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Sports

“Big Z”

2.22.17

Zena Edosomwan ’17 leaped over three teammates, all of whom are at least six-foot-nine, during the slam dunk contest at Crimson Madness.
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications


Zena Edosomwan ’17 leaped over three teammates, all of whom are at least six-foot-nine, during the slam dunk contest at Crimson Madness.
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications

Edosomwan, shown here with teammates during the men’s basketball team’s trip to China last November, has studied Mandarin since he was in high school and has spent portions of several summers in China.
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications

 


Edosomwan, shown here with teammates during the men’s basketball team’s trip to China last November, has studied Mandarin since he was in high school and has spent portions of several summers in China.
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications

 

A second-team all-Ivy honoree as a junior, Edosomwan (right) has adapted to a reduced role as a senior in part because of the arrival of talented freshmen like Chris Lewis (left).
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications

 


A second-team all-Ivy honoree as a junior, Edosomwan (right) has adapted to a reduced role as a senior in part because of the arrival of talented freshmen like Chris Lewis (left).
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications

 

It is hard to miss Zena Edosomwan ’17, the six-foot-nine, 245-pound power forward on the Harvard men’s basketball team. Fans saw him leap over not one, not two, but three teammates—all of whom were at least six-foot-nine—during the slam dunk contest at Crimson Madness.

Before the team’s game against Stanford in Shanghai, they heard the East Asian studies concentrator address the crowd in Mandarin—a moment that Gordon McKay professor of computer science Harry Lewis, Edosomwan’s freshman adviser, characterized as “simultaneously gracious, culturally sensitive, and intellectually confounding.” 

Crimson fans anticipated him in 2012 when Sports Illustrated reported that he had declined 39 scholarships, including offers from Texas and UCLA, to try to attend Harvard. And some have wondered why a recruit of his stature, despite being a second-team all-Ivy honoree last season, has not been more dominant.

This weekend, Edosomwan will take the floor for what will likely be his final home games in a Crimson uniform. On Saturday, moments after he had scored 14 points in Harvard’s 87-75 win over Cornell, a reporter asked him how it felt to be turning to the final home weekend of his career.

He paused, before responding softly: “It is definitely emotional. I think about the journey here and things kind of coming to an end. It’s surreal because it’s something I have fought for, for so long, and to have so many moments of doubt”—about whether he would get into Harvard in the first place, whether he would make it here, and about the ups and downs along the way. “It’s like, ‘Wow—my final…time wearing a Harvard basketball jersey at home.’”

But then Edosomwan perked up, emphasizing that the team’s success supersedes his journey. “As long as we go 2-0 next week,” he said, “I don’t really care.”

Edosomwan’s successes did not come easily. Those 39 scholarship offers were far from guaranteed for someone who started playing club basketball two to three years later than most of his peers. Nor was he a lock to gain admission to Harvard; he had to spend a postgraduate year at Northfield Mount Hermon to qualify. And he has insisted on pursuing life beyond the arena, even while excelling at college basketball: he has started a multimedia platform for racial dialogue that has spread to universities across the country, become a fashion icon on Harvard’s campus (he is just as comfortable in velvet slippers and bow ties as he is in Air Jordans and warmups), and spent portions of two summers on service trips in China.

What is it like to be Zena Edosomwan? How did he reach this point? And where does “Big Z” go from here?

 

It began with what Edosomwan playfully called an “ambush.” When he was seven and living in Los Angeles, his parents informed him that he was going to basketball practice. “I resented it,” he said. A chubby kid back then, he “liked to just stay home and watch Saturday morning cartoons and eat Cocoa Puffs.”

But Edosomwan soon recognized that he enjoyed competing. And basketball was a good social outlet—and his size gave him an opportunity to excel. He and his stepfather—Muyiwa “Eddie” Ololade, a Nigerian immigrant who is an auto dealer and real-estate investor—began spending hours and hours practicing and emulating NBA stars Tim Duncan and Hakeem Olajuwon.

Meanwhile, his mother, Kehinde Ololade—she is also from Nigeria, and had started a beauty salon—told Edosomwan when he was in elementary school that he would attend Harvard-Westlake, Los Angeles’s premier college preparatory school. She bought her son test prep books, and he applied and interviewed.

When he was admitted, his mother started “screaming and yelling,” not just because her son had gotten into a great school, but because it reinforced a foundational message. “I wanted him to have that mentality to think great things for himself,” she said. “When you aim high in life,” added this woman who often worked 10-hour days, six or seven days a week, “you definitely will achieve greatness.”

