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Zena Edosomwan bypasses top teams for chance to play at Harvard

"You're going to regret that decision ... No one makes it [to the NBA] from the Ivy League. ... Have you seen Harvard's schedule? ... I've never had to compete against an Ivy for a player. We usually only have to compete against Kentucky or Duke."

Edosomwan listened, but he wasn't a recruit on which typical sales pitches worked: He still really wanted to go to Harvard. That had not been the case until head coach Tommy Amaker and assistant Yanni Hufnagel convinced him to visit campus in September 2011. Edosomwan, the son of a Nigerian immigrant, was born in Houston and raised in L.A., and he thought Cambridge, Mass., was freezing, but he also felt a special connection to the place. He said it felt historic. And when some of his basketball peers told him he was crazy, this was the explanation he offered:

"Four years from now, when no one cares who Zena Edosomwan is, I know a lot of opportunities will be there for me to be successful on and off the court. And on top of that, why go for the average college experience when I could do something special that people remember me by? If I become successful, people will remember that I took that chance, that I had a higher purpose than basketball. Maybe I'll be a trendsetter."

Somehow, the fact that that came out of the mouth of an 18-year-old, top-100 recruit is not the most eye-opening part of this story. No, it's what happened in February, after Edosomwan took the SAT for the third and final time, and his academic credentials fell just short of the Ivy League's minimum requirement for qualification.* Some coaches -- including those recruiting him at Harvard -- wondered if that was where Edosomwan's dalliance with the Crimson would end. He had 39 other options, and he had high enough grades at Harvard-Westlake, one of the nation's top 20 prep schools, that he easily qualified for admission at all of those colleges.

(*While the SAT scores are relevant to his recruitment, it should be noted that Edosomwan is a serious student. In conversation this June, he spoke eagerly about studying Chinese -- he's been doing it for four years, in case he might need it for an international career -- and taking a pre-med track in college. He has said that his best memories from recruiting visits were meeting academic figures, such as the University of Texas' president, rather than touring basketball facilities.)

So what did Edosomwan do? He not only passed on the 39 offers, he passed on enrolling in college at all in 2012-13 -- so he could spend a prep year at Northfield Mount Hermon (Mass.), and get academically qualified for Harvard in 2013-14. His heart was that set. He officially committed to the Crimson on March 11, the same day they received their first NCAA tournament bid in school history.

Since then, Edosomwan's stock has risen. Harvard-Westlake won a California state title with him as its go-to guy, and he played so well in spring and summer events, particularly the Pangos All-America Camp and the NBA Players' Association Top 100 Camp in June, that he could find himself ranked in the top 50 in the Class of 2013. Edosomwan's performances of late suggest he could dominate in the Ivy League, and -- no matter what he says about people forgetting his name in four years -- at least appear on the NBA's radar.

(*He does care about the NBA: The improbable story of Harvard grad-turned-Knicks star Jeremy Lin, which unfolded while Edosomwan was in the final stages of picking a school, helped solidify his decision. When Lin made his first of two straight Sports Illustrated covers in February, Edosomwan taped a copy of it to his bedroom wall. He said it was proof that it was possible for him to end up in the same place.)

Whether Edosomwan will be a top-100 trendsetter is to be determined, but the fact that Harvard has been on an upward trajectory in recruiting is undeniable. While Ivies cannot offer scholarships, expansions to "no-loan" financial aid programs have allowed them to make offers comparable to full rides, and the Crimson have aimed uncharacteristically high under Amaker. The top-25 recruiting class he landed in 2008 was the nucleus of this season's drought-ending NCAA tournament team, and they will have already re-routed four key players through Northfield Mount Hermon prior to Edosomwan's arrival. Edosomwan is not the only top-100 recruit that Hufnagel has pursued from the Class of 2013, either. The Crimson recently missed out on 97th-ranked guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who picked Washington, and 84th-ranked small forward Stephen Domingo, who chose Georgetown.

What made Edosomwan different? Even at Harvard-Westlake, coach Greg Hilliard has seen a succession of academically strong former players consider Ivies before deciding on major-conference powers in the past decade: The Collins twins, Jason and Jarron, went to Stanford; Bryce Taylor went to Oregon; Alex Stepheson went to North Carolina and Renaldo Woolridge went to Tennessee. "In each of those cases, they were eventually swayed by all of the things that the bigger schools could offer, basketball-wise," Hilliard said. "But for Zena, those things just rolled off of his back like water. They weren't what impressed him."

Hilliard believes that the intense college-prep culture at Harvard-Westlake -- "There are kids here who think that if they don't get into an Ivy, or get a perfect score on the SAT, that something is wrong with them," he said -- was a major influence on Edosomwan's recruiting process, and that theory seems to check out. Edosomwan said the fact that Harvard-Westlake's 2012 valedictorian, one of his friends, did not get into Harvard was a reminder of what a "special opportunity" it was. (Don't worry: The valedictorian is going to Yale, and five other classmates made it into Harvard.)

Edosomwan's biggest inspiration for choosing a unique basketball path, however, comes from his mother. Kehinde Ololade emigrated to the United States by herself from Benin City, Nigeria, in 1987, at the age of 22. What drove her to leave was not that she had a bad life in Nigeria -- it was that there, women tend to have decisions made for them, by their parents. "I would watch American movies and see women choosing their own lives, getting things done, and it was something that I really wanted to have," Ololade said. "I wanted to be able to make my own decisions, to make my own money, and find my own way in the world."

By 1998, in Los Angeles, she had opened her own full-service hair salon, Spice, where she continues to work. Edosomwan calls her his "rock," and says he's immensely proud of what she's done. His real father is now back in Nigeria, and he was raised by Ololade and his stepfather, Muyiwa Ololade, in a home with two younger twin sisters. When Edosomwan had to made a recruiting decision between Harvard and schools closer to home, his mother had but one message for him.

"I don't want you to consider me at all," she said. "I want you to dream your own dream."