Less than 24 hours after the biggest game of his life, Festus Ezeli is getting mobbed.
Few Warriors players can roam around downtown Oakland without setting off a frenzy thanks to the team’s rabid fan base, and the day after Ezeli was the catalyst behind Golden State’s Game 2 come-from-behind victory over the Blazers, everyone wants a piece of him.
It starts with one child who shyly recognizes the 6’11’’ center standing outside the Oakland YMCA. He asks for a selfie and Ezeli obliges. Before he knows it, he’s created a commotion. People on the street stop and do double takes while others pour out of the gym to snap a shot of the Warriors center. Kids clamor to pose for a pic. Teens snap their next ‘gram. Grown men dap him.
To an outsider, it looks like the strangers are overwhelming him. To Ezeli, it’s his Oakland family embracing him.
“You walk down the streets, you know everybody wants to hug you, everybody wants to touch you, everybody wants to be a part of what it is that you’re doing just because they see you as their guy,” says Ezeli. “It doesn’t feel like fandom, it feels more like family to me.”
It also doesn’t hurt that the fourth year pro from Vanderbilt played hero the night before. Finishing with eight points, six boards and a block, Ezeli’s performance helped save the Steph Curry-less Warriors from a surprising loss in the Western Conference semis. Sure, the line doesn’t look that impressive and paled in comparison to Klay Thompson’s or Draymond Green’s, two guys who fill up a box score quicker than a Curry crossover. But stats don’t always do Ezeli justice.
In arguably the best and most important 12:52 he has spent on a NBA court, it was Ezeli’s energy and defense that made him a savior.
“Changed the entire game for us. Some people are going to look and say, oh, he had a couple lobs and had a put back. No, it's not that,” Green said following Game 2. “Did you see him on the ball screen with Damian Lillard when Damian Lillard completely took over the game? Did you see him stop the ball screen when C.J. McCollum got back and blocked Mason Plumlee's shot?”
Lillard, the Blazers dynamic point guard, was torching the Warriors in the third quarter. On his way to finishing with 17 in the frame, Lillard punctuated his domination with a buzzer beating three to end the quarter. The Warriors had no answers and an 11-point deficit entering the fourth.
Coach Steve Kerr inserted Ezeli into the game with 4:09 remaining in the third, subbed in for an ineffective Andrew Bogut. But it wasn’t until the start of the fourth that Ezeli did his damage.
“I don’t know what the odds of making the NBA are. But it’s not good. And then for a player who had never played the sport before and then starts playing at 16, I wonder what thaT Number is?”
It started on offense where Ezeli scored the Warriors first four buckets, his alley-oops and put-backs electrifying Oracle Arena. The crowd wasn’t exactly sleeping during Game 2, but Ezeli jolted them with his jams. His energy fed the fans; the fans’ in turn igniting the rest of the Warriors.
Back on defense, Ezeli grabbed several key boards and most importantly used his athleticism and gigantic wingspan to pester Portland’s pick-and-roll. Lillard’s open looks disappeared and the red-hot sniper went stone cold. Lillard had 25 entering the fourth—the same number he’d finish the game with—and the Blazers only scored 12 points in the period.
Over Ezeli’s 13 impactful minutes, the Warriors outscored the Blazers by 13, eventually cruising to a 110-99 victory and maintaining home-court advantage for the remainder of the series. He was the catalyst, the Energizer Bunny and his teammates all said he was a huge reason why the Warriors shipped to Portland up 2-0 instead of a precarious 1-1. All this from a guy how has no idea when or if his number will be called.
“Festus is obviously very athletic and takes up a lot of space, so that was the idea, just to see if he could make an impact, and he did,” Kerr said after Game 2. “He stayed ready, and I'm really proud of him because he hasn't played much lately.”
Ezeli took a dreaded DNP in Game 1 and he never knows how many minutes Kerr will tap him for on any given night. Sometimes it’s 14, other times it’s a couple; sometimes it’s nothing. Getting yo-yoed can be frustrating, but it’s a lot easier to swallow when you’re on a team gunning for a major milestone.
“Talking about playing time and stuff like that is individual things. We’re locked in on coming in and doing your part,” says Ezeli. “I know my part. I know what it is I bring to the table. I’m a defensive guy first. Rebound, block shots, protect the rim, protect the paint. When my number is called I just play my part and to the best of my ability.”
Cut down by a knee injury that only allowed him to appear in 46 regular season games, Ezeli didn’t get to contribute as much as he wanted this season. But he still finished the year averaging 7 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks, starting 13 games on the record-breaking 73-win squad. A year after winning 67 games and running through the postseason to capture the franchise’s first NBA title since 1975, Ezeli is asked when he could sense the 2015-16 squad had the potential to be historic.
The vibe came from his phone. After going their separate ways following their six-game triumph over the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, the Warriors kept tabs on each via one big group text. Halfway through the summer, things started to get serious. Instead of busting on each other, they bragged about how hard they were going to ball come training camp.
“Guys would say, ‘Yo, I’m working my ass off. I can’t wait to get back. Yo, I’m [messing] you up when I get back to training camp,’” says Ezeli. “We’re saying this to each other, but this is the mindset that we had. Lot of people would go celebrate it and be cool with it because they accomplished something. We came back and we said we want to do it again.”
