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Feeling sad about Festus Ezeli

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The Warriors’ former big man has had a rough couple of years. What happens next?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Sacramento Kings Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Recently, it was widely reported that Festus Ezeli might be done in Portland. Joe Freeman, of The Oregonion, caught a strange, revealing moment in the Blazers’ locker room. Was Ezeli saying goodbye to his teammates in Portland? Teammates with whom he’d never even had the opportunity to share the court?

And then, right afterwards, word spread that Ezeli would not travel with the team on their four game road trip. However, his camp so far is not acknowledging plans for surgery.

Regardless of his health, Ezeli’s place within the Blazers organization has been called into question this season. After a series of dispiriting losses, Festus (who has yet to play a single minute for the Trail Blazers after signing a two year, $16M deal) apparently called out his teammates a few times. C.J. McCollum was having none of it. From a recent ESPN article:

After suffering a challenging, 115-107 loss to Milwaukee, Ezeli, in street clothes, addressed the team in the locker room with a stern speech centered on playing with urgency, sources told ESPN. Then two games later, after a crushing defeat in Memphis, Ezeli once again started giving a team speech, but he was cut short.

McCollum interrupted Ezeli in midsentence and told him that was enough, sources told ESPN. Portland was in the midst of an emotionally draining December, losing 11 of 13 games. Players were desperately pouring out every ounce of effort trying to change the trajectory of the season, and being lectured by someone who wasn't even playing wasn't received favorably.

Ouch. I mean, I can’t really fault McCollum, but still. That’s pretty harsh. So, Ezeli hasn’t played, he hasn’t been healthy, and he hasn’t been welcomed with open arms into a suddenly dysfunctional Blazers locker room.

How did we get here?


I once thought Ezeli would end up as one of the most dominant NBA big man of his generation. He showed flashes of greatness, flashes of high functioning athleticism and talent.

His teammates loved him deeply, even if they pranked him once bad.

He is exceedingly easy to root for. Having moved to the USA from Nigeria at the age of 14, he aspired to be a doctor until he grew into his present 6’11” frame and fell in love with the game of basketball.

Drafted by the Warriors in the famous/infamous 2012 NBA Draft (where the Warriors drafted Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli, and then Draymond Green), he immediately became a fan favorite in the Bay. Playing behind the newly-acquired Andrew Bogut, he seemed like the prototypical center of the future for the Warriors. Size, intelligence, basketball IQ, athleticism — he had the whole package.

But in June 2013, he underwent surgery on his right knee and missed the entire 2013-14 season. He returned, seemingly healed, and helped the Warriors win the 2015 championship.

Just for old time’s sake, let’s run this thing back for a second.

NBA: Golden State Warriors-White House Visit Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Ah, such a simpler time, when the Warriors were world champions and we had a rational, sane leader in the White House.

Anyways, what’s done is done. Both for Ezeli and for our nation. God save us all.

But, after starting last season in a very strong manner — playing nearly 20 minutes per game, averaging close to nine points and 6.5 rebounds per game — Ezeli was forced to undergo another surgery, this time mid-season, and this time to remove debris in his left knee. After missing 31 games, he returned to action, ironically, against the Portland Trailblazers. However, you got the sense that he just wasn’t quite the same after the surgery. He didn’t have that same energy. In the Finals, he was completely compromised. Between his play and Varejao’s play — and a million other reasons, most notably LeBron James having the best individual Finals performance of all time, and also, yes, Kiki Vandeweghe — the Warriors fumbled away an opportunity to go down as the greatest team of all time.

After the organization went out and signed Kevin Freaking Durant, Ezeli signed his deal with Portland. Initially, Blazers fans were ecstatic. They seemingly had finally found the missing big man to anchor their defense.

But, already, there were warning signs.

This, from a Blazers Edge piece written right after Ezeli signed:

Perhaps more concerning is Ezeli's injury history. He missed the entirety of the 2013-14 season recovering from right knee surgery, and missed a chunk of last season recovering from surgery on his left knee. On the bright side, he has no prior injury history, but it is concerning that he has been unable to stay healthy for an entire NBA season since his rookie year. The Blazers do have a state of the art training staff and have avoided the major injury issues that plagued the team previously, but fans may be wary of relying on a career backup center with knee issues.

Oof.

Given everything the Blazers’ organization has gone through — Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan, Brandon Roy’s aborted career (knees), Greg Oden (knees), and now this — you just have to feel bad for that entire city. I mean, damn. That is frickin tough.

Initially, Ezeli looked great in practice. But then things took a depressing turn.

From that same ESPN piece:

During training camp, to everyone's surprise, Ezeli decided to partake in a handful of practices. ESPN sources said he ran the court well, had some impressive blocks and defended the pick-and-roll effectively with no signs of swelling in the knee.

Players were overwhelmingly impressed.

The team and coaching staff were ecstatic. They were under the impression their paint enforcer was only a week or two away from being activated. But it was premature enthusiasm -- Ezeli shut it down soon after, indicating he wasn't ready to return to game action.

It didn't take long for the harsh realization to hit the locker room: Ezeli wasn't likely to play a game as a Trail Blazer this season, maybe never. At some point this season, it is expected Ezeli will undergo season-ending surgery, league sources told ESPN.

As a fan of Ezeli — both his game and his attitude — I really wanted it to work out for him in Portland. However, it seems big changes are yet again on the horizon. Will they trade him? Will he opt for season ending surgery? Will his time in Portland end before it ever had a chance to begin? Will he pursue his original career goal, perhaps going to medical school? Maybe this is a blessing in disguise, but it sucks that I’m already considering his post-playing career. I honestly hope he finds his way back on to the court and puts together a long, successful string of healthy seasons, either with Portland or with someone else.

Either way, I’m feeling super sad. Best wishes to Festus. I want nothing but the best for him.