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Temi Fagbenle '15 Takes the Court for Hosts in London

Rising sophomore Temi Fagbenle (far right) is the youngest of 12 players on Great Britain's Olympic women's basketball team.
Rising sophomore Temi Fagbenle (far right) is the youngest of 12 players on Great Britain's Olympic women's basketball team. By Robert L. Ruffins
By Jacob D. H. Feldman, Crimson Staff Writer

A singer, an actor, a tennis player, a model, and a leader, Temi Fagbenle ’15 is also a game-changer on the basketball court. Since picking up the game just five short years ago, Fagbenle has already helped alter the culture of three basketball programs.

When she takes the court as a starter and the youngest player on Great Britain’s national team, she will attempt to take the once-floundering team to new heights.

GROWING TO THE HOOP (GAME?)

A daughter of Nigerian parents, Fagbenle grew up in a busy household. For a time, her sport was not basketball but tennis, as she dreamed of growing up to be the next Venus Williams. But by 14, Temi had transitioned from the hard court to the hardwood.

“One day after tennis practice, my dad and I had a talk and it was decided that I would stop playing competitive tennis and start up basketball,” Fagbenle recalled.

The pair decided that basketball would help Fagbenle achieve her academic goals. Fagbenle has admitted that she didn’t love the game at first but it has since grown on her.

Though Fagbenle picked the game up late, her athletic ability and tall frame helped her excel quickly. To improve, Fagbenle left her large family in England to attend Blair Academy in New Jersey for high school.

Blair has a rich men’s basketball history, but only fielded a competitive women’s team, not championship-caliber, at the time of Fagbenle’s arrival. That would change quickly.

“The program has really just taken fire largely because of Temi,” Blair women’s basketball coach Quint Clarke said. “We may never have a player as good as she is.”

Clarke worked with Fagbenle to develop the inexperienced but athletic player.

“You could tell right away that she was very talented but a little raw,” Clarke said. “She was such a hard worker that her game really took off when she committed herself to it.”

Rather than just allow Fagbenle to use her size to dominate, Clarke pushed her to develop other skills necessary to succeed against the best of the best.

“When we first saw her, we said, ‘She’s 6’4”, she’s bigger than most high school players,’ but we didn’t want to limit who she was,” Clarke said. “She was big enough to succeed down low in high school, but as she proceeds in college and professionally, she needed to do more. We didn’t want her to be a center, so we worked her a lot on her ball handling, moves on the perimeter, in developing all kinds of different skills to make her as hard to guard as possible.”

Clarke and co. succeeded in making Fagbenle a nightmare for the competition.

By her senior year, Fagbenle was averaging 16.6 points and 9.3 rebounds, tallying 13 double-doubles while leading her team to the New Jersey Prep A title. For her efforts, Fagbenle was named a McDonald’s All-American and was ranked as one of the top prospects in her class.

EXCELLING OFF THE COURT

While Fagbenle was developing on the court early on at Blair, she was also forced to mature off of it.

“When she came in, she was scared,” Clarke said. “She was a homesick 15-year-old. It was not easy for her….It’s very rural out here, it’s not like London. You are black in a school that’s mostly white people, you are speaking different…I think she was forced to grow up faster than most 15-year-olds.”

After struggling to adjust to life in New Jersey at first, Fagbenle decided to add an extra year of schooling after junior year so as to bolster her academic record in hopes of attending a top-tier college like she planned when leaving her family a few years earlier.

Eventually Fagbenle adjusted to her new environment and began making a large impact beyond the basketball court.

Following in the footsteps of her family, Fagbenle spent her free time displaying her theatrical abilities at Blair.

“Theater Director Craig Evans came to me and said she could be a professional,” Clarke said. “She’s really good.”

Other members of Fagbenle’s large immediate family have done just that. Her brother Dapo works with music videos now after competing as a college basketball player.  His older brother O.T. is a professional theater, film, and television actor and another brother is a music producer

Athletically, Fagbenle continued playing tennis and running track, excelling at both. On the track, Fagbenle won state titles in high jump, javelin, discus and shot.

Fagbenle also served her school as an elected member of the eight-person senior class council that helps run the school.

“At first, she was viewed as a basketball player because of her height,” Hardwick said. “That said, within very short order, Temi was perceived primarily for her leadership and her impact on the community generally.”

FULFILLING A DREAM

By her senior fall, Fagbenle had developed into a socially comfortable leader on and off the court and was being pursued by just about every major basketball program in the country.

After team workouts, the men’s and women’s teams would scrimmage against each other so that Fagbenle and her teammates could face stiff competition. Those games became widely attended by scouts from both men’s and women’s college programs.

By the time the season began, the interest in Fagbenle was hard to ignore.

“We had so many colleges here,” Clarke said. “There was so much buzz about her. She is an unbelievably talented player.”

