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Sidelined no more: Essandoko ready to make his mark at St. Joe's

10/30/2023, 10:45am EDT
By Joseph Santoliquito

By Joseph Santoliquito

(Ed. Note: This article is part of our 2023-24 season coverage, which will run for the six weeks preceding the first official games of the year on Nov. 6. To access all of our high school and college preview content for this season click here.)


The Saint Joseph’s team bus was like a long, rolling hearse, chugging darkly down the New Jersey turnpike last March. Nestled in the back, folded in a seat by himself was Christ Essandoko, the Hawks’ imposing redshirt freshman center. A few hours prior, he had watched from the end of the team bench the Hawks’ season end abruptly in an Atlantic 10 tournament loss to Dayton at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.

On the ride back, Essandoko pawed at the reflection in the bus window—an echo he did not like. He was fuming over not being able to help his team, fuming over not being eligible to play, and fuming over not getting everything out of himself.

St. Joe’s may have a secret weapon this season who is not so secret. They have someone who has been boiling and wants to explode.

Christ Essandoko (above) sat out last season at St. Joe's. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

That’s because it has been two years since Christ Essandoko picked up a basketball in a competitive game. He once weighed 320 pounds, over size 16-narrow shoes, still the owner of nimble, quick feet for someone his size.

He is arriving this season on Hawk Hill with an attitude and a mantra: “I’m going to dominate,” he says.

At 7-foot, and down to a chiseled 280 pounds, Essandoko looks like an NFL offensive tackle. To the A-10, he may look just as striking.

Hawks’ head coach Billy Lange is entering his fifth season, and the program has steadily improved from 6-26 his first year to 16-17 last season, with big expectations.

Could this be the swing year the Hawks break through and make the NCAA Tournament—with Christ (pronounced “kreest”) at their core?

“The last time Christ played an organized game was in 2021, just to remind you,” said Lange, cautiously. “So, this will be two years since he last played in a game. He has transformed his body and that’s a credit to Eric Lang, our strength and conditioning coach. Christ has an adult, professional feel for basketball. His understanding of team basketball is at a professional level.

“People know of Christ, and people nationally know who he is, but maybe not many people in the city. Basketball people know who he is. I don’t want to put a lot of pressure on him. He just hasn’t played. If he reminds me of anyone, I would say Christ’s competitiveness, and I want to make sure this is correct, strictly on competitiveness, he reminds me of Joel Embiid,” added Lange, who spent six seasons with the Sixers as an assistant coach from 2013-19. “I am not saying he is going to be the next Joel Embiid. I have to stress that it is Christ’s competitiveness that reminds me of Embiid.”

That manifested itself in practice. Though he was academically ineligible to play, Essandoko was still allowed to practice with the Hawks last season. There were a few times when his over exuberance touched a nerve. Lange had to kick him out in fear Essandoko was going so hard he would hurt one of the regulars.

After each Hawks’ victory, Lange and the team present a player with an award based on their work in practice in preparing the Hawks. Essandoko received it after the Hawks’ 79-76 victory over George Mason, at George Mason, on January 29 this past season. Christ helped the Hawks prepare for Mason’s 6-9 center Josh Oduro.  

Billy Lange (above) worked with Joel Embiid for five seasons with the 76ers. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Now the A-10 may have to work on preparing for Essandoko, an athletic rim protector with a 7-foot-5 wingspan.

Dwayne Jones, the former St. Joe’s great, joins Lange’s staff this season in a new role as assistant coach and player development. He returns to Hawk Hill after six-and-a-half years with the 76ers’ staff, arguably the last impactful Hawks’ big man.

The Hawks could use the inside help. St. Joe’s was 10th in the A-10 in rebounding last season, averaging 34.6 rebounds a game and being outrebounded by minus-1.6 boards a game.

“Everyone here has been speaking very highly of Christ, and even last year when I was with the Sixers, I was hearing a lot of good things about Christ,” said Jones, who has been working with Essandoko over the last two months. “The talk about how he has been putting everything together off the court was so he could put everything together on the court.

“First, he wants to learn, he wants to get better. He has a desire to improve. It’s been great. He asks questions, he’s very engaging and if he doesn’t understand something, he will ask. I would say Christ is unique. I can’t really think of any big man off hand in this area like him. He can be the first Christ. When you see him move, and see him down in his stance, he moves like a guard sometimes. He has great feet. For someone his size, to be able to move like he can, it’s impressive.”

When they first sat and spoke to each other about goals, Essandoko told Jones he wanted to be pushed, he wanted to be challenged every day.

The only obstacle that could be in Essandoko’s way is his inexperience and truncated stamina. Despite two years of catching up to do, the expectations are already there, and the fact he has not played in a couple of years, combined with being the first time playing major college basketball, there will need to be patience applied.

Lange and his coaching staff are willing to do that.

The problem may be will Essandoko be patient?

“Christ doesn’t want to let anyone down, and I think that’s the feeling he may have had from sitting last year,” Jones said. “We need to be, and we will be patient with him. Honestly, it will be important for Christ to be patient with himself. I believe Christ has the confidence in himself. He has set his standards high. The work he has put in makes him feel confident. He wants people to push him.”

