and Ohio State University. “An interesting theme has developed about using the platform as Division I student-athlete of color,” he stated. “There is so much going on in the country and so much that is captured on social media. There is an acknowledgment that, as a society, we put athletes on a pedestal and there are different reactions when they then complain about social ills.”
“The athletes I spoke to talked about how to balance their duties to the black community with how to express their views,” he added. “There were three famous athletes that consistently came up in our conversations: Colin Kaepernick, LeBron James, and Michael Jordan. Kaepernick is someone who spoke out at great length against racial injustice and lost his job as a result. LeBron has stood with Kaepernick on issues, has been active in Black Lives Matter, and even wore a ‘I Can’t Breathe’ shirt (after Eric Garner’s controversial death while in police custody in 2014), but he was never going to be cut the way Kaepernick was. Jordan, who has always been super marketable and the face of basketball, never speaks out on any issues.”
There was an incident on one campus that highlighted the balance that black athletes face. “One of the athletes spoke about a racially-charged event on campus that black students were protesting,” Baitey described. “He and his teammates were in their apartment, but didn’t feel they could take part because the headlines the next day would be about them participating. He feared it would reflect poorly on him and possibly cost him playing time. Stirring the pot is viewed as being ungrateful.”
Baitey plans on becoming a teacher, but is not ready to give up his basketball career yet. “I am looking at various options to play abroad, whether full-time professionally or as part of something like the Victory Scholars Program,” he said. “(Former Emory basketball student-athlete) Jim Gordon played at IT (Institute of Technology) Carlow in Ireland (while also studying International Business) as part of the program. I will focus on my teaching career after that. I plan to ride my basketball career until the wheels fall off.”
“He has had a great experience at Emory and wants to keep playing even though he has a lot of options. It’s typical of UAA student-athletes that they will have great opportunities to start their career path or pursue their next degree,” Zimmerman commented. “He wants to play professional basketball because he really cares about the game and continuing to play. No matter where he ends up, the team won’t have a better teammate or person for your team’s culture. He is the guy you want on your team at any level.”
Gebereal Baitey with teammates Beau Bommarito (C) and Joey Katz (R) volunteering at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta
“I probably want to start teaching in secondary school and eventually work my way into administration,” Baitey said. “At some point, I plan to go back to school for my master’s degree and who knows how many other degrees?”
“He will be a great teacher. He will affect so many people’s lives by making that decision,” Zimmerman remarked. “We won’t be able to count how many lives he will change. It is his calling.” Zimmerman made sure to add one other thing he believes about Baitey. “He could be a tremendous coach!”