Dunking from Olympian Heights

Basketball’s Temi Fagbenle—from London to Lavietes

Olympian and Harvard sophomore Temi Fagbenle at Lavietes Pavilion, where women's basketball Ivy championship banners hang in profusion

There are not many basketball courts in London, nor do English schools compete in the sport. There were just a few outdoor courts on London playgrounds, and even fewer indoor venues, when Temi Fagbenle ’15 was growing up. But having found the game at the advanced age of 14, Fagbenle made her way to the Haringey Angels, one of a score of basketball clubs in the city. The Angels are the powerhouse of that lot, perennial national champions in the under-14, -16, and -18 girls’ categories.

Fagbenle ranks high in that host of Angels; she made the 2012 British Olympic team and played in all five of its contests at this summer’s London Games. This season, as a Harvard sophomore, she will play for the first time in the Ivy League, making her only the second Ivy Leaguer to have played Olympic women’s basketball. (Brown’s Martina Jerant played for Canada at the 1996 Atlanta Games.)

A six-foot, four-inch forward, Fagbenle brought her skills stateside to Blair Academy in New Jersey a few years ago. Head basketball coach Kathy Delaney-Smith, now beginning her thirty-first year at Harvard, ranks her among the top players she has coached—including people like Allison Feaster ’98, who led the nation in scoring as a senior and had a long WNBA career. “Temi has that kind of potential,” Delaney-Smith says, “and maybe more.”

Because Fagbenle took her British O-level exams (at age 15) before coming to Blair, the National Collegiate Athletic Association determined that she was the equivalent of a high-school graduate and so had played three “postgraduate” years at Blair. The NCAA therefore ruled that she had to sit out a season before playing college games.

Harvard appealed the ruling multiple times to no avail. (In Great Britain, it’s actually the A-level exams, taken around the age of 18 or 19, that approximate an American high-school diploma: they’re normally followed by three years of college and a bachelor’s degree). When it became clear that Fagbenle wouldn’t be allowed to play intercollegiate games, and she wanted to try out for the British national team instead, Delaney-Smith switched her to a program to prepare for an Olympic run. Nevertheless, Fagbenle practiced as a freshman with the Crimson (“I showed them no mercy in practice,” she says), though she didn’t travel with the team. “Practicing with her makes you work harder,” Delaney-Smith says. “Yet there’s a limit to that because she dominates so much—there is no one comparable to Temi in the Ivy League.”

Fagbenle is one of the most athletic women ever to play for Harvard, and her versatility is impressive. “She’s fast in the open court, has great back-to-the-basket moves, and a beautiful finishing touch,” Delaney-Smith says. “Usually people of her size don’t have speed or perimeter skills, but she is good away from the hoop, and has been working on her three-point shot. She’s a great shot blocker and is smart defensively.” For her part, Fagbenle says, “I love defense—it’s what gives me joy. When you have a total team effort on defense, it feels so different from anything else. Everyone communicating, moving, working hard, each player on the same page. Then when that ball is denied—maybe a block or a steal—that’s the best feeling ever. Those special moments are rare, but totally worth it.”

The rising star comes from a Nigerian family; father Tunde is a newspaper journalist and mother Buki is earning an herbal medicine degree. Fagbenle has 11 sibs and half-sibs—nine brothers and two sisters, ranging from five to 43 years of age. She is the ninth child in her “sporty” family, and third tallest, after her six-foot-nine and six-foot-seven brothers. (Her parents, at six-feet, two inches and five feet, eight, are not formidably tall.) Born in Baltimore, she grew up mostly in London and has dual citizenship.

Tennis was Fagbenle’s first love (she still plays) and she dreamed of playing professionally, but by age 13, “it wasn’t flowing,” she says. She switched to basketball at 14, and wears uniform number 14 to commemorate that. It was awkward. “You’re rubbish when you first start a sport,” she notes. “I was like a baby deer on the court. I had poor balance and my shots weren’t dropping.” Yet at six feet, three inches, she had already been dubbed the “tallest 13-year-old girl in London.” She also benefited from top-notch coaching at Haringey and helped the club to national titles.

Her coaches had some contacts at American prep schools; Fagbenle chose Blair because “it had the prettiest pictures.” She thought high school in the States would “be a breeze—I got that idea from movies.” Instead, she experienced heavy culture shock and “crashed and burned the first year.” But she soon adapted and began to love school while excelling at basketball: as a senior she led Blair to the Mid-Atlantic Prep League and state prep-school championships, and was named a McDonald’s All-American. In the spring she found time to win state championships in the high jump, javelin, shot put, and discus. She also performed in two musicals and “enjoyed them thoroughly,” Fagbenle declares.

Culture shock is now a thing of the past; Fagbenle’s current problems involve more practical matters like finding a pair of jeans to fit her frame. (She does have one pair, bought years ago.) She prefers skirts and dresses, but even there, length is a problem, as a dress for a five-foot, two-inch woman, she says, “is a shirt for me! Shopping is a nightmare!”

This year’s Olympic experience is unlikely to be her last. The popularity of women’s basketball has only begun to grow in the United Kingdom; unlike France, Australia, or Russia, England has not yet become a women’s-hoops power. Though the English national team had a solid pre-Olympic run, besting highly rated teams from France and the Czech Republic, they may have peaked too early; they lost all five of their London contests. Nonetheless, “We did our country proud,“ Fagbenle says. “We played with guts in every game and played hard till the buzzer.”

The Crimson hope that her considerable skills will help them break out of a rut of second-place Ivy finishes: Harvard’s last title, shared with Cornell and Dartmouth, came in 2007-’08, and for the last three seasons the Crimson have come in second to Princeton; the Tigers have dropped only one of 42 Ivy games since the 2009-10 season. But Harvard returns several strong players to complement their Olympian, including high-scoring, six-foot forward Victoria Lippert ’13. If Fagbenle can bolster the Crimson’s results the way Allison Feaster did, the competition had best brace itself: beginning with Feaster’s sophomore year, Harvard ran off three straight Ivy League titles. 

Read more articles by Craig Lambert

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