Zena Edosomwan can leap over men his own height and dunk like it's nothing, but not everything has come to the 6-foot-9, 245-pound Harvard forward so easily.
Take Chinese. Though he loves it now, Edosomwan admits he balked when his mother suggested he study the language in high school.
"I was like, 'I'm not gonna take Chinese. It's super hard, it's super difficult,'" he said before practice recently. "My mom said, 'You're gonna take Chinese.' So I took Chinese—there wasn't much of a choice after that."
With that, Edosomwan let out a hearty laugh.
"I took it and I struggled. I was gonna quit after my first semester," he said. "My mom was like, 'You're not quitting.' I was like, 'No, I want to quit, I had a meeting with the teacher and said I want to quit.' And mom said, 'No, you're not gonna quit.'"
This set something of a pattern for Edosomwan, now in his junior year of college. He would try something new, something challenging, and initially he would struggle. He would have doubts, he would wonder if this was really what he should be doing. Eventually, though, he would get the hang of it—and then he would excel.
This past summer, Edosomwan spent three weeks in China. He used chopsticks for every meal, talked college life with local kids, played basketball, and marveled at the traffic. ("I'm from Los Angeles, and traffic is pretty bad," he said. "But in China ... you're in the taxi saying, 'Please don't hit anybody.'")
His college basketball experience—and the journey to get there—has followed a similar trajectory.
Edosomwan, a top 100 recruit from Harvard-Westlake in Los Angeles, was wooed by teams like Cal, Texas, UCLA, USC, and Washington—Power 5 teams, teams used to winning on and off the court. He was pursued by so many schools (he received 39 offers) that at one point he stopped answering his phone, overwhelmed.
"Once you start peeling back [the layers] and turning the page with him, he's one of those guys you start to fall in love with," Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. "His way. How people talk about him.
"You start peeling back, peeling back, and, like I'm sure everybody did, you really want to go after this kid."
Hungry for success. Photo by Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports
The Crimson hired Amaker in 2007, in part because they wanted to chase kids like Edosomwan—kids who never would've thought about Harvard before Amaker, before Jeremy Lin became Linsanity, before the Crimson started winning Ivy titles and playing in the NCAAs.
"We've said all along that we didn't want to just go after kids who could play in our conference," Amaker said. "We wanted to go after kids who we thought could help us win our conference.
"If we thought he was the kind of kid that would be a candidate to get in, the kind of kid who had high character, and then the kind of kid who was talented as a basketball player, we thought, Why shouldn't we go after him? Even though Duke may be recruiting him, or whatever, we just thought we have a brand that's as powerful as any."
So the Crimson elbowed their way into the conversation with the big man from L.A., even though Edosomwan admits that when Amaker started recruiting him his junior year he didn't even know what state Harvard was in.
"It was weird, people would ask me questions about, what are your final schools," he said. "And I would name all these quote-unquote high-majors and then I would say Harvard, and they were like ..." He trailed off, miming stunned disbelief.
Edosomwan was worried about more than just basketball.
"When you're getting recruited, coaches will tell you everything you want to hear," he said. "I kinda had to take myself aside from basketball, and be like, 'Well, if things don't work out for me, what else can I do with my life? What else am I interested in?' Because this game is not promised. I could get hurt tomorrow and never play again."
He was inspired by his recruiting trip to Harvard's campus. "My visit here kinda let me see that bigger picture," he said. "I love the game of basketball and it means a lot to me, but it's being real and understanding that there's a world outside of that."
Edosomwan, whose mother, Kehinde Ololade, immigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria in search of a better life, was determined to make it to Cambridge. In order to meet Harvard's admission standards, he enrolled in prep school at Northfield Mount Hermon, in Massachusetts. There, he averaged a double-double and helped his team win its first Prep School National Championship, in 2013.
