There were omens, hundreds of them: moments of utter ineptitude that foretold peril, like exit signs glowing red inside a burning building. Why didn't Festus Ezeli flee from inevitable, public disaster? Why didn't he quit experimenting with a game he never imagined he'd play in the first place?
When Ezeli's parents sent him from their home in Benin City, Nigeria, to Yuba City, Calif., in 2004, into the care of his uncle Emeka Ndulue, a pediatrician, they did it to nourish their oldest child's medical school aspirations. This plan seemed sensible. By then Festus had already graduated from high school, mastered English and planned to major in a hard science. He was 14.
But when Festus became homesick, Uncle Emeka pushed him into the most appropriate social activity he could think of for a 6'8" teenager. Though he had never picked up a basketball, let alone competed in organized athletics in Nigeria ("I'd always been the person who cheered at events," he says), Festus joined a low-level AAU team and scored the first points of his life at age 15. In his team's own hoop. "Everybody was running up the court, and I was just running with them," recalls Ezeli, who left the team shortly thereafter. "It's kind of surreal. Sometimes I think about it now and I'm like, Damn. How did I get here?"
Here, on a Wednesday in late February, is Rand Dining Center, the crowded cafeteria on the tree-lined campus of Vanderbilt. Flanked by fellow undergrads at a lunch table, the most improved player in college basketball is annihilating his tray's contents—bacon cheeseburger, fries, fruit cup, orange juice—the way he does opponents in the paint. At week's end the 6'11", 265-pound Ezeli (e-ZEE-lee) was averaging 12.4 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks for the No. 21 Commodores (21--7, 9--5 in the SEC). This production hasn't been lost on NBA scouts, who note that the redshirt junior is finally putting his muscle (Ezeli has 7% body fat) and 7'6" wingspan to persuasive use. "There aren't a ton of traditional centers anymore, and especially not ones that are productive on both ends," Vandy assistant Dan Muller says. "Knowing we can go into the postseason and play with anybody in the country at that position is huge." As guard Chris Meriwether summarizes, "Festus is just a great example of someone who's really benefited from the college experience."
In fact, as the 21-year-old Ezeli weaves through a hallway with a visitor, he is a distant shadow of the kid who used to cry during phone calls to his family. Cafeteria workers high-five and hug him. He kibitzes with classmates about the three hours of sleep he got after finishing a sociology paper on masculinity. And upon being asked about life when he set foot in Nashville, in the fall of 2007, he chuckles at the memory of a disaster defused. "I didn't know what was going to happen with basketball," Ezeli says now. "You don't understand how everything changed."
Kevin Stallings, now in his 12th season as Commodores coach, issued a directive to his staff upon taking the job: Think outside the box. Vanderbilt's admissions standards are by far the most rigorous in the SEC, and to thrive in the Eastern Division—Vandy plays conference powerhouses Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee twice a year—the team has had to track down kids from well beyond the South. The goal, just as it is at every other school, is to bring in quality players. But the current rotation, Stallings must admit, resembles a director of diversity's athletic dream.
Consider: Deadeye guard John Jenkins (from Hendersonville, Tenn.), an SEC player of the year favorite, often overhears the French Skype conversations of his roommate, backup center Steve Tchiengang (Douala, Cameroon), who loves playing FIFA on his Xbox against quadrilingual swingman and NBA prospect Jeff Taylor (Norrköping, Sweden), who rooms near forward and erstwhile U.S. Open ball boy Lance Goulbourne (Brooklyn), who was raised 2,440 miles away from another suitemate, point guard Brad Tinsley (Oregon City, Ore.). Yet of all the far-flung Commodores, Ifeanyi Festus Ezeli-Ndulue has come, by almost any measure, the farthest.
Muller first read about Ezeli on a recruiting website in May 2007, but nobody he called had ever seen the 17-year-old or knew much beyond the fact that Ezeli was large, and therefore intriguing. Ezeli had little idea of his own abilities. At Sacramento's Jesuit High, where he took a year of classes, Ezeli excelled in chemistry but got cut during basketball tryouts by his chemistry teacher, who doubled as the coach. Still, for every reminder that he wasn't any good, Ezeli came across some new person who told him he had a future in the sport if he ever learned how to play.
So Ezeli agreed to enlist with a different AAU team, the Nor Cal Pharaohs. At 16 he also enrolled at Yuba Community College, where a skeptical Uncle Emeka allowed Festus to take courses only part time so he could work out with the basketball team and still preserve full collegiate eligibility. Conscripted to be the Yuba 49ers' videographer, Ezeli was often a disconcerting sight when he arrived at a visiting arena. "We'd come off the bus, and I'm the biggest dude, and teams were like, Oh my gosh, what's about to happen?" Ezeli says. "And then I would bring out the camera." At their practices, Yuba coach Doug Cornelius remembers, "Festus would get so frustrated that he'd punch the floor. I was afraid he'd break his hand."
Angst was to be expected. His coaches had to introduce him to everything from positions (You're a center) to rules (Don't stand in this painted area longer than three seconds). Some onlookers continued to snicker. But in July 2007, he was invited to the Reebok All-American Camp. Recruiters—Muller among them—awaited his arrival as if he were Bigfoot. They left with their heads spinning at Ezeli's size and raw potential, even if it was clear that he lacked confidence. Offers from 27 Division I schools he knew almost nothing about rolled in.