Fagbenle excels on both sides of the pond
A U.S.-born English star comes full circle
Temi Fagbenle stands 6 feet 4 inches with a wingspan well beyond that. But her reach spans thousands of miles. In pursuit of academic and athletic excellence, the basketball star from London calls Blair Academy, in Blairstown, N.J., home for most of the year.
Fagbenle's parents, her father Tunde and mother Buki, both are Nigerian-born British citizens, so when it comes to international basketball competition, she, at one point, had several options to represent several countries, including the stars and stripes.
Though not eligible at this point for USA Basketball team trials since she has already competed in FIBA events with teams from the Great Britain, Fagbenle actually is a U.S. citizen. She holds passports from both the United States and Great Britain by virtue of being born in Baltimore, Md. She also has Nigerian citizenship.
The Nigerian national team has put some effort in recent years into recruiting foreign players of Nigerian descent, but Fagbenle is set to return to England at the end of May to see her family and compete for a spot on either the Great Britain senior national team or the junior 20-and-under team. Neither will compete this summer in the FIBA World Championships, but with the 2012 Olympics not too far away, her place within her country's basketball hierarchy will be important nonetheless.
Basketball has not always been Fagbenle's focus, so her ascent to being ranked among the top 25 U.S. players in her class is that much more impressive.
"I started around three years ago," Fagbenle said of her tenure in basketball. "This would be near the end of the third year, and I started playing tennis actually. And basically it wasn't really working out like me and my family wanted and we had a talk and we figured out that basketball would be the way to get into college and get a good education in the states."
Fagbenle came to the United States at 14 as part of a scholarship program developed between Daniel Bowmaker of the Haringey Angels club basketball program in London and Mike Flynn of the Philadelphia Belles. Flynn took a team over to England to play three years ago and noticed her while the two teams competed.
Fagbenle is one of 12 children but prides herself on being independent. So when the opportunity to go to the U.S. the summer before her sophomore year of high school came, she jumped at it.
"In the summer in the states, I mean, the level of basketball is completely different," Fagbenle said. "It's just so much higher in certain places. The girls over here are definitely much more physical than the girls over in England so it was just kind of like a shock. It wasn't a shock as if to say I would back down, it kind of made me realize I need to step up my game and fight back on the court and get stronger. It was a great transition for me."
The family decided Fagbenle should stay in America to pursue her goals, which are surprisingly more academic than might be assumed of a player of her caliber.
"Academics for my family always come first over anything," Fagbenle said. "That's basically set, that's the rule so I have to go to a good school, academic school, but I also want to go to a school where I'm going to have fun on the court and, you know, play well, play good basketball. So you know that's kind of the criteria."
"Academics is very high priority. That is high on the agenda for Temi," Bowmaker said, "but incredibly so for the family. An Ivy League school or a very, very good academic school will outweigh any concerns about basketball for mom and dad."
That criterion has led to a long list of colleges, including a number of Ivy League schools, an anomaly for most kids considered to be potential high school All-Americans. Fagbenle has more than 50 schools recruiting her, according to Bowmaker, her Angels club coach in England.
At this point she has narrowed it to fewer than 20 schools with a goal of having 8 to 10 finalists by the time she returns to the U.K. for the national team trials at the end of May.
Fagbenle is very much a person who needs a city nearby so most schools in a rural setting are more than likely going to be cut. This weekend she made a trip north to visit three schools -- Boston College, Connecticut and Harvard. Georgetown, which Bowmaker said was high on her list, has a scheduled visit later in the month. She also is considering Columbia and Penn from the Ivies. She has previously visited Maryland and Rutgers.
In addition to those schools she is considering California, Duke, Florida, Florida State, Miami, Notre Dame, Penn State, Virginia and Xavier, among others.
"Temi has found the process very overwhelming," Bowmaker said.
Bowmaker has informed several schools that they may not receive official visits even if she is seriously considering them. With the cost of travel and many of her schools being outside the mid-Atlantic region, she is going to use her five official visits on schools that are further from home, for the most part.
At one point Duke pulled out of the running because they had just one scholarship remaining and were looking for a true post player, where Temi projects as a forward. But the recent release of point guard Chelsea Hopkins, who will transfer, has reopened a spot and the school meets many of her criteria and is again in the hunt.
Getting to this point took a lot of determination as her early months in the U.S. were trying.
"I've always had this thing in my mind, always English people have this thing in their minds that 'Oh America, you know it's going to be easy, you just fly through high school and everything,' but I go to a prep school and that wasn't the case," Fagbenle said. "It was hard -- the work was hard; school work was hard; the basketball was very good -- I was just missing my family. I was crying nearly every day. The people were very, very nice, so you know I gradually became more used to it; started to enjoy it actually. And now it's my second year and I'm taking it all in my stride and trying to have as much fun as I can.
Taking it in stride may be an understatement. Her coach at the Blair Academy, Sue Altman, said Fagbenle has achieved near rock star status on campus because of her ability on the court but even more so for her outgoing and engaging personality. But it wasn't always easy.
"She came in the fall and played tennis but there were just little things. I think she struggled being away from home. She had siblings she missed; she had her parents she missed. She missed, kind of, being with her friends at home," Altman said. "But I think the more she got used to things here the easier it got for her. You know, just little things like getting to class on time, being sort of focused throughout the entire day, because Blair is a really tough schedule, this isn't a basketball factory, it's a really tough academic school … it's not cake walk, even if you're a star basketball player like Temi is."
When Fagbenle came to the U.S. she was a year younger than most kids in the junior class. Because of that she was able to repeat her junior year this academic year at Blair, now being adjusted to the prep school demands, as the same age as her peers.
Fagbenle has a blueprint in front of her. One of her brothers, Oladapo, who played basketball at Campbell College, earned a bachelor's degree in business administration and just this year completed his master's degree.
"If you're going to do something for a long time you better do it to the best of your abilities," Fagbenle added. "I don't know … I just want to work hard, it's good to work hard."
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Chris Hansen is the national director of prospects for ESPN HoopGurlz and covers girls' basketball and women's college basketball prospects nationally for ESPN.com. A graduate of the University of Washington with a communications degree, he has been involved in the women's basketball community since 1998 as a high school and club coach, trainer, evaluator and reporter. Hansen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.