 

Edosomwan arrived at Harvard-Westlake in the ninth grade after attending a public middle school, not one of the prep school’s typical feeder institutions. The question, as Greg Hilliard, then the boys’ basketball coach, explained, was: would he be able to handle the abrupt change in academics?

Several school counselors suggested that he study Spanish, a relatively easy language. Edosomwan’s response shocked them: he wanted to study Mandarin. The impetus came from his mother, who had recognized the advantage of being able to speak Mandarin while trying to communicate with Chinese suppliers for her salon. Hilliard and others advised against it—there were so many other hard subjects, where he needed to catch up academically. But Edosomwan insisted: “No, that’s what I’m going to do, and I’m going to show you.”

Still, during his first semester, when school officials and even he broached the possibility of dropping Mandarin, his mother issued an ultimatum. “The lady at the office called,” she recalled, “and I told the lady, ‘Well, he was not born playing basketball. He learned how to play basketball. So, he can learn Chinese as well. So, tell Zena his mom said he should stop playing basketball if he stops taking Chinese.’” That was it.

Meanwhile, Edosomwan also had to find his way more expertly on the basketball court. Hilliard recalled a player who was athletic and a fast learner but “very raw,” because he’d started club basketball in middle school, several years later than most of his teammates. He played on the freshman team in ninth grade (though he was called up to the varsity for the playoffs) and spent free periods in the gym working with Hilliard on post moves and footwork.

Nonetheless, his inexperience shone through, sometimes painfully. Hilliard recalled a game during Edosomwan’s sophomore year when the coach instructed him to “give a foul”—a technique to put a weak free-throw shooter on the line late in a game. Edosomwan “shoved the guy into about the third row. … The guy came out really mad, ready to fight, and Zena was just shocked. He was [saying], ‘What did I do? What did I do? Coach told me to foul.’” He didn’t know that “giving a foul” means wrapping someone up so no one gets hurt. Hilliard realized his young player was still learning the etiquette of the game

Edosomwan remained undeterred. In tenth grade, he wrote down three goals: obtaining Division I offers, raising his GPA, and dressing nicely and improving his standing with the opposite sex.

He laminated the paper and posted it on the wall in his childhood bedroom, where it remains today.

 

Check, check, and check.

Edosomwan asked his teachers for extra work and guidance, and by senior year, he was getting all A’s and B’s.

Meanwhile, he had become “an immensely likable and popular figure on campus,” recalled Thomas Hudnut, then president of Harvard-Westlake. He was not yet wearing bowties, but he also wasn’t wearing the flip-flops and untucked T-shirts that were the school’s unofficial uniform. He was going for more stylish outfits.

Edosomwan also stood out on the court. As a junior, he averaged a double-double (17 points and 10.3 rebounds per game) and led his team to a California Interscholastic Federation championship. That victory, paired with a strong performance on the summer basketball circuit, meant that Edosomwan soon found himself with dozens of scholarship offers. He was most interested in schools with high-level basketball and academics—principally USC, UC Berkeley, Wake Forest, Texas, Washington, UCLA, and Harvard.

The attention was overwhelming. Edosomwan’s mother recalled that the mailman put her son’s recruitment letters in a big box because the mailbox was overflowing. “Senior year was a very stressful time for me,” Edosomwan said. “Everyone was asking, ‘Where are you going to commit? When are you going to commit?’”

At first, he leaned toward USC and made an informal commitment to the Trojans by phone. But he changed his mind after visiting Harvard. “Sometimes you get a feeling, and it just feels right, and that’s how I felt.”

The attraction was mutual. As Stemberg coach Tommy Amaker recalled, the admissions interviewer “thought it was one of the better interviews they’ve ever had here at Harvard.”

But Edosomwan’s SAT scores left him below the minimum for the Academic Index, a calculation based on an applicant’s standardized test scores and GPA that governs admissions for Ivy League sports recruits. “Zena was a very good student in a very demanding school, but his standardized testing never was where he was as a student,” said Hudnut. “It was one of these anomalous situations in which he consistently outperformed what his standardized testing said he would be doing.” Though Edosomwan retook the SAT multiples times, he did not qualify for admission in 2012.

The Harvard coaches suggested a post-graduate year at Northfield Mount Hermon (NMH), a Massachusetts boarding school that, in recent years, has sent more than 25 students to play basketball in the Ivy League. But the option was risky. There was no guarantee that he would gain admission to Harvard, and if he got injured, those other scholarships could disappear. Edosomwan also felt an implicit stigma. He explained, “At times, I was honestly really embarrassed because I had to explain to people my situation. Like, ‘Hey, I’m going to Harvard but not this year!’…Obviously, people were going to talk and say, ‘…Oh, he’s not that smart.’”

