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Vanderbilt's Ezeli recalls learning basketball in Mid-Valley
Inhale, exhale, vapor.
Festus Ezeli couldn't believe his teenage eyes. That was his breath. He could see it. Nigeria never had this type of chill, where he could literally watch the warmth escape him. In Yuba City, the future NBA prospect felt a new experience: Cold.
It was 2004 and he was trying to transition. He was pimple-faced and already obscenely tall. He was a genius harboring dreams of becoming a doctor in America. He was continents and oceans away from home, a truth reinforced by the simple act of respiration.
Inhale, exhale, vapor.
"I had never seen my breath before," Ezeli said.
Experiencing winter — one of many firsts the Mid-Valley provided Ezeli.
Here, he was first introduced to basketball.
Here, he slammed his first dunk on a front-yard hoop.
Here, he first felt the empowering sensation of a throw down, something that's stayed with him from that driveway in Northern California to rafter-filled arenas at the highest levels of college basketball.
"The first time I dunked it, I couldn't believe it," he said. "I still love it."
Today, Ezeli will start at center for fifth-seeded Vanderbilt as the Commodores play No. 12 Richmond in the NCAA tournament. A few days ago, with R&B music playing in the background, he recounted his time here and expressed disbelief about his path: Africa to Yuba City to Yuba College grayshirt to Southeastern Conference star, in seven years.
"It's been an incredible journey," the 21-year-old said.
At Yuba College, Ezeli will always be the one who got away, the player who blossomed beyond the junior college orbit before playing a single game. With local coaching, his skill set germinated under the jaundiced lights of the 49ers gym, going from nonexistent to a level where he turned down offers from UConn, Florida and West Virginia.
Ezeli arrived here at 14 from Benin City, Nigeria, a metropolitan center with a million-plus residents, a tropical climate and an expected love of soccer. Pick-up games in the fields were his recreation, though he never took the whole exercise too seriously.
Athletics were secondary to academics; it's the reason he moved to the Mid-Valley. He lived with his uncle, a pediatrician in town who saw value in his nephew playing basketball. School was still first though, and Ezeli enrolled at Yuba taking chemistry, biology and the like for a youngster with M.D. aspirations. His transcript shows a 3.9 GPA at the age of a high school sophomore.
Ezeli had height and heft, but no idea how to play. He dunked because he was athletic, but a drop step or the cognizance of the 3-second-rule were completely foreign. He was a quick learner, but that didn't stop him punching the floor with knockout force after missed shots.
"It was tough at first," Ezeli said by phone from Nashville, Tenn. "It was really hard for the coaches. Can you imagine? It was like trying to teach a 5 year old to shoot a layup."
Yuba coach Doug Cornelius tutored the giant with a toddler-like basketball IQ. He remembers hearing rumors about a 6-foot-10, 16 year old on campus but dismissed it as legend. "Shut up" was his exact response. Then came the knock.
There was Ezeli, tall as advertised but with a musculature to be marveled. Ezeli told him he wanted to be a doctor, but also wanted to play basketball. Cornelius' response is one retold to all who ask about the greatest player to never suit up for Yuba: "Festus, you're going to make more money playing basketball than you will being a doctor."
Ezeli played AAU ball when not learning at Yuba, where he bluffed the 49ers' height every time he stepped off the bus. Opposing teams would see his mammoth physique coming toward them, then he would take his spot in the stands video taping. That lasted for two years. When he was finally ready, word of his potential reached the big-time programs and he was off to the Stanford of the South in 2007.
"It ended up blowing up on us," Cornelius said.
Still, Ezeli hasn't forgotten Yuba. While on winter break this season, the junior came back to visit Cornelius and talk to the team. Those close to the program will always wonder how he could have done here, but they still consider him a 49er and root for him accordingly. He'll "never forget his roots," the coach said.
Ezeli used to sit in his bedroom in Yuba City and think about his future in medicine and basketball. The former is now out, as he switched his major to economics. But the studying isn't, shown by his placement as an honorable mention on the SEC All-Academic team.
Getting his degree is paramount before the next level, a plateau many are sure he will reach. His name will appear more and more on draft sites in the next year and YouTube searches already yield athleticism and dominance.
But this afternoon comes first. At 1:10 p.m., there's a key to own in a Denver regional, and Ezeli's feeling the pressure. But that's nothing new, it's a sensation that's been with him since the beginning, in Yuba City.
"I just love this game," he said.