On his journey from Nigeria to Nashville, Vanderbilt center Festus Ezeli started late, then conquered doubts and nerves to become the nation's most improved player
There were omens, hundreds of them: moments of utter ineptitude that foretold peril, like exit signs glowing red inside a burning building. Why didn't Festus Ezeli flee from inevitable, public disaster? Why didn't he quit experimenting with a game he never imagined he'd play in the first place?
When Ezeli's parents sent him from their home in Benin City, Nigeria, to Yuba City, Calif., in 2004, into the care of his uncle Emeka Ndulue, a pediatrician, they did it to nourish their oldest child's medical school aspirations. This plan seemed sensible. By then Festus had already graduated from high school, mastered English and planned to major in a hard science. He was 14.
But when Festus became homesick, Uncle Emeka pushed him into the most appropriate social activity he could think of for a 6'8" teenager. Though he had never picked up a basketball, let alone competed in organized athletics in Nigeria ("I'd always been the person who cheered at events," he says), Festus joined a low-level AAU team and scored the first points of his life at age 15. In his team's own hoop. "Everybody was running up the court, and I was just running with them," recalls Ezeli, who left the team shortly thereafter. "It's kind of surreal. Sometimes I think about it now and I'm like, Damn. How did I get here?"
March 7, 2011
Here, on a Wednesday in late February, is Rand Dining Center, the crowded cafeteria on the tree-lined campus of Vanderbilt. Flanked by fellow undergrads at a lunch table, the most improved player in college basketball is annihilating his tray's contents—bacon cheeseburger, fries, fruit cup, orange juice—the way he does opponents in the paint. At week's end the 6'11", 265-pound Ezeli (e-ZEE-lee) was averaging 12.4 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks for the No. 21 Commodores (21--7, 9--5 in the SEC). This production hasn't been lost on NBA scouts, who note that the redshirt junior is finally putting his muscle (Ezeli has 7% body fat) and 7'6" wingspan to persuasive use. "There aren't a ton of traditional centers anymore, and especially not ones that are productive on both ends," Vandy assistant Dan Muller says. "Knowing we can go into the postseason and play with anybody in the country at that position is huge." As guard Chris Meriwether summarizes, "Festus is just a great example of someone who's really benefited from the college experience."
In fact, as the 21-year-old Ezeli weaves through a hallway with a visitor, he is a distant shadow of the kid who used to cry during phone calls to his family. Cafeteria workers high-five and hug him. He kibitzes with classmates about the three hours of sleep he got after finishing a sociology paper on masculinity. And upon being asked about life when he set foot in Nashville, in the fall of 2007, he chuckles at the memory of a disaster defused. "I didn't know what was going to happen with basketball," Ezeli says now. "You don't understand how everything changed."
Kevin Stallings, now in his 12th season as Commodores coach, issued a directive to his staff upon taking the job: Think outside the box. Vanderbilt's admissions standards are by far the most rigorous in the SEC, and to thrive in the Eastern Division—Vandy plays conference powerhouses Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee twice a year—the team has had to track down kids from well beyond the South. The goal, just as it is at every other school, is to bring in quality players. But the current rotation, Stallings must admit, resembles a director of diversity's athletic dream.
Consider: Deadeye guard John Jenkins (from Hendersonville, Tenn.), an SEC player of the year favorite, often overhears the French Skype conversations of his roommate, backup center Steve Tchiengang (Douala, Cameroon), who loves playing FIFA on his Xbox against quadrilingual swingman and NBA prospect Jeff Taylor (Norrk√∂ping, Sweden), who rooms near forward and erstwhile U.S. Open ball boy Lance Goulbourne (Brooklyn), who was raised 2,440 miles away from another suitemate, point guard Brad Tinsley (Oregon City, Ore.). Yet of all the far-flung Commodores, Ifeanyi Festus Ezeli-Ndulue has come, by almost any measure, the farthest.
Muller first read about Ezeli on a recruiting website in May 2007, but nobody he called had ever seen the 17-year-old or knew much beyond the fact that Ezeli was large, and therefore intriguing. Ezeli had little idea of his own abilities. At Sacramento's Jesuit High, where he took a year of classes, Ezeli excelled in chemistry but got cut during basketball tryouts by his chemistry teacher, who doubled as the coach. Still, for every reminder that he wasn't any good, Ezeli came across some new person who told him he had a future in the sport if he ever learned how to play.
So Ezeli agreed to enlist with a different AAU team, the Nor Cal Pharaohs. At 16 he also enrolled at Yuba Community College, where a skeptical Uncle Emeka allowed Festus to take courses only part time so he could work out with the basketball team and still preserve full collegiate eligibility. Conscripted to be the Yuba 49ers' videographer, Ezeli was often a disconcerting sight when he arrived at a visiting arena. "We'd come off the bus, and I'm the biggest dude, and teams were like, Oh my gosh, what's about to happen?" Ezeli says. "And then I would bring out the camera." At their practices, Yuba coach Doug Cornelius remembers, "Festus would get so frustrated that he'd punch the floor. I was afraid he'd break his hand."
Angst was to be expected. His coaches had to introduce him to everything from positions (You're a center) to rules (Don't stand in this painted area longer than three seconds). Some onlookers continued to snicker. But in July 2007, he was invited to the Reebok All-American Camp. Recruiters—Muller among them—awaited his arrival as if he were Bigfoot. They left with their heads spinning at Ezeli's size and raw potential, even if it was clear that he lacked confidence. Offers from 27 Division I schools he knew almost nothing about rolled in.