His parents encouraged him to think of his long-term dreams and happiness but emphasized that the decision was his. Ultimately, he chose to attend NMH, calling it “a leap of faith.”

 

At first, it appeared that Edosomwan’s fears might come true. Early in the year, he sprained his MCL. Once he was healthy, John Carroll, his coach, wanted more from him. “I’ve never had a kid come to our program working hard enough,” Carroll said. “Zena was no exception to that.” The coach urged him to push himself in conditioning drills and use his size and strength to his advantage; this meant rebounding and finishing in the paint through contact, rather than settling for fade-away jumpers. (Carroll did cut a deal with Edosomwan: for every six rebounds, he could take whatever shot he wanted. “I’ve got to give him something,” the coach recalled thinking.) The approach paid off. Edosomwan became a starter and leader on a team that included current Yale captain Anthony Dallier and Princeton senior Pete Miller; together they won a prep-school national championship.

Meanwhile, he dug into the school’s college-style curriculum; participated on admissions panels for prospective students; and thrived in a community that includes students from more than 30 states and 50 countries. Carroll said, “He created the ability to translate his good, welcoming nature to all kinds of languages.” He was frequently seen carrying his SAT prep book, and in spring 2013, he was admitted to Harvard. Before he departed, his coach showed him a video of then-University of Florida center Patrick Young working out by pulling trucks and flipping tires. “Zena, you’re going to be guarding him next year,” Carroll said. He needed to change his definition of hard work again.

 

During Edosomwan’s freshman year, the Crimson won 27 games and nearly reached the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16. He found himself starting from the bottom all over again: he averaged just 5.7 minutes per game in 22 contests. “As a freshman,” he said, “you make a mistake, [and] you’re out.” Amaker said the newcomer needed to learn how to play with other good players, improve at team defense, and balance his power with finesse.

As a sophomore, Edosomwan appeared in 29 games and started 16, including Harvard’s contest against North Carolina in the NCAA tournament. Still, he averaged just 12.1 minutes per game, and many observers were surprised that the highly touted recruit was not having a bigger impact.

When Edosomwan discussed the situation with Pusey minister and Plummer professor of Christian morals Jonathan Walton (a close friend of Amaker’s, he traveled with the Crimson to Shanghai), the older man refocused Edosomwan on his success off the court. “Let’s take our attention for a second off of the way things have not worked out the way you expected”—namely, basketball—Walton said, “and let’s focus on how you have been enriched and worlds have been opened up to you that you would have never imagined, by coming to Harvard.”

Edosomwan had continued to study Mandarin and would travel to China that summer to volunteer at youth basketball camps and speak about attending college in the United States. He was active in Memorial Church. And he had become a minor campus celebrity and fashion plate. Fifteen Minutes, the Harvard Crimson magazine, had selected him as one of Harvard’s 15 “hottest freshmen.”

Walton—who has also told Edosomwan that taking the path less traveled often involves feeling vulnerable—made another comment that resonated. During one of his sermons, he preached, “A blessing delayed is not a blessing denied.” Edosomwan wrote that down.

 

In basketball terms, the blessing arrived during Edosomwan’s junior year, when he averaged 13.1 points and 9.9 rebounds per game and earned second-team All-Ivy recognition. The highlight was a 25-point, 16-rebound effort against then third-ranked Oklahoma in the final of the Diamond Head Classic. If Edosomwan could put together that kind of performance against a team that would go on to reach the Final Four, it was not unreasonable to think that the junior—who had entered Harvard hoping to follow in the footsteps of Jeremy Lin ’10—would reemerge as an NBA prospect.

But Edosomwan still felt unsettled, in part because his personal success coincided with the team’s first sub-.500 season since 2008. (The Crimson’s roster was depleted by losses to graduation and injury; most notably, Siyani Chambers ’16 [’17] withdrew for the year after tearing his ACL.) And Edosomwan was struggling to make sense of growing racial tension across the country, including police shootings of black men and the mass shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. As Edosomwan told The Boston Globe in February 2016, “I would hear a lot of things about people just sounding racially insensitive on both ends of the spectrum.”

Edosomwan had been a member of the black student group at Harvard-Westlake and of Harvard’s Black Men’s Forum. He also had an idea for a multimedia project, #HarvardBlackIs, which would provide a platform for students to talk about what being black means to them and in the process “spread the message of positivity, self-love, and personal reflection.”

