Let’s be honest: the sporting world can be full of ego. There are players who flaunt their talents, think they’re the best who have ever lived, and push the limits of fame & importance. This couldn’t be further from the truth when talking about NBA Champion Festus Ezeli. Ezeli found his way to the NBA after redshirting and completing college at Vanderbilt University, where he had an unconventional start.
Kevin Stallings, Vanderbilt’s head coach at the time mentioned: “Our relationship began unlike any other recruitment relationship that I ever had. Festus said to me on his official visit: ‘Coach you have to promise to redshirt me, or I’ll never come.’”
From Ezeli’s perspective, he wasn’t ready to play the game at the college level. He had come to the US from Nigeria at age 14, barely playing the game before looking at universities: “I tried to explain to them, I have never been on a team before. There’s a lot of this thing about basketball I didn’t understand. I didn’t fully understand the rules to be honest…I could make up for a lot of my mistakes through athleticism, but when you got to college, especially DI, it’s a different ball game, everyone is athletic. I still needed this room to grow.”
After a few years getting his sea legs and growing as an athlete, Stallings still had issues with Festus…but not what you might think: “The hardest thing with Festus I had to deal with was getting him to understand how good he was, and how he was feared by people that we played,” he said. Standing at 6’11’’ one would think that he would be dominating the court. But it took sitting him down to show him the evidence. For coach Stalling:
“I called him into my office and showed him some game footage of our game playing in the Southeast Eastern Conference. They had 2 guys on the court, they weighed about 270 a piece, and about 6’ 7’ or 6’8’’ they were big, tree trunk guys. I showed him the clip of them diving out of bounds for him to go through, they were afraid of him. I said, ‘Do you see that those 2 guys are scared of you?’ He looks at me and says ‘They are! – Why are they scared of me?!’ It was very unusual coaching him. He never had an ounce of arrogance in him.”
That humbleness and skill took him to become a first round draft pick in 2012 to The Golden State Warriors where he would become an NBA Champion in 2015. “I was not thinking about getting to the NBA at all…I was sitting there during my first game thinking, ‘wow I can’t believe I’m actually playing against this dude [Kobe].’ It was the idea that wow I’m on the court with these amazing guys I have been watching since I started playing the game. What really saved me was my competitive attitude.” In 2016 he joined the Portland Trail Blazers and will look forward to additional success in the future.
Although sidelined due to injury, Ezeli has plenty on his plate as he works on his recovery. He has started Rebuilding the Beast – an initiative that helps share the stories and journey’s of people who have seen adversity, and are overcoming it through strength and faith. On Rebuilding the Beast Instagram, you can observe anecdotal stories of people who have seen so much, and have such motivation and passion for life.