How NBA champ Festus Ezeli fell into basketball after emigrating from Nigeria at 14

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Festus Ezeli departed from Nigeria in July 2004 as a nervous 14-year-old who stood 6-foot-6 and dreamed of becoming a doctor. While there is no medical degree 11 years later, the Golden State Warriors' center on Wednesday returned to Africa five inches taller and an NBA champion after living a real-life fairy tale.

Festus Ezeli hugs the Larry O'Brien trophy after the Warriors won the NBA title in June. (AP)
Festus Ezeli hugs the Larry O'Brien trophy after the Warriors won the NBA title in June. (AP)

"I've been beyond lucky, blessed or whatever it is," Ezeli told Yahoo Sports. "I've had people come into my life that I never expected. I've had people come and support me that I never expected. They all are a part of my journey…

"Nothing is impossible. You just have to be able to dream big and work hard for it."

Ezeli is returning to Africa to play in the first-ever NBA Africa Game, an exhibition on Saturday in Johannesburg, South Africa. The Nigeria native will be playing for the Africa Team coached by the San Antonio Spurs' Gregg Popovich with teammates such as Luol Deng and Giannis Antetokounmpo. The World Team roster includes All-Stars Chris Paul, Marc Gasol and Pau Gasol.

Ezeli believes the exhibition will have such a strong impact on the growth of basketball in Africa that renowned power USA Basketball will eventually have to take serious notice.

"To bring NBA basketball out there just shows how much basketball has grown in that continent," Ezeli said. "Pretty soon, Africa is going to be a contender in basketball. Eventually, it's going to rival the United States. We just haven't tapped that resource yet. This is the beginning."

Ifeanyi Festus Ezeli-Ndulue was born in Benin City, Nigeria, on Oct. 21, 1989, and was the first of six children to parents Chukwuma Festus Ezeli and Patricia Ada Ezeli. Ifeanyi means, "Nothing is impossible with God." The close-knit Ezeli family owns a home with a hoop outside. A young Festus Ezeli, however, didn't grow up a hoop fan in the southern Nigeria city of about 1.1 million as he enjoyed academics and soccer.

"He would do and say things at age 2 that 8-year-olds couldn't say or do. He was an exceptional and brilliant child," Patricia Ada Ezeli told Yahoo Sports.

Festus Ezeli said he advanced quickly in school and was promoted past the fifth and sixth grades by American standards at the private Igbinedion Education Center in Benin City. He actually earned his high school diploma just months from his 15th birthday.

"The common knowledge of Africa is poverty, which we do have a lot of," Ezeli said. "But the affluent and educated exist in Nigeria as well. My parents worked hard enough to send me to an international school. At the school I learned about different parts of the world. I learned to get out of a small-town mentality and to aspire to be great."

Festus Ezeli (L) and his family visited the Golden Gate Bridge shortly before Ezeli moved to the U.S. (Credit: Ezeli family)
Festus Ezeli (L) and his family visited the Golden Gate Bridge shortly before Ezeli moved to the U.S. (Credit: Ezeli family)

The Ezelis first visited the U.S. in 1996 and returned many times. In 2004, on a trip to Northern California, Ezeli's parents decided it would be best for their son to further his education – and reach his dream of becoming a doctor – by moving the United States. The Ezelis' plan was for Festus to live with and shadow his uncle, Dr. Chuk Ndulue, in Yuba City, Calif., a Sacramento-area town of about 65,000 residents. Ezeli had never lived away from his parents to that point and was "torn" about leaving.

"It was painful to let him go, but we knew it was for his own best interest," Patricia Ada Ezeli said.

Festus Ezeli arrived in Sacramento standing 6-foot-6 with plenty of room left to grow. While school remained the focus, his uncle believed it made a lot of sense for his nephew to begin playing basketball, too.

"[Ndulue] saw my height and said, 'We could do something with this,' " Festus Ezeli said. "I told him that I came to America to be a doctor. He told me, 'You can play basketball and use basketball to pay for your education.' We all thought it was a good idea, but we didn't realize how hard it would be."

Being tall definitely helped Ezeli's hoop dream, but not being skilled in the least in basketball in his teens brought major challenges.

Ezeli actually scored his first basket in his AAU debut in the wrong basket. He took a brief hiatus playing basketball after his frustrations, combined with his teammates' and coaches' frustrations, became too much for him. In 2005, he got cut from Sacramento's Jesuit High School basketball team.

"I didn't like it at all at first," Ezeli said. "I didn't understand anything about the game."

