Temi Fagbenle on English holiday
Before playing for Harvard, she has chance to compete for Games' home team
Shakespeare wrote that all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. Few stages are as large as the one opening Friday in London, with shows running through the middle of next month.
And while the work required to get the performers there was grueling, they know there's a payoff coming.
"I just like performing, really," Temi Fagbenle said, with a laugh, by phone from London. "I like getting out of character, performing for an audience. Just that performing aspect of it gives me a little, I don't know, gives me a good feeling.[+] EnlargeJoe Toth/US PresswireTemi Fagbenle (left) and Great Britain took an early lead but eventually fell to Sylvia Fowles and top-ranked Team USA.
"I always think I'm never going to do it again, but the feeling just keeps me wanting more."
Though Fagbenle, a 6-foot-4 rising sophomore forward at Harvard, was talking about her theater career, she might as well have been talking about her more famous role as a starter on the first women's basketball team in Great Britain's Olympic history.
"It's a great honor to be part of this," Fagbenle said of representing the host country in the London Olympics. "I never really expected to be part of this, especially as I had this year off. The coaches gave me a chance and I'm so glad to be here right now."
That the 19-year-old hadn't played a game in a year and still earned a spot on the roster is impressive. Fagbenle has yet to play a game for the Crimson after the NCAA ruled her ineligible because of what essentially was a paperwork problem.
While still in high school in London, Fagbenle took the General Certificate of Secondary Education exam, which is required of all British students and, according to the NCAA, signifies an intent to enroll in college within two years. After taking the exam, Fagbenle decided to transfer to Blair Academy in New Jersey to complete her high school education, and once there had to repeat her junior year. That meant it took her three more years to graduate instead of two, and the NCAA declared her ineligible for her freshman season.
"It was a very unfortunate situation," Harvard coach Kathy Delaney-Smith said by phone from a recruiting trip to Las Vegas. "I understand the intention [of the rule], trying to control the influx of professional players or people trying to use the system to gain extra years. Temi never fell under that umbrella."
"I was just heartbroken, really," Fagbenle said of her reaction to the NCAA's decision. "Although basketball isn't the focus, I love basketball. I wanted to play. And so finding that out was just a shock.
"Not being able to play, sitting on the bench watching your team was hard. I'll just try to take a positive from it."
The ruling meant that Fagbenle, who played her way to the McDonald's All-American Game at Blair and became the first such player to commit to Harvard women's basketball, could only practice with the team in 2011-12 and couldn't travel or play in games. Delaney-Smith said the year off from games may have benefited Fagbenle in that she could more fully dedicate herself to strength and conditioning work, which the coach said she needed for the college game.
Fagbenle was born in Baltimore into a large Nigerian family (she has 11 siblings), but she spent most of her childhood in London and has the British accent to prove it. She played for the British national team at the under-16, 18 and 20 levels, helping lead the U18 team to the European championship in 2010. She was named England's U18 player of the year in 2010.[+] EnlargeAhmed Photography Fagbenle, the youngest member of the Great Britain team, worked her way from the bench to the starting lineup during the run-up to the Olympics.
When Fagbenle was named to the squad for the London Games, she became the youngest member of coach Tom Maher's team by almost three years. And she wasn't content with just making the team. She worked her way from the bench to the starting lineup during the run-up to the Olympics.
And when the referee tossed the ball up to start the final exhibition for Team GB before Friday's opening ceremony, there was Fagbenle in the circle for the jump.
It was an eye-opening experience for the teenager.
"I couldn't stop smiling," she said of facing Candace Parker, Maya Moore and the rest of Team USA. "I was just on the court, smiling to myself. I have to kind of bring myself back to reality, 'It's just a normal game, play hard.' I just really couldn't get the smile off my face, knowing I was taking the jump ball against one of the best in the world."
Though expectations for Great Britain are measured, the team is ready to surprise people. Fagbenle & Co. upset No. 8-ranked France in a tuneup in Sheffield on July 15, then sprinted out to a 21-10 lead over No. 1-ranked Team USA on July 18 before the Americans rallied to win 88-63.
"That lead was definitely something that showed something about us," Fagbenle said. "We gave them a scare. It was great. Obviously, they pulled through and got us back, but having done that showed what we're capable of."
Fagbenle averaged 6 points and 5 rebounds in almost 20 minutes per game in Team GB's four tuneups.
Asked what she hopes for her squad in the Olympics, Fagbenle is realistic.
"I just hope that we play to the best of our abilities each day," she said. "We have improved so much as a team, just for us to play fearlessly and relentlessly each game would be fantastic."
Whatever the on-court results, Delaney-Smith knows she'll be getting a better player back in Cambridge for the 2012-13 season. And considering that she already expected a strong defender, a good finisher at the basket and a nifty passer, the coach has high hopes for the impact Fagbenle can make on and off the court for the Crimson.
"It's fabulous because people want to come and play with her," Delaney-Smith said, "because they know we will be the team to beat with her. She probably will be the best player ever to play in the league, along with Allison Feaster."
Feaster, of course, was a star for the Crimson from 1994 to 1998 -- helping the No. 16 seed Crimson upset top seed Stanford in the '98 NCAA tourney -- and was picked fifth overall in the WNBA draft.
The Crimson finished second in the Ivy League in 2011-12, with an 18-12 record (including a 10-4 Ivy mark). Fagbenle, though understandably focused on her upcoming Olympic performance, is charged up about the upcoming Crimson season.
"I cannot wait to get on that court," she said. "This is going to help me a great deal, I think. Just playing at this high level, playing under the watchful eye of fantastic refs and having to do everything correctly, I think that will just give me a huge advantage.
"I'm just going to go at it. I lost a year and I'm just going to give it to people."
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.
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