Every time Harvard women’s basketball coach Kathy Delaney-Smith heard rumors about what schools were interested in Temi Fagbenle, the names seemed to get bigger and bigger.
If it wasn’t Georgetown it was Boston College. If it wasn’t Duke, it was Connecticut.
“So I really didn’t think we had a chance at her,” Delaney-Smith said.
Coming out of the Blair Academy in New Jersey, the same school that produced Chicago Bulls star Luol Deng, Fagbenle was a recruiter’s ultimate get.
On the court, she was a 6-foot-4-inch prodigy as gifted offensively as she was defensively. There wasn’t a column in the box score that she couldn’t fill.
Off of it, she couldn’t have been more well rounded. She loved theater. She sang. She danced. And had she not put the racquet down when she was 14 years old, she might have been better on the tennis court than the basketball court.
But Delaney-Smith had one thing on her side.
Fagbenle came from a family that put a premium on education.
Delaney-Smith found out how much so, when she spoke to the Fagbenles.
“Most Nigerian families will tell you that academics are the priority for them,” Temi’s father, Tunde Fagbenle, said. “In selecting a college we were mindful of not just basketball but also academically. But more importantly what happens if anything went wrong and she couldn’t play or her playing days were short.”
For years, Tunde has been a prominent journalist in Nigeria and London. The past seven years, his column has run on the back page of Nigeria’s largest paper, The Punch.
“Being a columnist is a highly responsible thing, especially on political and social issues,” Tunde said. “The young ones look upon you for your opinion and values and moving the country forward. Those are things you don’t take lightly. That’s my responsibility and my children know that. They know the values I hold.”
And those values also become theirs.
So for Temi, the process of picking a school was about more than basketball.
When Delaney-Smith brought her in for a visit, things immediately clicked.
“There’s a lot that Harvard offers that almost no other schools in the country offer,” Delaney-Smith said. “Temi is a very bright person who has passions in more areas than just basketball and she doesn’t want to give any of those up. She wants to make sure that she has some balance in her life.”
But even if they were sure how golden the opportunity was, both Tunde and Delaney-Smith knew they couldn’t push too hard.
“I remember telling Tunde, ‘Don’t push Harvard’, ” Delaney-Smith said. “ ‘Let her make the decision.’ ”
Tunde said, “We knew that we couldn’t force it. We had to be very careful. We had to make the choice look like hers. Although I guess it was thinly veiled because she kind of knew all along where we were. But we were not coming down hard on that.”
Now a junior, Temi Fagbenle is the centerpiece of a Crimson team picked to finish second in the Ivy League coming off a 21-win season.
In 29 games, Fagbenle averaged 12.3 points, shot 57.8 percent from the floor, and grabbed a team-high 7.7 rebounds. She even hit 6 of 9 3-pointers.
The Ivy League rookie of the Week award essentially became a weekly check-in with Fagbenle. She won it 10 times, tying the record.
Getting her on the court seemed to be the hardest part initially.
The NCAA ruled her ineligible for the 2012-13 season because she took three years rather than two to enroll after passing Britain’s General Certificate of Secondary Education exam.
She waited patiently for the time to pass.
When Fagbenle finally took the court last season, nothing about her first college game felt normal to her.
It was more than just being on the road in Fargo, N.D.
She was born in Baltimore, lived briefly in Nigeria, grew up in London, then moved to New Jersey.
She was used to traveling.
“For me, traveling and experiencing different places, it’s education in itself,” Tunde said. “I was pretty sure that although they might not have long-lasting friendships in any particular one place, they’re experiencing life in different facets and it was educational.”
Last year, the hard part was simply adjusting.
Even though the NCAA forced her to sit out, she had played for Great Britain in the 2012 Olympics.
That stage couldn’t have been bigger. She shared the spotlight with some of the greatest players in the world.
But she had just as many butterflies facing North Dakota State last November as she did facing Team USA.
“It was great, because I hadn’t ever played a college game, and I had played an Olympic game,” she said. “One wouldn’t think I would have been nervous, but I was.”
She was a sophomore in the NCAA’s eyes, but was still making the freshman adjustment.
For as nervous as she might have been, it didn’t show on the floor. She had 12 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, and 3 blocks, showing why she was coveted by so many schools.
“It didn’t feel normal,” she said. “It felt different. It was just a whole different kind of play. I was really happy to be on the court with the team.”
The challenge will be keeping her on the court. Between the NCAA ruling and the Olympics, her first two years at Harvard have been taxing.
Delaney-Smith had to manage last season as the miles that Fagbenle logged in the Olympics started to catch up with her during the Ivy League season.
As good as Temi was last year, Delaney-Smith said, she wasn’t at full strength.
Knee issues would force her to sit out practices just to be able to play in games.
“I don’t know how I did it, actually,” Fagbenle said. “I kind of was on my last leg, especially because I didn’t have much of a break from the summer to preseason over here.
“The coaches were really good with managing my body to help me do as much as I could but without straining my body too far. So it was hard, but I think we were successful in some areas.”
Delaney-Smith isn’t shy about saying Fagbenle has the potential to be the best player to come out of Harvard since Allison Feaster, who was drafted fifth overall by the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks in 1998.
But she’ll have to stay healthy to do it.
“Because her basketball is remarkable,” said Delaney-Smith. “But if she’s not healthy then she can’t practice and she can’t work on fine-tuning things or adding to her repertoire.”
Feeling healthy and comfortable, Fagbenle has every reason to believe things will go well.
“Definitely not a clean slate, but definitely easier than it’s ever been and I just hope it goes uphill from here,” she said. “I’m used to things, the way things go, so hopefully that helps.”Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.