From homeless in L.A. to starring in NYC, Daniel Edozie has a story to tell

Friday March 28th, 2014

Daniel Edozie finished four rebounds in a 16-minute start in the win over UNC.
Greg Nelson/SI

NEW YORK -- Perhaps you were introduced to Daniel Edozie on Sunday, during Iowa State's 85-83 win over North Carolina. You were likely not alone: After being sparingly used in the previous 34 games, Sunday's was Edozie's first start in his first season as a Cyclone after transferring from Tyler Junior College in Texas. You probably heard that he started in place of injured forward Georges Niang, an All-Big 12 third-team selection who had broken his right foot in Iowa State's preceding win over N.C. Central. If you grew curious enough to look up Edozie's player page on the Cyclones' official site, you may have seen his hometown listed as Compton, Calif., and that he was born in London. Maybe you landed on his Twitter page, where his bio includes the line: "U know my name but dont know my story."

Faye Brim was introduced to Edozie in July 2005 at the offices of a now-defunct Los Angeles foster care agency called Wings of Refuge. Brim always had a heart for helping children, which led her to become a childcare provider. She and her husband, Wardell, a foreman for the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers), have three children of their own. They also raised their niece and nephew after Brim's older sister, who had no contact with the children's father, passed away. And they also took in more than 10 foster children starting in the mid-1990s.

Daniel was a 12-year-old who had entered the foster system when he was discovered wandering an alley alone and homeless after becoming separated from his mother. His current foster home in Riverside was problematically far when it came time for his mandated visitations with his birth mother. Though Brim didn't usually take in boys of that age, there was something about his name, Daniel, that made her think he might be worth a shot. But when Brim met the boy she would end up raising through high school graduation, he rolled his eyes at her -- he had been happy in his first foster home. "He's a good kid," a man at the agency told her. "All he needs is a chance."

"He had a very, very, very hard life," Brim said Thursday in a phone interview from her home in Compton, California. "Through grace and mercy, we're in a good place now."

Edozie came to the United States when he was 11 with his mother, Georgina, a Nigerian emigrant who worked in a London grocery store and set off across the Atlantic with a temporary visa and a hope she would find work. "I guess she wanted a better life," Edozie said Thursday. The pair settled in Boston for a week before taking a 2,700-mile bus trip to Las Vegas, where they would stay for a tumultuous year. "We went from a shelter to a hotel to an apartment, back to a shelter, then the streets," Edozie said, shaking his head. "There was so much, man."

Their itinerant lives were only beginning. They spent a month in Los Angeles, then headed to El Paso. After only a few weeks in Texas, Edozie says they were stopped by an immigration official who discovered their visas had expired. They were notified they would be deported, at which point they moved back to L.A. In California, Georgina -- who has battled mental health issues during her adult life -- would sometimes disappear for days, doing so a total of four our five times, according to her son. Now 12 years old, Daniel would panhandle for food, take refuge on public buses, and sleep on park benches before being awoken by morning sprinklers. There were days he didn't eat. At one point, a stranger treated him to a gluttonous meal at Denny's only for Daniel to realize he was being recruited into a prostitution ring.

His final day under his mother's care culminated outside of a Salvation Army shelter. Daniel pleaded with his mother to go inside for a meal; Georgina insisted they continue walking to a different shelter in San Fernando. Daniel went inside anyway, and when he came out, she was gone. As he wandered into a nearby alleyway, a pair of strangers spotted him and asked where his mother was. He told them the truth: "I dunno."

"They tried calling the shelter for teenagers," Edozie said Thursday, "but it didn't work out, so they called the police and they came and picked me up and went searching for my mother and couldn't find her. They took me to the police station and they called [Child Protective Services] ... That night, a social worker took me to a home all the way in Riverside."

Soon his mother was found -- she was still in the area -- and Daniel began having supervised visits with her in the hopes that a permanent reunion would come. But the hour drive from Riverside to L.A. proved difficult for his first set of foster parents, prompting Wings of Refuge to contact Brim about providing Daniel with a home closer to his mother. The adjustment was difficult. He had taken quickly to his first foster home -- its pool in particular -- and the first time he set foot in the Brims' four-bedroom Compton home, he cried. "He was wounded," Brim said. "He didn't know if he could trust me or not."

A few months later, Georgina turned herself in to the immigration authorities to begin the process of her own deportation. "She thought that would get [Daniel] to go too," Brim said, but by then Daniel wished to stay. A social worker connected Daniel with an attorney who began working to get him cleared as a permanent U.S. resident. Daniel stayed home from school for about a week during the process to protect him from being deported before the paperwork could be completed. "It was like we were hiding him," said Brim. Daniel had an aunt in Florida and a great aunt in Texas, but both said they were unable to take him in. "Everybody backed out," according to Brim. "They said it seemed like he was doing fine here." Once Daniel was granted noncitizen resident status, Brim became his legal guardian.

