As the first McDonald’s All-American in the history of Harvard women’s basketball, Temi Fagbenle appeared ready for her star turn with the Crimson when she arrived on campus in 2011.
Born in Baltimore, Md., but raised as a British citizen when her Nigerian family moved to London when she was 2 years old, Fagbenle revealed herself to be charismatic, smart, worldly, and an enormous athletic talent as the highest-rated basketball recruit in Harvard women’s history.
But, as an incoming freshman, Fagbenle wound up being a Brit idle on the Harvard women’s team when the NCAA declared her ineligible for the 2011-12 season because of its strict enforcement of a British academic rule. Harvard, though, chose to characterize Fagbenle’s first season as “a year in residency.’’
“Temi should’ve played last year,’’ insisted Harvard coach Kathy Delaney-Smith, who still chafes a year later at the NCAA’s decision to penalize Fagbenle, 20, a year of eligibility.
A productive 6-foot-4-inch sophomore on Harvard’s 17-8 team (8-3 Ivy League), Fagbenle was forced to forfeit her first year at Harvard when she took three years, instead of two, to enroll in college after passing a General Certificate of Secondary Education exam, the British equivalent of the PSAT.
In Britain, a student looking to pursue a college education is required to take the GCSE by age 15 and is allowed two years from that point to complete his or her high school education and enroll in a university. Fagbenle left London after her sophomore year and enrolled at Blair (N.J.) Academy, where she repeated her junior year and took three years to complete her high school education in the US.
After spurning offers from Duke, Connecticut, and Boston College to play at Harvard, Fagbenle was stunned to learn she would have to sit out her first year.
“I didn’t really feel like I did anything wrong,’’ said Fagbenle. “The English academic system might not be known too well by the NCAA, and I think that needs to be cleared up to understand where people lie, because I don’t think I was trying to cheat the system at all and I don’t think I did.’’
Harvard tried four times to appeal to the NCAA on Fagbenle’s behalf.
“I will agree to disagree with the NCAA,’’ Delaney-Smith said. “I lost so much confidence in the NCAA last year on how they handled her case. They were entirely, 100 percent wrong for not looking out for the student-athlete.
“She’s a kid who made all these decisions for academic reasons and she was punished and thrown into a group of athletes that make athletic decisions,’’ Delaney-Smith said. “That was not her. The fact that she’s here and turned down Duke and UConn and all of these other places — shame on you NCAA, shame on you.’’
If the transition from prep school to the Ivy League wasn’t jarring enough, the NCAA’s ruling left Fagbenle, who was barred from traveling with the team or playing in any games during the 2011-12 season, feeling like an outsider.
“Yeah, it definitely tested me,’’ said Fagbenle, who is Harvard’s third-leading scorer (12.5 points per game) and rebounding leader (7.6 per game) this season with three games remaining.
“It was particularly hard to sit on the bench and watch my team play during home games, knowing that I was perfectly capable of stepping on the court right then and for some reason was not allowed,’’ she said. “It was very hard to get over. It was pretty hard to stay — and do nothing.’’
Fagbenle used her time away from the game to “strengthen myself academically and athletically,’’ she said. “I had more time to do my school work, I had more time to lift and get stronger and work on my moves. Obviously, it was difficult, because I was lonely for most of that time, but it was a blessing in disguise. It definitely helped me.’’
What made it even more difficult was that Harvard, which finished second in the Ivy League race, would likely have contended for the title and a coveted NCAA berth had Fagbenle been in the lineup. “She would’ve changed our season dramatically,’’ Delaney-Smith said. “But when that door got shut, she was invited to try out for the Olympics.’’
Fagbenle, who has dual citizenship and speaks with a distinct British accent, jumped at the opportunity to play for Great Britain in the London Games. She left Harvard to begin training camp in England May 5 with 20 other players who were vying for 12 roster spots. She wound up making the cut as the youngest player on the team at age 19 and became the second Olympian in Ivy League women’s basketball history, despite not having played a single NCAA game for Harvard.
So her first basketball game out of Blair Academy came on the world’s biggest stage — the Olympics — as a representative of the host country.
“It’s really funny how I hadn’t played a college game, even though I had played an Olympic game,’’ said Fagbenle, who helped the Brits upset France, the eventual silver medalist, during an Olympic tune-up. In a final exhibition against top-ranked Team USA, Fagbenle found herself on the court with former McDonald’s All-Americans Candace Parker and Maya Moore. She helped Great Britain streak to a 21-10 lead before Team USA took over for an 88-63 win.
“It was a huge jump from where I had been playing, previously,’’ Fagbenle said. “I had been playing some high school games and some international games at my age-level, so to jump from that to the Olympic Games against professional women — with husbands and kids and everything — who were stronger than me, it was a lovely eye-opening experience.
“It showed me how much I needed to do to get to that level.’’
When she returned stateside to begin her college career, Fagbenle had first-night jitters when she donned her No. 14 jersey and stepped on the court at Lavietes Pavilion.
“Stepping out on the court for the first time was, actually, really nerve-racking,’’ said Fagbenle, who was accustomed to such feelings when she performed on stage in theatrical productions with her prep school in New Jersey and her school in London. “I didn’t expect it to be, but it was, because I had never really done it.’’
A shoo-in for Ivy League Rookie of the Year, Fagbenle won the league’s weekly rookie award for the ninth time this season, tying former Harvard great Allison Feaster for the second most in league history. She averaged 11.5 points and 8 rebounds in a sweep of Princeton (58-55) and Penn (67-54) last weekend. It vaulted the Crimson into a second-place tie in the Ivy standings.
“I don’t care what stage I’m on when I’m playing basketball,’’ she said. “It doesn’t matter if there are two people watching or 10,000, it is wonderful being on this court playing for Harvard University, getting a fantastic education, which is all that matters to me.’’Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.