Warriors' big man Ezeli was a late bloomer

05/10/2013 12:00 AM

08/16/2013 10:30 PM

OAKLAND – Nine years ago, Festus Ezeli had high aspirations when he arrived in California from Nigeria.

Those lofty goals didn't include playing for the Warriors in the NBA's Western Conference semifinals tonight against the San Antonio Spurs.

Ezeli was 6-foot-6 in 2004 and had already earned a high school diploma when he enrolled at Jesuit High School. A neophyte on the hardwood, Ezeli wasn't good enough to play on the Marauders' basketball team – and wasn't eligible since he'd finished high school before arriving in the United States.

Basketball was more of a curiosity for Ezeli, whose parents sent him to live with an uncle in Yuba City to study to become a doctor.

Obviously, Ezeli isn't practicing medicine. And how the 6-11 NBA rookie became a first-round draft pick out of Vanderbilt and a key to Golden State's turnaround season is far from the typical story of an elite basketball prodigy.

The foundation was laid in Sacramento when the admittedly uncoordinated teenager wasn't good enough to play in AAU games.

"From the start, I never thought I'd be here," Ezeli said Thursday after the Warriors' practice for tonight's Game 3 against the Spurs. "I never played the game. There are a lot of people in the world that want to be here in the NBA and aren't here. In my mind, the odds of me being in the NBA were slim to none, and then they told me I was going to be a first-round pick on top of that – it was just unbelievable."

Consider this: During Ezeli's first foray into AAU basketball, he scored his first basket in his own goal.

Yes, there was a long way to go.

Keith Odister remembers meeting 14-year-old Ezeli. Odister's son, Kyle, played for the AAU NorCal Pharoahs, and the team needed a player with size. When he saw Ezeli, Odister asked a Jesuit coach if the kid "could play" ball.

The answer was no. Odister, however, saw Ezeli could run and jump and began helping the youngster learn the game.

"I recognized when you showed him something he had a photographic memory and he could do it," Odister said. "But he had to see it."

Ezeli wasn't good enough to play for the Pharoahs, a program that included two former Bee Players of the Year – Sacramento High's Kevin Galloway and Oak Ridge High and current New Orleans Pelicans forward Ryan Anderson.

Ezeli watched and learned from the sideline while working with numerous coaches to improve his strength and conditioning. Ezeli said he wore special shoes designed to improve his leg strength because he couldn't dunk. And he remembers being roughed up in a lot of his early workouts.

Ezeli began working with local basketball trainer Guss Armstead, who runs the Sacramento Pro-Am league in the summer and continues to work with several local stars ranging from high school players to professionals.

"He'd put us through drills, a lot of drills that I'd mess up because I didn't know what was going on," Ezeli said. "We played pickup a lot, and I played with pros, and that really helped boost my learning curve because I was playing against guys that had been doing this for a long time and they're doing it at a pro level. After a while, it started to click."

Former Galt and Oregon State standout Phil Ricci is a regular in Armstead's gym, and Ricci showed Ezeli no mercy.

"Phil was tough on me," Ezeli said. "I guess he made me grow some hair on my chest. Every day, he'd go right at my chest, and I think that made me a better defender, too. I could never accept someone just bullying me all the time. All that just helped me grow into the player I am."

Even as Ezeli began learning the game, his goal was to become a doctor, not an NBA center.

That's how Ezeli ended up at Yuba College at 16 with a 16-unit course load that included chemistry, biology and calculus.

Yuba coach Doug Cornelius recalled the day Ezeli knocked on his door and told him he wanted to play basketball. Cornelius, like most, wondered how a teenager, now 6-10, wasn't already on a team.

Cornelius said he took Ezeli to the court and asked him to perform a drop step and then dunk the basketball.

Ezeli told Cornelius he couldn't do that – that is, he didn't know how to dunk. Cornelius showed Ezeli the move he wanted him to make and learned what Odister had discovered earlier – if Ezeli saw it, he could do it.

Cornelius knew he had something special in Ezeli.

"When he was 16 years old, I told him, you're the first kid I'm going to tell this and probably the last, but you're going to make more money playing basketball than you will as a doctor," Cornelius said. "He was like 'Coach, you're crazy.' "

Cornelius was able to get Ezeli to reduce his course load to 11 units, which allowed him to greyshirt, meaning he could work out with the Yuba team without losing his athletic eligibility.

Ezeli signed up for Cornelius' physical education basketball course, where he played against regular students. He earned money filming Yuba's games and continued to progress as a player.

By 2007, Ezeli was ready to try AAU basketball with the Pharaohs, coached by Jason Barton.

And, yes, he knew which basket to score in this time.

Ezeli became one of the most sought-after players in the country that summer. Odister helped Ezeli navigate the recruiting craze, accompanying him on visits to schools and elite basketball camps.

"He really didn't have much exposure to basketball, but defensively he always had a presence," Armstead said. "That's what kind of catapulted him to where major schools were looking at him."

Cornelius wasn't ecstatic about Ezeli playing AAU ball, but Ezeli said he wanted the experience before suiting up for Yuba.

By the end of the summer, one thing was certain – Ezeli would never play for Yuba.

"Literally, two AAU tournaments in, I'm talking to UCLA, Ohio State, Florida," Cornelius said. "At that point, I said, 'It's done, we've lost him.' "

Ezeli decided to attend Vanderbilt because of its academic reputation. After redshirting the 2007-08 season, Ezeli's role increased to a full-time starter as a junior. He finished his career as the Commodores' all-time leader with 204 blocked shots.

Along with being the "best" interview among NBA draft prospects and having a great individual workout, Ezeli caught the attention of coach Mark Jackson and the Warriors, who used the 30th pick in the 2012 draft on him.

Ezeli started 41 of his 78 games as a rookie while regular center Andrew Bogut recovered from an ankle injury.

Bogut is back, but Ezeli continues to play an important role off the bench.

"Not enough credit is given to him," Jackson said. "We were 13 games above .500 with Festus starting at the center position. And that's awfully impressive. We had two rookies starting and three in the rotation, and Festus held the fort down and put us in position to be where we are today."

Not bad for someone who began learning how to play basketball when Spurs All-Star big man Tim Duncan had already won two NBA titles in eight NBA seasons.

"I just wanted to play basketball," Ezeli said. "I kept working and I kept seeing the fruits of my labor, and it's a blessing."

Follow The Bee's Jason Jones on Twitter @mr_jasonjones and read more about the team at www.sacbee.com/kings.

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