Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Stop What You're Doing and Read This SI Article on Festus Ezeli

Your "go-to" source for Vanderbilt Baseball, When [It] Strikes Me, is at is again. This time, linking to Pablo Torre's article in this week's Sports Illustrated, "How did I get here?" about the improbable journey of Vanderbilt Center Festus Ezeli.

This is the kind of story that truly makes Vanderbilt special. While I commend the entire piece to you, I'll give you some highlights.

Festus before he picked up a basketball:
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.

Festus' life on campus:
"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.'"

On the diversity on this Commodore team:
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 (Norrköping, 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."

Good at chemistry, not at basketball:
"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."

The Festus sweepstakes:
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."

Festus' very productive summer:
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?"

Dr. Ezeli?:
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."

It's a fantastic story and worth your time to read it in its entirety. As a said above, this is the kind of story that makes Vanderbilt unique; this is the kind of story that should be celebrated in college athletics. Reading it, I can't help but be proud of Festus, and Vanderbilt, and to call myself a Commodore.


Vandygal78 said...

Perfect; absolutely perfect. Hope this article is mentioned during tonights game. Hope he plays lights out at Kentucky. Go Dores!

Anonymous said...

GO FESTUS! Extremely proud to be a Dore today. Bring on the Cats!