Festus Ezeli walked onto Vanderbilt’s campus in the fall of 2007 as a self-described snot-nosed kid having played organized basketball for less than a year.
He left five years later with a degree, as the program’s all-time blocked shots leader and as a NBA first-round draft pick.
Talking from his apartment in the Bay area outside of Oakland, Ezeli finds it hard to fathom that he just finished his rookie season with the Golden State Warriors.
The 6-foot-11 center from Nigeria made 41 starts, trailing only teammate Harrison Barnes for the most starts by a rookie last year. He averaged 2.4 points, 4.0 rebounds, 0.95 blocks (fourth among NBA rookies) and 14.4 minutes in 78 regular-season games. He also played in all 12 playoff games as the Warriors reached the Western Conference Semifinals.
The City Paper recently caught up with Ezeli and discussed a variety of topics, including his recent surgery on his right knee. He underwent surgery last month to repair both his medial collateral ligament and posterior cruciate ligament. He is a month into his recovery, which is expected to last six to nine months.
The City Paper: What do you have planned for the summer?
Ezeli: Getting healthy. That is my only focus right now. This is a major surgery for me. I never really got hurt like this. I got this same injury in college but didn’t have surgery. So this is my first major surgery. It is very humbling. I’m taking every precaution to make sure I can come back. Because I know it is a big surgery for me and a huge step for my career. It is a thing that can affect my career greatly. I’m being a careful about it. I can be out and walk around a little bit but I try to take that as slow as possible. Makes sure it can heal on its own and my leg can get better at its own pace.
CP: So the injury occurred at the end of the season?
Ezeli: Last game at the end of the [regular] season. Teammate ran into me. It was something that happened. It was a freak accident. At the time, it wasn’t that big. It hurt but I had to fight through it. If I kept playing on it, I would have torn my ACL because I had no support in my knees. It was something that is very, very scary to hear. I’m not good with those kinds of things. I’ve always prided myself on being healthy. The one surgery I had in college was a freak accident. I never want to think about having surgery. It is scary. But you know what? It happens. I’m spiritual as well so I think there is a purpose for everything. I think God has a purpose for me to live through this process and everything will be all right.
CP: How concerned are you about knee issues lingering?
Ezeli: I hope this injury is an example of the kind of player I am. This is an injury I played through. I’m not somebody to make excuses for my team. I couldn’t be out there on the sideline. I’m going to be out there giving it my all. Injuries are something you cannot predict. I don’t think I am somebody that is ever going to be injury prone. No matter what, I’m going to be out there and give it my heart because I love this game.
CP: How would you sum up your first year?
Ezeli: It was a dream come true. It was my dream to make it to the NBA. But this year and having my expectations and then this team was filled with great guys, hard workers. The attitude on this team was amazing. It really blew me away. I didn’t expect to have all these guys working toward a purpose. No selfishness. Our coach [Mark Jackson] is a pastor. It was just different … I don’t think expected it that very much. I expected it to be more business, like a job. I got here and it was fun. We were like family. My first year was great. I’m looking forward to more years here in the Bay area.
CP: What was it like to be a part of a playoff run, especially on a loose, young team?
Ezeli: Did you see our fans? It doesn’t get much better than them. They’ve been waiting for a good team for a long time. They were just anxious for a team — they’ve been filling up the stands. I was excited to have real fans, true fans. You always hear about the bandwagon fans whenever you are doing well. But these fans have been here for this team for a while. I was very excited to be a part of this team and this moment. The Warriors tradition is changing. We can be a winning team.
CP: Did you ever expect to start 41 games as a rookie?
Ezeli: It is not normal for a rookie to come in start for any team in the league. But I think coach Jackson put a lot of trust in us, the rookies to come and contribute like we did. They let us play our game. They drafted guys they needed to fit their needs. When we came in, they didn’t look as rookies. They looked at us as players and let us play like we were able to. We came out there and competed like everybody else.
CP: What was the biggest adjustment for you from college?