He sought advice from one of his Kirkland House tutors, Scott Poulson-Bryant (now an assistant professor at Fordham), who recalled telling Edosomwan, “A person like you has to prioritize your time and your energy in a way that allows you to be the person you’re burdened by being, but also the person you want to be.”

Poulson-Bryant elaborated: “There is oftentimes an expectation for boys who are athletes—particularly black boys—to be that. To be athletes. So, of course, we impress upon them the importance of the athlete-scholar model. But if we’re honest, very often we don’t. Whether those are society’s expectations or that school’s expectations, or whoever’s expectations.”

Poulson-Bryant encouraged Edosomwan to weigh his existing commitments as a student-athlete and decide whether he was interested in “adding more on that plate, which would on some level, make him a better person. Or, make him part of conversations he wasn’t necessarily expected to be a part of.” 

The advice reinforced guidance from Amaker, who has encouraged Edosomwan to embrace all that Harvard has to offer while cautioning him about the Achilles heel of spreading himself too thin.

Edosomwan decided to launch #HarvardBlackIs, ultimately applying the same logic that led him to turn down 39 scholarships to pursue admission to Harvard. “‘Why,” he recalled thinking, “am I afraid to take a risk?’”

 

Entering senior year, Edosomwan appeared to have found his footing. He was named to the pre-season watch list for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Center of the Year Award; and, after completing another summer trip to China, where he led a six-day conference on college access, he became chairman of the student council of the World Leading Schools Association (an international education nonprofit that funded the conference). And with the return of Chambers and the arrival of a top-10 recruiting class, Harvard appeared to have the talent to return to March Madness.

Yet the reshaped roster would affect Edosomwan’s role. Unlike the previous year, when the offense ran through him in the post, the Crimson would use a more versatile attack. It would also deploy its depth to wear down opponents, meaning that individual players would have to accept reduced individual roles. Finally, the talented freshman class included another highly regarded post player, six-foot-nine Chris Lewis.

Against Stanford, Edosomwan started but, battling foul trouble, scored just three points in 12 minutes. When the team returned to Cambridge and faced Fisher College (a Division II opponent), Lewis—who had scored 10 points and made five of six field goal attempts in 19 minutes against Stanford—supplanted Edosomwan in the starting lineup. And in a loss to Holy Cross on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Lewis and fellow freshman Henry Welsh started while he played just seven minutes off the bench.

Then, on Thanksgiving Day, John Carroll, Edosomwan’s old coach from Northfield Mount Herman, sat in on Harvard’s practice. “What I saw was an incredible version of Zena,” he recalled. “He led through his physical play. He led through his spirit. He led through his emotion. When Zena is playing his best ball, it’s very raw emotionally. You can see it in his eyes. You can see it in his face. You can see it in his fingers…That’s what we saw at that practice.”

That Saturday, the Crimson faced the University of Massachusetts, and Edosomwan—at Carroll’s suggestion—wrote the word “Fury” on his hands with a sharpie. Against the Minutemen, he grabbed 10 rebounds in 21 minutes. A little over a week later, he had a double-double (13 points and 13 rebounds) in an 86-80 win over Northeastern. And he started and had the game-winning basket in a 57-56 victory at Houston, Harvard’s most impressive win of the season.

Through 10 games of conference play, Edosomwan is averaging 17.3 minutes per contest, often as Harvard’s first post player off the bench. He is still exhibiting his athleticism (including a ferocious put-back dunk against Cornell on Saturday), is the team’s best rebounder, and is proving adept at blocking and altering shots. He also influences the game in subtle ways, including setting strong, timely screens—a critical skill in Harvard’s offense, with talented guards running pick-and-rolls in late shot-clock situations.

At Amaker’s urging, Edosomwan has also watched videos of the Cleveland Cavalier’s Tristan Thompson, a post player who has what the coach calls a “lunch-pail” mentality. The message has rubbed off. Citing an adage of Amaker’s, Edosomwan said, “It’s amazing, when you fit in, how much you stand out.”

 

What comes next? Consider all the post-graduate possibilities before him: graduate school in Chinese history, a career in international business or fashion, or activism. (After the season, Edosomwan plans to launch #IAmOneWeAreOne, a new multimedia initiative giving voice to people from different sexual orientations and racial and ethnic backgrounds.)

And according to Carroll, who has coached dozens of Division I players, the NBA is not out of the question. Edosomwan’s immediate goal is to play professional basketball, but if he does not reach the NBA, he has a great chance to play internationally. Perhaps in China. After all, he already speaks the language.

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