One on One with Chris Dortch: Festus Ezeli
The legend of Festus Ezeli began in 2007, when Vanderbilt assistant coach Dan Muller came across a name on an Internet recruiting service.
Muller didn’t have much more than that name to go on, but the bits and pieces of information he read about Ezeli intrigued him: Close to seven feet tall. Moved to the United States from Nigeria. Played soccer as a youngster. Hmmm, Muller thought. Sounds a lot like … Hakeem Olajuwon? Nah. Couldn’t be.
“It was just a name,” Muller said, smiling at the recollection. “He was kind of a mystery guy that I’d heard about but never tracked down. And then one day a coaching friend of mine from Brewster Academy [a New England prep school Ezeli was thinking of attending] told me Festus was going to be at the Reebok Camp. So I decided to go see him.”
Muller wasn’t quite sure what to make of Ezeli, who began playing basketball only after being encouraged by an uncle, with whom Ezeli was sent to live by his parents, who wanted him to attend medical school in the U.S. Ezeli’s uncle thought the young man, then in the grips of homesickness, needed a diversion. So Ezeli hooked up with a low-level AAU team, even though he’d never played basketball before.
“He was very raw,” Muller said.
But that was OK with Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, who encourages his assistants to get creative in recruiting. Given its high academic standards, Vanderbilt can’t recruit the same way most schools do: no junior college transfers, no mid-year Division I transfers, no quick fixes. Player development is the lifeblood of the program.
The search for talent has taken Stallings’ assistants across the globe—to Poland for 7-0 Dawid Przybyszewski, to Australia for 6-11 A.J. Ogilvy. And now, direct from Nigeria—home of the legendary Olajuwon—here was another big man, albeit not nearly as advanced as Przybyszewski or Ogilvy. After Muller spoke with Ezeli, and later Stallings went to watch him play, the Vanderbilt coaches put on the full-court press.
“Once I started talking to Fes and started getting to know him and the people who were going to make the decision, it was a fit,” Muller said. “It was a fit with his academics and what his family wanted, and what was best for him. Because like I said, he was very raw. We had A.J. coming in, so Fes could red-shirt. We though it was a perfect situation for him.”
Ezeli wasn’t so sure of that. At the time, he didn’t know UCLA from USC Upstate. He’d never heard of this Vanderbilt.
“Vanderbilt was actually the first school I was going to cross off my list,” Ezeli said. “I didn’t know who they were. I thought it was like a junior college or something.”
Stallings, Muller, and another Vanderbilt assistant, King Rice, proved persuasive, though. A month after beginning its recruitment of Ezeli, in July 2007, Vanderbilt landed its man. Little did anyone know at the time what Ezeli would become.
Ezeli’s introduction to big-time college basketball was a shock to his system.
“When he first got here, he didn’t even really know what being on a team was like,” Stallings said. “This was the first team he’d ever been on. He red-shirted his first year, and I recall that first fall, he literally couldn’t make it through an individual workout. Just from a stamina standpoint.”
“It was like you’d expect,” Ezeli said. “A totally different atmosphere. More athletic players. It’s the SEC. Everybody’s really good. … It was overwhelming sometimes. I’d never experienced anything like it.”
The easy thing to do would have been to hightail it to medical school, but Ezeli was hooked. And given his family background, he was willing to immerse himself in this new game, learn everything he could, turn himself over, mind and body, to his coaches.
For Stallings and his assistants, Ezeli was literally a blank canvas, a malleable, willing subject they could mold in their own image. During Ezeli’s red-shirt year, the stories of his physical gifts would drift out from Vanderbilt practices. This Ezeli guy, if he kept working … maybe one day … maybe ... he could be special.
Ezeli’s progression took a little time, though. Remember that Ezeli had played little organized basketball. And he had never played in a place like the Commodores’ Memorial Gym.
“There was some panic,” Ezeli said. “It was overwhelming sometimes. In our gym we’ve got 14,000 people watching us. I’d never experienced anything like that. I’d only played AAU, in front of maybe 500 people. When I stared thinking about it, it was like ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe it.’ ”
That first season, Ezeli averaged a modest 3.8 points and 2.6 rebounds and struggled at the free-throw line (.509). But there were promising signs—Ezeli shot .547 from the floor and blocked 22 shots. Behind the scenes, the Vanderbilt coaches were encouraged by Ezeli’s daily jousting with Ogilvy, who had made the SEC All-Freshman team in 20007-08. Ogilvy physically dominated Ezeli during the latter’s red-shirt season. Now, Ezeli was starting to dominate Ogilvy.
