"It's been nonstop," Ezeli said of his National Basketball Association pre-draft excursion since graduating from Vanderbilt in May. "There’s something going all the time."
The native of Nigeria can almost touch the unattainable (it also helps that he has a nine-foot standing reach). Never in Ezeli’s wildest dreams did he imagine he’d be one step from an NBA career, considering the Commodore center first picked up a basketball at 14 upon arriving in the United States to live with his uncle.
But it’s hard to grasp the significance of the achievement when you’re living out of a suitcase. The days run together and the hotels all look the same. Even recalling the long list of NBA teams visited over the last month can be a blur.
"I've just been flying. I can't really remember all of [the teams] right now,” Ezeli said from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport while waiting on a flight to Atlanta last week. “I'm just trying to think of the next one."
And the next one is the grand daddy of them all. Tonight, the NBA Draft (6 p.m. CT, ESPN) will be the culmination of triumph and failure for the 7-foot, 264-pound giant. From Africa to Nashville, Ezeli has sold his product time and time again, even when the consumer wasn’t buying it.
At age 16 (and holder of a high school diploma earned at the age of 14), Ezeli was logging more minutes at Yuba Community College in California as team videographer than player. Commodore Head Coach Kevin Stallings can remember when Ezeli didn’t have the stamina to get through his first individual Vanderbilt workout in 2007.
Ezeli thought of quitting the sport during his bumpy expedition. But he wouldn’t walk away.
“There were a bunch of points where it was very difficult,” admitted Ezeli, who struggled with basic drills when he first learned the game. “I wasn't doing as well. I really endured through a lot. Even at Vanderbilt when I wasn't playing as well, or I wasn't getting concepts. It was just a lot of hard work.”
Ezeli’s playing time was limited early on at Vanderbilt, partly because All-SEC performer A.J. Ogilvy was ahead of him. Ezeli still credits battles with the older Australian in practice as his turning point.
Halfway through his redshirt sophomore season, the light went on. "I just started dominating in practice. Coaches would tell me, ‘You're starting to get it.’”
Ezeli excelled from that point, averaging 11.7 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per contest in his final two seasons to earn All-SEC recognition. He became a force in the middle, especially on defense, and broke Will Perdue’s school record with 204 career blocks.
"This would not be possible without Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt gave me pretty much everything. I'm a defensive player. That's something that they instilled in me. Everything I know about defense is what Coach Stallings taught me. I'm very grateful to him."
Strolling through the halls of American Airlines Center, home of the Dallas Mavericks, Ezeli can sense he’s finally made it. On this day, he bumps into Mark Cuban and strikes up a conversation with the famous Mavericks owner. “It's weird. I'm meeting all these celebrities, but they're all down to earth, regular people."
In some ways, it’s almost as if Ezeli is being recruited all over again. Just like when he was discovered playing AAU basketball for the Sacramento Pharaohs in the summer of 2007. Then, coaches drooled over his raw potential, leading to 27 scholarship offers. Now, it’s NBA executives trying to figure out if Ezeli is the piece to their future puzzle.
The main difference this time is Ezeli has no say in where he goes. Draft experts have projected Ezeli to go anywhere from the late first round, which would earn him a guaranteed contract, to the early second round.
(Photo Credit: P3)
To improve his draft status, Ezeli returned to California in May to prepare for workouts and trained with P3 (Peak Performance Project) in Santa Barbara. He signed with BDA Sports Management, the same agency that represents Vanderbilt teammates John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor.
The Commodore trio crossed paths at different workouts, including the NBA Draft Combine in early June. They’ve been a popular group among the other players trying to make the league. "Everywhere we go, we're the 'Vandy Boys’,” Ezeli cracked.
At workouts, NBA teams put Ezeli through a wide range of tests on and off the floor. Every inch of his frame gets measured; such as a 7’6” wingspan and body fat of just six percent.
Everybody from the front office is in attendance. Coaches, general managers, owners, you name it. The executives make him take personality exams to see if he’s a good fit for their organization.
The process is extensive and tiring, but the sessions won’t necessarily determine a team’s final decision on draft day. "On the court, that part, I don't have to sell,” Ezeli said. “They've seen me play for four years. They know what I do. But personality-wise, they're looking at your work ethic and what kind of person and teammate you are. That's what you have to sell to them."
And no matter what town he’s in, every team (and reporter) wants to hear Ezeli’s unique adventure. Over and over again. Just how did the guy who knew nothing about basketball seven years ago make it this far?
"There was a day where I said the story like 10 times," laughed Ezeli. "The whole background story, back to back to back. It's cool, though. I'm not complaining because at least they want to know about you."
In between flights and workouts to at least a dozen teams, Ezeli tuned into the NBA Playoffs to observe his future co-workers and get a peek at what lies ahead. “I'm a fan, but at the same time, I'm trying to watch what other people are doing, and trying to see myself in those roles. I'm just trying to learn.”
Ask Ezeli which player his game resembles and he’ll mention Serge Ibaka of Oklahoma City. Ibaka, the only NBA player from the Republic of the Congo, was the 24th overall pick in 2008. Like Ezeli, Ibaka is a defensive stopper on the front line and started all 86 games for the Thunder.
And basketball isn’t the only activity Ezeli has picked up. During the school year, he started taking piano lessons for the first time since he was a child. “I was trying to get back what I had when I was little," he said. "I really enjoy music. I love the sound of the piano. It's something I just enjoy listening to.”
Believe it or not, learning basketball and piano have some similarities, Ezeli noted, since both require practice and repetition to excel. “But [piano’s] less pounding on your knees.”
After an exhausting month on the road capped off by a visit with the Orlando Magic, Ezeli finally returned home on Tuesday. A relieved Ezeli tweeted to his 2,507 followers, “Feels so good to wake up in my own bed #homesweethome.”
Ezeli will watch the NBA Draft with his parents and additional family members in Sacramento. His dad, Festus, Sr., flew in from Nigeria last week to celebrate the special moment.
Ezeli was a fan favorite during his time on West End. His infectious smile and outgoing personality explain why he was crowned Mr. Commodore at the annual Black and Gold banquet, truly showing how well he was liked by his peers on campus.
My lasting Vanderbilt memory of Ezeli will be of the hours following the Commodores’ heartbreaking loss to Wisconsin in the third round of the NCAA Tournament in March.
Near a gate at the Albuquerque airport, Ezeli sat quietly at a desk. He was too big for the table, like a parent sitting in a first grader’s classroom.
With the plane 30 minutes from arriving, Stallings walked over to console Ezeli. His head coach leaned over the desk and held Ezeli for several minutes. The two, mentor and student, didn’t want to let go. They cried together. And then laughed.
What might have been the end of the road for Ezeli’s collegiate career really was only the beginning. From Nigeria to California, and the thousands of miles in between, he finally made his destination.