Most Viewed Stories
Warriors center Ezeli returns to Yuba College
Credits coach Cornelius with first steps
Just like when he arrived on campus as a 16-year-old seven years ago, everything at Yuba College was brand new for Festus Ezeli — the remodeled football stadium, athletic facility and renovated gymnasium. That gym, the place where he spent the majority of his time at Yuba, has new lights, grandstands, hardwood, and most importantly, championship banners.
The Yuba College he knew as a fledgling basketball prospect has changed mightily since he was the 49ers' videographer.
Now the 23-year-old starting center for the Golden State Warriors, Ezeli, toured his alma mater on Tuesday with his former coach Doug Cornelius and a camera crew from Comcast SportsNet Bay Area in tow as he stared in amazement at the renovations to his former school.
When asked by CSN Bay Area where he wanted the network to shoot a piece on him, he approached Cornelius at a Kings-Warriors game in Sacramento to see if he could do the interview on the Linda campus.
"I had a lot of good times here at Yuba College," Ezeli said. "I wanted to come back here to pay my respects. Unfortunately, the best memories I made were in class."
That's because Ezeli was aspiring to be a doctor when he first signed up for classes.
Basketball was the furthest thing from his mind after graduating from high school at age 14 in Nigeria and moving to California to live with his uncle, local pediatrician Emeka Ndulue.
Figuring the logical thing for a 6-foot-8 teenager to do was play basketball, Ezeli's uncle hooked him up with an AAU team at age 15 where he picked up his first points — by scoring on his own team's basket.
That's how rough it was for Ezeli to learn the game, and after taking a year of classes at Carmichael-based parochial school Jesuit, he showed up on Cornelius' doorstep — actually he knocked on his office door.
Cornelius heard rumors flying around campus about a 6-11 kid walking around. Three days later, Ezeli was talking to the 49ers' head man.
Ezeli obviously had the right mind to succeed at the next level (3.9 GPA), Cornelius just needed to convince him basketball was the right sport for him.
"He's the only kid I've ever said this to: 'You're going to make more money playing basketball than you will being a doctor,'" Cornelius said. "He thought I was crazy, but thank God it ended up being true."
Ezeli didn't become an NBA starter overnight.
He could ace chemistry, biology and physics, but had a difficult time understanding why he couldn't spend more than 3 seconds in the key.
Cornelius' plan was to lighten the 16-year-old Ezeli's course load for two years so he could grayshirt, suit him up the next two years after that and transfer him to a Division-I school.
In those first two years, Ezeli took basketball classes at Yuba and tried to learn the game. He showed flashes of brilliance, like when he almost tore the hoop down, but also had several skills to work on, such as making a free throw.
While practicing with the team, Ezeli also served as team videographer, traveling with the squad and providing an intimidation factor when he came off the bus — despite not even playing. By the end of his two years at Yuba, it was clear that he would never play JUCO ball — he was destined for Division I.
"I wasn't the most athletic kid out there, I wasn't very coordinated, all that stuff was very tough for me," Ezeli said. "I had to learn everything from scratch. Luckily, for me, I had a lot of people around to support me.
"There were a lot of good memories, but also a lot of frustrating memories because I wasn't too good back then. I wouldn't be where I am today without what I learned here."
In only his rookie season, the now 6-11, 255-pound Ezeli has started in 11 of the Warriors' 14 games at center, averaging 3.6 points and 4.8 rebounds per game while filling in for injured starter Andrew Bogut.
Ezeli was drafted by the Warriors as the 30th overall pick in June out of Vanderbilt where he put together an outstanding collegiate career and graduated with a degree in economics.
None of his new-found notoriety has gone to his head.
Ezeli is still driving the same car he had in college and makes frequent visits to Sacramento where his family now lives. Being drafted by the Oakland-based franchise was a blessing for Ezeli, who fell in love with the Northern California region.
When he wasn't practicing basketball or going to class, Ezeli said his favorite thing to do in Yuba City was go to the Yuba Sutter Mall.
Just like his college days in Nashville, Tenn., Ezeli's still putting in overtime at the gym. After all, while many players in the NBA have been playing this game their whole lives, he's still learning after just seven years in basketball.
Coming back to Yuba reminds him of that. It reminds him of where he came from and the work he's put in to get this far. He's not about to stop now.
"I've grown a lot and a lot of that has to do with basketball," Ezeli said. "It's my job now and I'm very grateful for that. I'm blessed with this opportunity and I don't take it for granted."