Amaker never uses the word "expectations," but he acknowledged that outsiders might look at Edosomwan's first two seasons at Harvard, where he averaged 2.9 and 4.0 points and 5.7 and 12.1 minutes per game, and wonder what happened to the top recruit in the school's history.
"We weren't a program or a team that any kid could just walk in and dominate," Amaker said. "We had some pretty good players here. And our league is underrated."
Edosomwan had to get in line behind guys like Kyle Casey, Steve Moundou-Missi, Jonah Travis, and Evan Cummins—experienced players who knew Amaker's system and were used to the college game.
"I think Zena came in with an unbelievable build, athleticism and ability, and then he definitely had to make the transition," said Cummins, Harvard's senior captain. "It's so different. I think that's something that a lot of people really underestimate: how much bigger, faster, stronger, quicker guys are in the game. The windows of opportunity to get things done in the college game are just so much smaller, that everyone takes the transition differently.
"He came in and it took him a little while to kind of get comfortable with everything that we do here and our system.... But you see now that once he has adjusted he's taken it in stride and he's becoming what everyone knew he could become."
Harvard has struggled early in the 2015-16 season, after losing leading scorer Wesley Saunders and leading rebounder Moundou-Missi to graduation and star point guard Siyani Chambers to a torn ACL. After a productive offseason, Edosomwan has blossomed into the school's new star player.
"I went into the summer so focused," Edosomwan said. "Like, yeah, I did the China trip and I did a bunch of things, but I was so focused. I knew I had to get better. Because I know I'm a talented player, but ... what is potential? It just means you haven't proved anything yet. Now we have to actually make something of this."
He had 13 points and 16 rebounds against Providence, 18 and 15 against UMass, and 20 and 9 against Boston College. He's averaging a double-double, at 12.7 points and 10.1 rebounds a game.
"He's been terrific," Amaker said. "Obviously there's a lot of room for improvement, but I'm very proud of him.
"We have always prided ourselves on playing inside-out and Zena's the guy we go to. He's our best offensive weapon and most efficient offensive player. If he can improve his foul shooting, his numbers would be even much greater than they are."
Edosomwan readily acknowledges that shortcoming and others, including learning to counter double-teams, but says he's constantly working on himself, on and off the court.
After his freshman season ended, Edosomwan decided to take on a little side project, on top of training and his usual classwork. Inspired to push back against the negativity and dissonance over racial tensions in America, he started a multimedia project called "#HarvardBlackIs," asking students of color to pick a word to represent what black means to them and then write one or two sentences about that choice.
"I kinda wanted to do something where it was like, let's not focus on those types of [negative] things, let's just focus on self-love and positivity," he said. "I think we need a lot more of that in this world."
Edosomwan posted a video of his project to YouTube this year. He shot the video himself on campus as a freshman, and got some help editing the footage during his sophomore year—he jokes that he needed a lot of help, since he couldn't even hold the camera still when filming. He also created a Tumblr page for the project, which has since expanded to Spelman and Morehouse.
Asked why, with everything he already has going on, he chose to do something like that, Edosomwan has a simple answer.
"That's the culture here at Harvard," Edosomwan said. "The students, they're willing to take risks, and try things, and fail. I was like, 'Why am I afraid to do this? I can go ahead and do it. Don't let being a basketball player, or whatever, or people's preconceived notions of who you are, prevent you from trying something new.'"
That attitude is one reason Amaker says Edosomwan "fits Harvard like a hand to a glove."
"He's so happy to be here at Harvard, and proud to say he goes to Harvard," Amaker said. "That's what he's wanted. That's why we worked so hard to make it happen. I'm proud to be his coach."
Edosomwan admits that there were moments in his first few years in college when he wondered if he'd made the right choice, if he should've gone somewhere else.
"But there was no way I was going to leave," he said. "That's just not how I am. I'm not a quitter. There were times I was really frustrated, but that's just not in me to quit. It's really hard. I'm not gonna sit here and tell you everything's perfect.
"It's really hard sometimes to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I knew it was coming."