If things had gone according to plan, Ezeli wouldn’t be one series away from winning a second straight NBA championship.
His mother never wanted her son to play professional sports. Really, she never could fathom the idea of Festus making a successful living from them. Rising from his Nigerian roots to the status of a highly paid athlete, one that who could make infinitely more money—and be exponentially more influential—than a doctor, her preferred profession, was preposterous.
“She was not a fan of basketball,” says Ezeli. “The biggest thing was lack of knowledge.”
Growing up in the west African nation, where the basics we take for granted were never guaranteed, making riches playing any sport other than soccer wasn't just a pipe dream. It was ludicrous. Ezeli always told his mom, Patricia, he wanted to be a doctor and that made her proud. He played soccer as a little boy, but only for fun. He was more interested in academics. He wasn’t even introduced to organized sports until he was shipped to the United States at age 14. About an hour north of Sacramento, Ezeli moved in with an uncle who was a pediatrician. It was expected he’d follow suit.
Things changed at 16 when he discovered basketball. Two years later, he was attending Vanderbilt on a scholarship and four years after that the Warriors selected him with the 30th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. To call his rise from athletic obscurity to the Association meteoric might be selling it short.
“I don’t know what the odds of making the NBA are. But it’s not good,” says Ezeli. “And then for a player who had never played the sport before and then starts playing at 16, I wonder what that number is?”
And now he’s in line to cash in. Ezeli will be a free agent this summer, and while he’d love to stick around with the Warriors, other teams could go after him hard or the Warriors might decide to prioritize their money elsewhere. Then again, maybe Curry co-signs Ezeli the way LeBron James co-signed Tristan Thompson to the Cavs front office last year. Averaging 8.5 points and 8.0 rebounds off the bench during the regular season, Thompson took over for an injured Kevin Love in the postseason and started 15 games, averaging 9.6 points and 10.8 rebounds. For that, the Cavs gave Thompson an eye-popping contract: five years and $82 million.
Mention Thompson and Ezeli smiles. He knows a man his size, with his athletic ability, is extremely valuable and only a few breakout performances away from earning nine figures a season. Back in April, ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy told a national audience Ezeli could command $15 million a year.
“After that I’ve never gotten so many phone calls from random people,” says Ezeli. “I don’t have that amount of money in my wallet right now so it doesn’t faze me. It’s all talk right now. I’m focusing on what I can control right now. You get compensated for winning.”
So just what could Ezeli command on the open market? Ask him and he demurs. Things will take care of themselves, he insists. As a restricted free agent, the Warriors can match any offer Ezeli receives. But as a top 20 free agent this summer, will the offers from a squad looking to bulk up its defense price out Golden State? Probably not, according to a source close to Ezeli.
“The Warriors are keen on re-signing him. He loves the team and the area. And don’t forget the cap is going up,” says the source. “They’re probably losing Harrison Barnes, losing Marreese Speights. And they could have a couple of David West-type signings. They’re not going to have pay guys too much.”
“I said I wasn’t going to go back until I was able to make some sort of difference, some sort of change.”
Armed with a new contract that will pay him exponentially more than his rookie deal, Ezeli says he’ll be “able to help more people as a basketball player than as a doctor.” Those efforts start this summer. Ezeli hasn’t been back to his native country since he left at 14, but he’s poised to return after what he hopes is another championship parade and a memorable run in Rio.
Ideally, he’ll begin to lay the groundwork for his very own basketball camp in Nigeria. The idea has always been bobbing around in his head, but the seed sprouted last summer after Ezeli played in the first ever NBA Africa Game in Johannesburg, South Africa. Leading up to the historic exhibition, Ezeli and other NBA stars teamed up with Basketball without Borders to put on a camp and participate in various activities over a four-day stretch. He saw the impact a camp could have on Africa’s youth and was motivated to replicate its good vibes back in his homeland.
“I said I wasn’t going to go back until I was able to make some sort of difference, some sort of change. And now I’m starting to be able to,” says Ezeli.
Playing for the Nigerian national team this summer will allow him to officially reconnect with his country. Training camp begins June 27 in southern California and once he’s back in Nigeria, Ezeli plans to “bring technology, bring abundance to my country because I know there are a lot of good people out there working hard to survive.” In a country where poverty and struggle still outweigh prosperity, Ezeli is positioning himself to influence and inspire a new generation.
“I want to be able to start making kids understand that there is more than struggle,” he says. “There are a lot of kids that feel that way. Basketball camps, doing relief efforts, bringing supplies, there’s a lot of room to cover.”
Ezeli’s time downtown is wrapping up. He spent a chunk of the day at the Warriors’ practice facility getting treatment and with the light slowly fading, he’s ready to go grab some dinner.
But before he can make his way back to his car, a few more fans want a piece of Festus. One’s rocking a Warriors jersey and cap and asks for a pic. “Great game,” the fan tells him. Two friends walk up to him and shake his hand. A guy on a bike, zooming by on his commute home, shouts out “Hey, Festus!” Ezeli shouts back. He’s got Oakland in the palm of his hand and shouldn’t have to reach for his wallet when the check comes.