The administration attempted to shield Fagbenle from as much of the process as possible and she showed her newfound maturity during the stressful time. Despite serious offers from top programs, Fagbenle had her mind set on one school: Harvard.

“She wanted to be a great basketball player but she also understood basketball was a vehicle that was going to open a lot of doors,” Clarke said. “She is interested in being a successful person in a wide variety of areas. The reason she chose Blair was that she felt we had a chance to help her basketball wise, academic wise and otherwise to get her to Harvard to open more doors.”

“It was definitely hard to turn down other top schools like Duke because they seemed to offer the best of both worlds,” Fagbenle said. “But once I received my letter of admission from Harvard, I knew where I had to be.”

Fagbenle’s impact on the program continues to this day as she is given some credit for Blair’s 2012 state championship.

“The girls who came and saw her play and that got to talk to her afterwards came here,” Blair headmaster Chan Hardwick said. “The reason [this year’s team] was very good was because Temi set a standard for excellence that got people to come to the school. She’s the best recruiting tool – a happy and successful player.”

A SUSPENDED HOPE

Before the beginning of the 2011-2012 season, Harvard women’s basketball coach Kathy Delaney-Smith discussed how important Fagbenle was going to be for the Crimson program.

“Temi is an impact player flat out,” Delaney-Smith said. “Temi can step on the floor and impact the game immediately. She’s probably in the top five of any college player I’ve ever coached right now. We have a whole system we’re using because she’s at the core of it.”

But, due to NCAA rules attempting to control European players coming to America for college, Fagbenle was suspended for her freshman season. The stud recruit would be unable to change the program’s culture for at least one year.

“It was the most frustrating thing ever not being allowed to play last year,” Fagbenle said. “Knowing that I was fully capable of playing with my teammates, but not being allowed to for some debatable reason was, and still is, quite difficult to accept….It definitely wasn't easy to stay motivated each day.”

Without Fagbenle to anchor the Harvard offense, the Crimson posted a fourth straight-second place Ivy finish. Even though Fagbenle was never able to get on the court, the effects of her addition to the Harvard team are already becoming apparent.

Last spring, just a year after Fagbenle’s commitment, Shilpa Tummula, a top-100 recruit, committed to Harvard. Getting a player of that caliber was nearly unheard of for the Crimson in the years before Fagbenle’s arrival, but it may become a common occurrence now.

In addition to sitting out a year of basketball, Fagbenle had to give up the other activities such as theater that she had enjoyed in high school in order to dedicate herself to a sport she couldn’t even compete in.

Because she could not help Harvard, Fagbenle set her sights on joining another team, the Great Britain Olympic women’s basketball team, and helping it succeed for the first time.

“I began to doubt that I would be considered for the preparation camp because no one had seen me play for a whole year, but I kept working hard in the gym and weight room with the team,” Fagbenle said.

The odds of her making the team at 19 seemed slim. No one else who made the team was younger than 22.

“I thought it would be a longshot,” Fagbenle said. “I began to look towards 2016 instead.”

While the Olympics are an honor no matter where they are held, the possibility of playing for her home country while the events were being held in England provided even more motivation. Also, the host team is guaranteed a spot in the 12-team tournament.

So Fagbenle chased her dream, leaving school a few days early to travel back home and attend the Olympic preparation camp. There, she showed off her new skills to coach Tom Maher and quickly saw her stock rise.

Impressed by Fagbenle’s combination of size and skill, Maher fast-tracked her and added her to the adult team. From there, Fagbenle continued to take advantage of every opportunity and, by the time her squad faced the reigning gold-medalist Americans, she was starting and in charge of attempting to control the tip-off.

“It was great playing against the women on the USA team,” Fagbenle said. “I am so happy for the experience. Never would I have thought I would be running down the court having to guard Candace Parker and the likes of them at this age.”

Fagbenle’s rise corresponded with the general rise of British basketball. Just five years ago, when Fagbenle was just picking up basketball, Great Britain did not even have a world ranking in women’s basketball. Two years ago, the British did not compete in the 24-team FIBA World Championship.

Despite still being ranked near the bottom of FIBA’s top 50, the team now appears to be a real threat to make it out of the group stage and into the knockout round.

In exhibition competition this summer, Great Britain beat 11th-ranked Canada, eighth-ranked France, and the fourth-ranked Czech Republic.

“Our team expects to perform fearlessly and relentlessly each game,” Fagbenle said. “If we are able to do that, we will go very far in the Olympics.”

Even if Great Britain is unable to pull off the series of upsets it would need to make a dent in the women’s basketball tournament, Fagbenle will return to Harvard strengthened by her experiences this summer and ready to make a real impact on the floor.

“I can only imagine that this Olympic experience can bring her to a new level of play,” Harvard women’s basketball coach Kathy Delaney-Smith said.

—Staff writer Jacob D. H. Feldman can be reached at jacobfeldman@college.harvard.edu

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Women's BasketballOlympics