Ian Begley: Westchester Knicks announce they’ve acquired Festus Ezeli from the Available Player Pool: pic.twitter.com/nGa0vSAf28
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Marc Stein: Former NBA center Festus Ezeli is joining the Knicks’ G League team (Westchester Knicks), league sources say
Finally, Ezeli told himself, the time had come to contact teams in hopes of returning to the NBA. When the G League season starts next week at a bubble environment in Orlando, Ezeli will be part of a waiver pool that allows franchises to claim him. At any point over the following month or so, he could receive a call from someone asking him to pack his bags, board a flight to Florida and play his first pro game in nearly half a decade. At age 31 with an extensive injury history, Ezeli is an unlikely member of basketball’s striving class. In 2016, while with the Trail Blazers after the Warriors renounced his rights in order to sign Kevin Durant, he was diagnosed with a defect in the cartilage of his left knee. Doctors told Ezeli that he needed experimental surgery. His playing days almost certainly seemed over.
As Ezeli spent six months post-surgery confined to a wheelchair and relying on help to use the bathroom, he sank into a deep depression. Basketball had become fundamental to his identity. Without it, he felt lost. “Depression is an understatement,” Ezeli said of that dark period. “Until that point, I never understood the importance of mental health. … But not being able to walk on your own for half a year, you definitely become close friends with depression.”
One night, after watching her son break down in tears, Patricia Ezeli — a Nigerian immigrant and devout Christian — told Festus, “God gave you this mountain so you can show others it can be moved.” The message became a sort of rallying cry for Festus, who believes his life story is a testament to the meaning of the Nigerian first name on his birth certificate, Ifeanyi: “Nothing is impossible with God.”
Traditional centers like Ezeli were replaced by basketball unicorns: interior defenders who also can hit 3-pointers, pass and guard any position. Even Ezeli’s close friends and family encouraged him to consider other career options. Genial and articulate, Ezeli could find success in broadcasting. There also was the economics degree from Vanderbilt he had yet to use. But after having the sport he loves taken away in the heart of his prime, Ezeli knew he’d have regrets if he didn’t try again. As he eased back into basketball, he posted updates to Instagram with the hashtag #RebuildingTheBeast.
The Instagram page has nearly 3,000 followers. Ezeli plans to soon publish a “Rebuilding The Beast” podcast series, with interviews from people who’ve overcome personal challenges. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, whose father was assassinated in 1984 by two gunmen outside his office in Beirut, is one of Ezeli’s first guests. “I love his zest for life,” Kerr said of Ezeli. “His desire to play, his engagement in trying to make that happen. I love all of that, and I sure hope it happens for him.”
Overseas clubs recently inquired about signing Ezeli, but for now, he’s focused on the G League, from which 35 players were called up to the NBA last season. “My goal is to play in the NBA again,” Ezeli said. “Whatever I’ve got to do to get there, I’m willing to do. I don’t like to regret things, so I’m just going to leave it all on the table and see what happens.”
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The mere notion that Banchero could potentially hit the rookie wall was quickly shot down by teammates Wendell Carter Jr. and Gary Harris. The start by Banchero is something Harris has never seen. “He is not no normal rookie. He ain’t normal at all. He is hungry. He wants to be great. He is willing to learn. He wants to be coached. He is taking it in all on the fly and he is 20 years old so this is a lot for him. In halfway through the season, I’ve never seen anybody come into the league like he has come into the league with just how locked in, focused and how mature he is. He already is special. He is special.”