This past summer, Essandoko woke up at 6:30 a few mornings a week to run the street hills of Manayunk. It was not because he had to. It was because he wanted to.

Essandoko’s journey

Meeting him up close, his size kind of sneaks up on you. Essandoko, 20, is all of 7-feet and well over 250 pounds. It just doesn’t feel like it standing next to him. He actually seems smaller. He has a great, self-deprecating sense of humor and a bellowing, laughbox laugh that you can identify standing around a corner.

He is also powerfully, mercilessly transparent, especially when it comes to himself.

No one can beat him up more than him.

Essandoko was born and raised in Paris, the son of Congolese immigrants. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

Born in Paris, France, the oldest of three, he speaks English exceptionally well, French, and Lingala, the language of the Congo, where his parents were born and raised. They had to escape the war torn nation in the 1990s. Christ admittedly does not know much about their plight, nor, he says, does he want to know. Mom is a chef, dad works security and they introduced their oldest child to a variety of sports at a young age.

At nine, however, he wanted to be Teddy Riner (a French judo world champion) before he wanted to be Joel Embiid. Judo gave him confidence, and a sense of belonging with friends. He was always much larger than other kids his age, so they had to assign him a special desk during his grade school years.

He also was forced into a heart-wrenching decision, too.

“I reached the level of green and orange belt in judo, but I knew if I was going to do something in basketball, I would have to give up judo,” Essandoko said. “It was a tough choice, because I made a lot of friends through judo. I grew up in a competitive environment. I always had that hunger to be better, and it grows. But I learned late what I really wanted from basketball. The more I learned, the more competitive it made me.”

That drove him to make another crucial life decision at a tender age—leaving France and coming to the United States at 14. He attended Winston-Salem Christian School, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

By the time he reached 19, he was 7-feet. He was also carrying 320 pounds.

“I had no problem with that, because I was able to still move pretty well, I thought,” Christ said. “My biggest weakness was soda. I loved soda. Well, I can say, no more soda; soda is out (laughing). The junk is out.”

In the fall of 2021, Essandoko came on St. Joe’s radar when one of Christ’s coaches stopped by a St. Joe’s practice, through current St. Joe’s Director of Basketball Operations Chris Flegler.

The Hawks, however, got in too late. Essandoko wound up committing to Providence. After the 2021-22 season, Christ decommitted from Providence and Lange jumped back into the picture. Christ reciprocated. Lange and his family got on a four-hour Zoom call, since everything had to be translated. In the spring of 2022, Essandoko committed to St. Joe’s, and he arrived on campus in August 2022.

“I’ll just say that when I committed to Providence, there was a lot going on,” Christ said, “so I decided to decommit. I just struggled my first semester here (at St. Joe’s), both on and off the court. I struggled because I was lazy. I’m a better student now. I learned from it and by the second semester, I was rolling.

“I was lazy on the court, too. People would tell me the same approach I had in the classroom would carry over to the court. I was lazy. I had to break through that. The turn around came from me. No one had to tell me. I could see that to go somewhere with basketball, and the way I was going, that was not going to happen. I had to change. That change had to come from within. It had to come from me.”

Last winter, he watched, strapped to the bench because he was academically ineligible. Essandoko never watched a basketball season unfold before his eyes without him being a large part of it.

The 2022-23 Hawks’ season came at Essandoko with a visceral tug.

“I remember watching the games being the last player on the bench; I was frustrated. I was frustrated because I felt I was letting my teammates down,” Christ said. “The first five games were bad. I wanted to be on the court. I had to tell myself ‘It’s God’s plan, it’s God’s plan.’ That was it. I had to be patient.

“These last two years have been hard. I never watched basketball in my life. The experience humbled me. That’s the main lesson I learned. I had to come back to earth and had to settle in. By December, it sunk in that I could not be upset about the NCAA rules. I put my head down and went to work. My faith in God and this team helped me get through it.”

Essandoko currently carries a 3.1 GPA and is a Dean’s List student, majoring in communications. He has sophomore status academically and four years of eligibility athletically ahead. His body took such a dramatic altering that his mother did not recognize him once in an airport. The clothes from his 300-plus days dangle loosely on him.

Regardless of his rangy height, he is looking up at a personal mountain to conquer.

“I do feel a lot better being lighter,” Christ said. “I started lifting seriously for the first time and I want more. On the court, I feel better. I move better. I have more motivation knowing where I came from. I want to fit into the roster we have and when I’m through, I want to be thought of as being one of the greatest that ever played at St. Joe’s. That’s what I really want.

“The bus trip (after the A-10 tournament loss) made me take a good, hard look at myself. I began to ask myself what I could do for my team and what I had to do to get my team to win the A-10. I want to play in March Madness. I want to make a difference. I never believed I would play at this level.”

He believes now.

It’s safe to say Christ Essandoko likes his reflection today.

Joseph Santoliquito is a hall of fame, award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who began writing for CoBL in 2021 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.

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