There remained other issues to sort out. Daniel's bitterness toward Brim had long subsided, worn away by her providing the sort of care -- doctor's visits, regular meals, not only a home but a bedroom -- that he had long lacked. But Brim began getting phone calls from Daniel's middle school teachers reporting how disrespectfully he spoke to them. She worried he was trying to fit in with the wrong crowd. The final straw, she says, came when he was suspended for saying "screw you" to a school administrator. "The environment he was in, he was about to become a product of it," said Brim. "It wasn't anything he was purposely doing. He just didn't know any better."

Brim sent him to Verbum Dei, an all-boys Catholic school, for 9th and 10th grade. For 11th, he went to King Drew, a medical magnet school. For 12th, he badgered Brim to let him go to Compton Centennial High, his home-district public school. He told her he wanted to graduate from the same school as the rest of her children. Satisfied with the progression of his behavior and his strong grades -- Brim says he was an honors student -- she relented.

Edozie only averaged 1 point per game throughout the season, as he transitioned to D-I basketball.
Charlie Neibergall/AP

There was another reason Edozie wanted to go to Centennial. After giving up football as a high school freshman, basketball had become Edozie's sport of choice. When he was a junior, Centennial was one of California's top 10 teams, and Edozie began telling its coach, Vadim Malikin, how badly he wanted to play there. A year later he got his wish, and Malikin ran the offense through his new high-motor senior forward in the post. The responsibility was overwhelming at first -- Edozie had never been asked to handle the ball so extensively, and he often traveled when double-teamed -- but after extensive footwork sessions with assistant coach Wendell Westbrook, he grew into a consistent double-double threat. Said Malikin: "He improved in every way."

Edozie's explosive dunks had generated interest from Division I recruiters on the previous summer's AAU circuit, but his early struggles at Centennial dampened his buzz. With only low-major offers coming in, he began to entertain the idea of attending a junior college. When Mike Marquis, the coach at Tyler Junior College in Texas, heard such rumors, he found a clip of Edozie on YouTube and was transfixed by his enthusiasm, footwork, and size. "I fell in love with that clip," said Marquis. "I must have watched it 50 times."

Soon the two were spending long hours on the phone, talking about Edozie's life journey, music (Edozie taught himself to play piano on the Brims' keyboard), and basketball. Edozie was taken by the way Tyler's campus looked on its website, and by the way the school develops prospects -- Marquis says there are normally a half-dozen former Tyler players in D-I. (The most famous former Tyler player is Marquette guard and current Chicago Bull Jimmy Butler.) Without visiting the campus or even meeting Marquis in person, Edozie consulted hisconscience and decided on Tyler.

His juco numbers were not eye-popping -- he averaged 5.6 points and 6.3 rebounds last season -- but he packed 20 pounds onto his 6-foot-8 frame and showed enough potential to draw major D-I interest. He first committed to Tubby Smith at Minnesota in October 2012, only to back out shortly thereafter when, according to Marquis, interest waned on the Gophers' end. (Edozie describes the process as "crazy.") A former community college coach in Iowa, Marquis put in a call to Jeff Rutter, then Iowa State's director of basketball operations. With the Cyclones interested, Edozie visited Ames and was smitten by the distraction-free atmosphere, committing last November. Like his Tyler decision a year earlier, he relied on a degree of blind faith. "To be honest, I didn't know what my role was," Edozie said. "I just play hard, defend, rebound. And I have fun doing it."

Edozie has not been back to Compton since the school year began, nor has Brim made the trip to Ames, instead staying in touch by phone and by Facebook message. Edozie also remains in contact with Georgina, his birth mother, whom he contacts once or twice a month, though he has not seen her since she returned to England in 2006.

The eight-year span since their last meeting encompasses his entire basketball career, which includes five schools and, as of this week, one 16-minute, four-rebound start in an NCAA tournament game. The second will likely come tonight in a Sweet 16 game at Madison Square Garden, a.k.a. theWorld's Most Famous Arena. In the locker room Thursday, the arc of that journey was not lost on Edozie.

"Man, you know what?" he said. "I wouldn't have thought I'd be here today. It's something that I'm gonna cherish forever -- this type of experience, and the kind of childhood I had ... Wow."

Not all of Edozie's teammates know his past -- "I don't think it's something he just walks around sharing," said Niang -- but after a year of playing brick-wall defense in practice while averaging fewer than six minutes per game, they are confident he can flourish in his newfound major role. "He's been chomping at the bit waiting for his moment," Niang said. Now he has it, and he's telling his story.

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