Meet Mr. Festus, the philanthropist, the professional athlete, and the fashion enthusiast who stands alone. His African roots have became his armor, stoic and unimpressed by the facade of fame, yet not opposed to embracing his “inner stellar”. His clean cut, tailored fashions hide his physical discipline, his unwavering sense of self, and the visceral instinct that he is where he belongs. He will not–he can not lose.
Enjoy our exclusive interview and come to know Festus Ezeli as a force to be reckoned with.
QG: We read about your long and incredible journey to become an NBA basketball player. Your path to success was not easy. It is clear that your strength and determination has come from your experiences growing up in Nigeria. What was the biggest challenge of your life, and how did you overcome it?
Festus Ezeli (FE): One of the biggest challenges of my life was leaving my family in Nigeria at the age of 14. I moved to the US to live with my uncle, in search of greener pastures. But life in America was very different and challenging for me. I missed my family, my friends, my environment and the only home I knew. It was especially lonely because I moved in with my uncle who was a specialist pediatrician in Yuba City, California with a very busy practice – which meant he worked long hours. I had to learn to be by myself most of the time and the loneliness was very hard on me.
In an effort to make friends, I chose to pursue what turned out to be my biggest challenge yet – Basketball. In an effort to assimilate me into my new culture, my uncle signed me up to play ball for an AAU team and also enrolled me in Jesuit High School in Sacramento. Basketball, however, proved to be a bigger challenge than I envisioned. I couldn’t even do some of the basic things that kids younger than me could. I was very frustrated with myself; and in turn, the coaches were frustrated with me as well. The lowest point of it all was when I was cut from my high school team. That lit a fire in me that burns till this day. It made me determined to work harder than I had ever worked at anything to make myself a successful basketball player.
To learn the fundamentals of the game, I signed up for basketball classes at Yuba Community College. I was the team’s videographer because I didn’t know how to play. But even though I wasn’t playing on the team, I was learning the game as I watched others play. The coach, Doug Cornelius, was very supportive and encouraged me constantly.
With the aid of my mentor and Friend, Keith Odister, I signed up on my second AAU team at age 16 – The NorCal Pharaohs. I worked very hard on this team and it was on here that I got a chance to exhibit what I’d learned. The turning point came for me in the summer of 2007, when I was invited to the Reebok camp along with some of my Pharaoh teammates. There were so many scouts in attendance; and they all looked at me like I was Big Foot because no one had seen or heard about me before. I left the camp with about 30 scholarship offers ranging from colleges like UCLA, UConn, USC, Florida, to Vanderbilt, Harvard, etc. I chose Vanderbilt because of its combination of great academics and athletics. This showed that hard work pays.
QG: When did you realize you wanted to become a NBA basketball player?
FE: At Vanderbilt, my coach Kevin Stallings allowed me to redshirt so I could learn the game. I learned a lot during my redshirt year and when I started playing, I recorded remarkable improvements every year. So much so, that I won the Most Improved Player award in my sophomore year. By my junior year, the level of improvement and my feel of the game improved so much that I realized I stood a chance of playing in the NBA.
QG: You recently signed with the Portland Trailblazers, how are you feeling going into the season with a new team?
FE: I am very excited about signing with the Portland trailblazers. It is a talented team with great chemistry and the organization is first-class. I’m looking forward to an exciting season and I expect us to build on last year’s success.
QG: You recently participated in NBA Africa. Why is it important for you to give back to Africa? And what legacy do you want to leave behind?
FE: It’s good to give back. Africa is my home. I was born and raised there. Being a native, I have seen so much untapped talent in Africa. I’m a good example of raw talent that can blossom if given an opportunity. I’m motivated to give other children the same opportunities I got. You never know; the next Mark Zuckerberg, Albert Einstien, Nikola Tesla, or Hakeem Olajuwon could be in Africa.
QG: What is your most defining moment in the NBA and your contribution to Africa?
FE: My proudest moment was taking the Larry O’Brien Trophy to Africa after we won the 2015 NBA Championship. It was especially meaningful because this was my first visit to the continent since I left in 2004.
QG: As we see in the media, athletes are starting to speak up more about social issues they care about. Is that something you see yourself doing more of?
FE: Athletes are role models in the society and command a good following. It is imperative that we utilize our leadership role to contribute to society by speaking up on behalf of the voiceless, and work to correct social ills where necessary. I will not hesitate to let my opinion be known. Personally, I believe in investing in the leaders of tomorrow – KIDS. Offering a solid support system fosters beliefs in themselves just like it was for me. Having a solid system boosts self-confidence and the ability to persist through adversity.
QG: In our opinion, you are one of the best dressed NBA players. What sparked your interest in fashion?
FE: Fashion is a form of self-expression. Quite a few people have talked about my penchant for style and good dressing. This is something I do without knowing. As I’ve grown older I’ve gotten more comfortable expressing myself.
QG: Define your personal style?
FE: I love the clean-cut look and I like my clothing tailored to fit me. I love to create my own style. My style is usually reflective of the two cultures I know: Nigerian and American cultures.
QG: Whom do you think are some of the most stylish NBA players?
FE: I think Russell Westbrook continues to push the envelope when it comes to fashion. Dwayne Wade and Chandler Parsons are pretty stylish as well.
QG: Any favorite fashion insiders or fashions labels that inspire or influence you?
FE: One of my favorite stylists, Amber Alexandria, who is very creative, adaptive and stylish. She embodies the concept of fashion as self expression. I also like working with some upcoming labels like Drifter, Control Sector and Milan tailors.
QG: What’s one thing people can expect from you in the coming year?
I continue to make improvements every year on the court and this year will be no different. Everyone can expect Portland to be a championship contender.
Photo Credit: Getty Images.