Ezeli next attended Yuba Community College initially just go to school. He eventually met Yuba basketball coach Doug Cornelius, who was the first coach who took time to teach him the game of basketball. Ezeli practiced with Yuba and filmed their games while gray-shirting to keep his four years of college eligibility intact.

After growing to 6-foot-11 at age 17, college scouts quickly became enamored with his potential despite how raw he was during AAU games. According to his mother, Ezeli received 38 scholarship offers before narrowing the field to Boston College, Connecticut, Harvard and Vanderbilt. Ezeli's parents thought it would be a dream come true for their son to get a Harvard education. In hopes of getting the best combination of school and basketball though, a strong-willed Ezeli chose Vanderbilt.

"I didn't think it was the best decision because I thought Harvard would give him the greatest opportunity in life," Patricia Ada Ezeli said. "Most parents would think that for their children. But when he kept insisting about basketball, school and being able to play at the highest level of the sport, we said to ourselves, 'School is always there. He can try it and if it doesn't work out he can go back to school.' "

The rest of the Ezeli family was finally reunited with Festus five years ago, but not under ideal circumstances. Amidst concerns about violence in Nigeria, Ezeli's family moved to the Sacramento-area in 2010. The Ezeli family also suffered a family tragedy in Nigeria while Festus was a sophomore at Vanderbilt that they preferred not to elaborate on.

Festus Ezeli (31) dunks as Houston forward Trevor Ariza (1) looks on during the Western Conference Finals. (Reuters)
Festus Ezeli (31) dunks as Houston forward Trevor Ariza (1) looks on during the Western Conference Finals. (Reuters)

"I could sleep better at night when they moved here," Ezeli said. "No place is completely safe. But given the circumstances and the situation, there was too much uncertainty over there. I'd rather them be here with me where they are safe."

When asked why he had not returned to Nigeria yet, Ezeli said: "At first it was because I became busy. But things became rough in Nigeria. Times were tough. There were some family issues… It just became unsafe."

After majoring in economics and suiting up for Vanderbilt from 2008-2012, the Warriors selected Ezeli with the 30th overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft. He started 41 games as a rookie and missed the entire 2013-14 season following knee surgery. Ezeli finally returned to the Warriors healthy in February.

Ezeli was in the Warriors' playing rotation as they progressed to the NBA Finals. And with center Andrew Bogut having injury issues, Ezeli played a pivotal role in the Warriors winning a championship. He celebrated by having his family on the float with him during the Warriors' championship parade in Oakland, Calif.

"Being on the parade with him was like going to heaven…," Patricia Ada Ezeli said. "I cried. But those were tears of joy because I was happy. I'm proud of him."

And while Nigeria is a ways from Oakland, Ezeli's family members and friends back home paid close attention to the Warriors' title run.

"I get messages all the time on LinkedIn, e-mail, What's App, Facebook and Instagram every day," Ezeli said. "People are excited about what I am doing and have congratulated me. It lets me know that what I'm doing is bigger than myself and people are supporting and watching me."

Said Patricia Ada Ezeli: "One time I put him on the phone with one of his cousins who called about him from Nigeria. Festus enjoyed that."

Festus Ezeli was honored to get the invitation to play in the first NBA exhibition in Africa. Initially, however, his mom was extremely worried about safety and security. But with a strong NBA security contingent in tow while the players attend the NBA Africa Basketball Without Borders camp, take a visit to the Apartheid Museum, take part in charities and play in the exhibition game in Johannesburg, Ezeli and his agent, Ugo Udeze, calmed her concerns.

Ezeli says it was a must that he attend because it's "bigger than just myself" and he's "paving the way for someone else."

Festus Ezeli, left, prepares to throw out the first pitch before an Oakland A's game on July 5. (AP)
Festus Ezeli, left, prepares to throw out the first pitch before an Oakland A's game on July 5. (AP)

"My mom wasn't against me going back. She was just scared for safety," Ezeli said. "She didn't know how the NBA works and how tight its security is. So that was her main concern because she is my mom first."

Said Patricia Ada Ezeli: "I told him to stay close to the team and be careful because of some of the things that happen in South Africa sometimes. I asked him to be careful."

Ezeli is scheduled to depart from South Africa back to the United States on Aug. 6. He says his trip to Africa won't be complete until he finally sets foot back in Nigeria.

"Even if I can't go right now, the fact that I can go back to Africa is exciting to me," Ezeli said. "There are a lot of things I want to do in the world. With the trouble in Nigeria and things like that, I want to be able to help my country in some way. I don't know how it's going to be, but I want to help my country. But to be able to give back to the continent, this is an exciting first step."