Here is a link to my column on Festus Ezeli. The full text runs below:
“I’ve read a lot about you,” I told Warriors center Festus Ezeli. “I could pass a test.”
“What city am I from in Nigeria?”
Wow, I didn’t expect that one.
“Ahh!” he said laughing at me, “Benin City.”
“I flunked,” I said.
“It’s all right. It’s a long test.”
“Are there essay questions?”
“There’s a few.”
That was my introduction to Ezeli, smart, playful, verbal like you can’t believe. We were sitting courtside at the Warriors practice court. Although Andrew Bogut is the starting center, Ezeli is essential to the Warriors. And he has an all-time great story.
“I came here when I was 14 the summer after I graduated high school.”
Note: Yes, he graduated at 14.
“We came here to celebrate my graduation. I was not intending to stay. My uncle lived in Yuba City. My aunt lives in Sacramento. My uncle hadn’t seen me since I was a little kid, so when he saw me at 14 years old, I was 6-5. He was amazed and he had this idea that maybe I could try to play basketball.
“He convinced my parents basketball could help pay for my education, so I stayed here. Now, I’m 14 and I graduated high school. The only logical thing to do was to go back to high school.”
“Because you were so young?” I asked.
“Because I was young, but I also wanted to learn to play basketball. But the plans got halted because, when I went back to high school, I didn’t make the team.”
Fast forward. After high school, Ezeli attended Yuba Community College. He wasn’t even thinking of hoops. He wanted to be a doctor and planned to take pre-med classes. An AAU coach took one look at him and thought holy mackerel and convinced him to play AAU basketball for the Nor Cal Pharaohs. He didn’t have an auspicious beginning.
“My first basket was against my own team. The reason being at halftime I didn’t know you switch ends of the court. It just shows how far this whole thing has come.”
Ezeli was 16. He was playing summer ball for the Pharaohs but he wasn’t playing for his community college. Instead, he took basketball classes at Yuba Community College.
“Actual basketball classes?” I asked.
“Yes. It was incredible. I took classes under the basketball coach. He wanted me to hang around the team and taking basketball classes was the way to do that. I traveled with the team. I was the videographer — I was recording games. We would come out of the bus. I’m the biggest guy and they saw me, like, ‘Man this kid is big. We don’t want to play these guys.’ And then I whip out the camera and people would be, ‘What’s going on?’ ”
Because Ezeli did not play for Yuba, he retained his four years of college eligibility. Eventually, people started hearing about this athletic kid playing AAU ball who could block shots and run the floor. He got invited to a top-150 camp in Philadelphia.
“People hearing about me, it was like a myth, the kid who came out of nowhere. All these coaches came to watch me and I left that camp with 27 scholarship offers. Now that dream of playing basketball and going to college was a reality. Academics were still very much on my mind, so I picked Vanderbilt because it was the best of both worlds. The coach believed he could turn me into a serviceable player.”
“What does serviceable mean to you?” I asked.
“Well, somebody that could play but you don’t know if he’ll be great.”
“Do you still consider yourself serviceable?”
“No. Not at all.” Leaning forward in his chair, voice rising. “I’ve put in enough work to consider myself a pretty good player. When you say ‘work,’ it’s a general word everybody uses, but I had to learn the game from scratch.”
OK, so he thinks he’s better than serviceable — and he is. He’s a rising star. What one thing in particular can he do now that he couldn’t do in AAU or college?
“I think better on the court. You play chess on the court. When fans watch the game, they see you catch the ball and shoot a hook shot. The play before, you ducked in, you set him up for the next play. I think the game better.”
“On a scale of zero to 100, where are you in basketball progress?”
“I don’t know how to answer that. I learn one little nuance and it changes my game. I really don’t know how good I could be. That could sound cocky or that could sound naïve.”
Ezeli missed the entire 2013-2014 season. Mangled knee ligaments. Unstable knee. Serious stuff.
“I had to learn to walk again. I had to learn to run again. Everything I was used to was taken away from me. That was a huge moment. It could have made or broken me. It took a lot for me to keep going. I took very little incremental steps. After three weeks, all I could do was bend my knee. It was supposed to be a six-month process and I ended up being out 17 months.”
Finally, this. He is Bogut’s backup. Is he frustrated not starting?
“Andrew’s my friend. This is kind of a cheesy answer to give. We’re a family on this team. After experiencing all that success last year, it didn’t matter who was in the game at the start, at the finish, who did not play. When that final buzzer went off, we were all champions.”
“Why is that a cheesy answer?”
“People expect me to say, ‘Yes, I want to start.’ People would think it’s a media-friendly answer. Andrew has been nothing but supportive of me. Our games are similar on the defensive end. He’s been helping me, advising me, making me understand the defensive philosophies of the game. We’re a tag-team effort.”
Big-picture moment. Ezeli was wonderful in this interview. I’m sure you agree. Every Warriors player is like that. The Warriors are world champs and they’re still normal. Nothing cheesy about that. Thank the Lord.
For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at email@example.com.