As Ezeli's AAU coaches helped him pare the list down—the finalists were UConn, Boston College, Harvard and Vanderbilt—he had his heart set on another option: prep school, where he could delay D-I and try being an active member of a full-time team for the first time. Muller and Stallings showed him that Vandy offered something better. Ezeli could redshirt; he'd be reared by a staff already familiar with international kids and homesickness; and he could earn the top-notch college degree he wanted. "I realized that he could be a player of no consequence, with no feel, who never developed into anything," Stallings says now. "Or he could be a guy who became a dominant force. The range was bigger and wider for him than any kid I'd ever seen."
They began to see it at practice. At first the sessions were uniformly horrific; tapes from Ezeli's first two years show his Australian classmate A.J. Ogilvy, a 6'11", 250-pound All-SEC center, manhandling the largest bio major in Vanderbilt history. But Ezeli—who didn't even know how to properly box out—quickly resolved to attack basketball like coursework. The blankest of slates, devoid of any habits at all, he was the Commodores' model student, perpetually asking questions and pulling all-nighters to go over the playbook and game film. By his third season Ezeli started to dominate practices against Ogilvy, coaches say, and as lessons clicked into place they'd see his face light up like a child's.
Last April, however, when Ogilvy declared early for the draft, Stallings privately wondered if the Commodores could really contend with Ezeli going from a 12.7 minutes-a-game reserve to a starting role. Though the center had turned the corner in practice—step one—games were something else: He averaged 3.8 points and 3.2 rebounds last season and shot a heinous 37.3% from the line. This was due, in no small part, to a very simple reality: Ezeli had never played in packed arenas before. He suffered from stage fright. He choked.
In November 2008, for instance, when Vanderbilt visited eventual national champion North Carolina for a closed scrimmage, Ezeli turned heads again by aggressively banging bodies with the Tar Heels' heralded frontcourt. But seven days later, when Vanderbilt hosted Division II Alabama-Huntsville for an exhibition, Ezeli scarcely jumped. "He couldn't even lift his arms to rebound because there were people sitting in the stands," Stallings explains.
Even last year, in Vandy's first-round loss to Murray State in the NCAA tournament, Ezeli found himself leg-locked due to nerves. Balls flew through his hands; the game seemed to be playing in fast forward. "I wasn't even in control of my body," Ezeli admits. "When I got into games I regressed, and got back to looking like old Festus again. When I tried to box out I fell down. It was crazy."
So last summer Ezeli watched more film than ever, which helped him visualize live-game situations. To soften his mitts a team manager, Sam Ferry, chucked basketballs at him for 30 minutes four times a week, with Ezeli sometimes wearing gardening gloves or weighted pads. And as for foul shots? Says Muller, "I bet you money there's not a person in this world that's shot more free throws than Festus in the past nine months." The payoff: Ezeli was shooting 64.8% from the line through Sunday, making 51 of 70 (72.9%) over his last 12 games. He has added a righty hook shot to his post repertoire, while his offensive rebounding rate (15.2) ranks 24th nationally. And he keeps asking questions. Former NBA center Will Perdue set the school's single-season blocks record of 74 that, at week's end, Ezeli was one shy of breaking. When he called a Vandy game for ESPN last month, Perdue says, "Festus found me and asked, What do you think about me? What can you recommend?"
Coaches like Tennessee's Bruce Pearl and Belmont's Rick Byrd confirm a formerly inconceivable development. "I don't think they miss [Ogilvy] at all," Pearl told the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January. "Ezeli has improved so much that he gives them the best of both worlds." Yes, the tournament fate of Vanderbilt—No. 13 in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency—rests heavily on the 6'4" Jenkins, whose scoring average of 19.5 points through Sunday led the SEC. One of the country's best pure shooters (his career three-point percentage is 44.1), Jenkins is also a no-nonsense practice fiend who became the first five-star recruit in Vandy's history after committing as a junior out of Station Camp High in Gallatin, Tenn. The Commodores' offense is constructed to give Jenkins clean looks. And it is the newfound interior presence of Ezeli, Stallings says, that not only helps free up their marksman but also "gives us a chance to be a good team."
The rise has not been without drawbacks. Much to the dismay of Uncle Emeka, the career path leading to Festus Ezeli, M.D., is indefinitely on hold. His increasing devotion to the team forced him to switch majors from lab-intensive biology to economics last year. ("You can imagine what it is like to hear his perspective on world trade, globalization, and the economics of American sports," gushes Vanderbilt chancellor Nick Zeppos.) Luckily, though, a future in an even more selective industry looms on the horizon. "Now, I don't know what the finished product is going to be," Stallings says. "But I'd be really surprised if that kid didn't play in the league for a long time."
Of course, Ezeli's family has mandated that he get his Vanderbilt degree first—not that he's in any particular rush to leave Nashville. From developing his left hand to continually upping his free throw percentage to gaining a firmer grasp of microeconomics and Southern culture, there are so many things he still wants to learn. And when he thinks about his life, that search for knowledge—more than anything else—is exactly why Ifeanyi Festus Ezeli-Ndulue is here.
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THE COMMODORES' CURRENT ROTATION RESEMBLES A DIRECTOR OF DIVERSITY'S ATHLETIC DREAM. BUT EZELI HAS COME, BY ALMOST ANY MEASURE, THE FARTHEST.
"I REALIZED THAT HE COULD BE A PLAYER OF NO CONSEQUENCE, WITH NO FEEL, WHO NEVER DEVELOPED," SAYS STALLINGS OF EZELI. "OR HE COULD BECOME DOMINANT."