Ezeli: I think it was the physicality. Everybody is good but everybody is also bigger. My size was a huge advantage in college. It still is an advantage for me but at the same there are a lot of guys that are my size in the league. It is something I have to get used to. I have to get better at moving my feet on defense because that’s my job. I came here to play defense. The guards are quicker. The big men are quicker. They’re stronger. They’re more skilled, better touch. You have to get better at your timing. You have to get better at moving your feet, understand different concepts of the defense. I think that was a big thing for me I had to adjust to and I think I did a pretty good job.
CP: You still want your defense to be your identifier, right?
Ezeli: That is what I got drafted for. I told the team whenever I got here that my job is to be the defensive anchor of the team. I didn’t know I was going to be starting when I got drafted. But with [Andrew] Bogut going down I had to be the big guy for the moment. My job is not to come out and put the sexy numbers up [his career-high was 13 points] like anybody else. My job is to be the gritty guy. The guy that wants to get down, wants to dive on the floor. I have to be the tough guy for the team. My job is to come in and strictly play defense, block shots and grab rebounds. All these things might not be the sexiest things to do but they’re necessary for a team to win. I just want to win. I told coach that when I got here, ‘Put me around a bunch of good guys and I will run through a wall for you.’
CP: Despite this injury, do you think you can work your way back into a starting role?
Ezeli: My goal is to be a starter in this league. My goal is to be good enough to be a starter in this league and to be even greater than that — to be an all-star eventually. Injury is just a bump in the road. It is something I have to come back from and something I will be back to where I’m at by the end of this season — even better. I think that is a goal of mine I strive toward because I see the things I did while I was starting as a rookie. I was able to help my team as a starter. I really like being that guy for the team and it something I’m going to work for and work towards.
CP: Planning on being at the inaugural alumni game at Memorial Gymnasium on Aug. 3?
Ezeli: I’m going to try my best, my hardest. I should be walking the next two or three weeks. That weekend we are just coming back to dedicate our time to the school and doing some charity stuff around the city. I just want to urge fans. I always see Nashville as home and I want to urge the fans to come out and support us. If anything, just come and say hey. We feel like we are Vandy’s kids — all three of us [fellow 2012 NBA draft picks John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor] and everybody that graduated last year and everybody from the past years. We’re going to have all the guys come together. It is going to be fun. Everybody is coming back — Julian Terrell, Mario Moore, Matt Freije, Shan Foster, Derrick Byars. Everybody should come support us.
CP: So you’ll be a cheerleader that day?
Ezeli: I have no choice. You know what, I’m actually use to it. My freshman year I was a redshirt. I still have enough energy from back then until now. I’m good at it.
CP: You mentioned former teammates John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor — now with the Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Bobcats, respectively. What was it like to cross paths this year?
Ezeli: It was great. Being in this league, there are not a lot of people I am familiar with. So it was good to see my guys again. They’re like brothers to me and we’ve been through so much. Been through a lot in college — all the crazy practices, all the crazy games, all those late nights together. So it was good seeing those guys because it just reminds you that you still have family out here. You still have someone to lean on. So it was great seeing them. But at the same time it was kind of weird playing against your guys. I was talking smack to my guys. At the end of the day, we’re competitors first. I went to John’s hotel before the game the night before and we were just hanging out. And I was like, ‘You know we’re not going to be cool tomorrow.’ He said, ‘You know what, bring it.’ We’re all competitors. It is great having family out here. It makes it more fun for me. I love those guys and competing against those guys was fun for me.
CP: Finally, what did Vanderbilt mean for you? More than just a degree?
Ezeli: It wasn’t just a degree. That degree meant so much. But that degree showed all my five years at Vanderbilt. When I came to Vanderbilt I was a snotty nosed kid, 6-11, lanky. A lot of things in my life, a lot of views, a lot of things I learned… I left a man I think. In my mind I grew a lot. I can only thank the administration, my coach [Kevin Stallings] — the teachers. I have a lot of respect for the teachers. They know how hard I worked and I’m very respectful of everybody. I love the Southern hospitality. They made me a gentleman as well. I’m very grateful to Vanderbilt. If I begin to list everything they taught me, I would be talking for days. There is not enough words to talk about how Vanderbilt made me into a man. I loved it.