Last season, Ezeli took a couple of steps forward (43 blocked shots), but also a step back (.373 free-throw percentage). Still, everyone in the program could see Ezeli was coming.
“The mindset and the skills were there in practice for the last year, year and a half,” said senior forward Joe Duffy. “There was a lot of development going on behind the scenes.”
The next step for Ezeli was to take what he delivered daily in practice and reproduce it in games. When Ogilvy made the surprising announcement after last season that he was declaring for the NBA draft (he wasn’t chosen), Ezeli’s time had finally come. Would he be ready?
In Vanderbilt’s season opener last November, Ezeli partially answered that question with 14 points, six rebounds and three blocked shots. But the opponent was outmanned Presbyterian. Could Ezeli bring it against better competition?
In the Commodores’ next game, Ezeli scored two points against Nebraska.
That effort called for a reminder from the Vanderbilt staff. All the lessons Ezeli learned the previous three years could be bundled up and reinforced by focusing on a single thought.
“The biggest thing the coaches have told me is try to slow the game down,” Ezeli said. “Sometimes when I got on the court, I’d have all these nerves. I was just trying to figure out ways to feel comfortable. But when the coaches told me to slow down, that was what I needed. I started to feel comfortable on the court.”
In Vanderbilt’s third game, Ezeli contributed eight points and 11 rebounds against West Virginia. The next night, it was 15 points and nine boards against North Carolina, keying a Vanderbilt victory that has increased tenfold in RPI value after the Tar Heels’ regular-season Atlantic Coast Conference championship.
Ezeli has been on a rampage since, averaging 12.9 points, nearly four times his career average, 6.2 rebounds and 2.6 blocked shots. Impressive numbers all, but the statistic that best underscores Ezeli’s rapid rise is free throw shooting. The big man has gotten to the line 194 times, almost twice as often as his first two seasons combined, and is shooting 66 percent.
National pundits are calling Ezeli the most improved player in Division I. And even opposing coaches marvel at his improvement.
"I know A.J. [Ogilvy] was a great player and a great talent, but I think they're better with [Ezeli] as their five now," Belmont coach Rick Byrd said. "I think they're better defensively. I think they're a better rebounding team. And frankly, he's tougher about getting deeper position.
Now that March Madness has begun, Ezeli is on a stage that will allow him to showcase his skills to a wider audience. And if Vanderbilt is to make a deep run through the SEC and NCAA Tournaments, Ezeli could be the guy—even more so than All-SEC talents Jeffrey Taylor and John Jenkins—that leads the way.
Duffy, who spars against Ezeli every day in practice, has some words of warning for future Vanderbilt opponents.
“He’s a load,” Duffy said. “He’s probably the strongest player I’ve ever played against. And on top of his strength, he’s also very quick and explosive. It’s very tough [to guard Ezeli]. You hope to contain him. That’s about as good as you can do.”
Vanderbilt coaches are convinced that as good as Ezeli has become, he can get that much better.
“He’s a very conscientious, caring young man,” Stallings said. “He’s a beautiful kid. He just is. It’s neat to see this happening for him. The game has slowed down for him. He used to get out there and he felt all sped up. Now it’s slowed down for him. As it continues to slow, he’s just going to get better and better. He’s still nowhere close to what he can become.”
Ezeli has a target in mind: Olajuwon, his fellow countryman who etched his name into basketball lore—both college and the pros—with the Phi Slamma Jamma Houston Cougars and the NBA title-winning Houston Rockets.
“I’d never heard of him,” Ezeli said. “But every time I’d tell people I’m from Nigeria, they would bring him up, so I had to figure out who he was. I heard his story was similar to mine. So I started watching his clips, and he was unbelievable. Now he’s my idol. I want to model my game after his.”
Does this mean the SEC will soon see the Ezeli Shake?
“You mean like the Dream Shake?” Ezeli said. “No. No. Hakeem’s footwork was incredible. That was his soccer moves coming out on the basketball court. I haven’t worked on that yet. I’m a power player for now.”
Stallings laughs when asked if he’s coaching the next Olajuwon.
“Olajuwon had some feel and some touch that Fes doesn’t have yet,” Stallings said. “He had the Dream Shake and that fall-away. He could be un-guardable. Festus, his strengths and attributes are good, but they’re not at that level.
“Now, can he evolve and be a guy, become a real dude like that? Maybe. Maybe not quite a guy like Olajuwon, but certainly a guy who could have a long career.”