Harvard’s Zena Edosomwan will not read this, but he’s come a long way to lead

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Even discounting the fact that Zena Edosomwan was Harvard’s first big-time basketball recruit a few years ago, it is abundantly clear that he is cut from a different cloth.

Unless, of course, you believe that it is easy to find the bilingual son of a Nigerian immigrant in Division I athletics these days — the second language being Chinese. Or that such a performer would credibly claim he has never read a word written about him.

That being the case, it should come as no surprise that he has also chosen the road less traveled. And never mind any brambles and potholes he has encountered along the way.

Edosomwan, a 6-9 junior center/forward, is having a breakout season for the Crimson this winter, though not exactly enjoying it. Especially not now, seeing as Harvard (10-14) has lost six of seven heading into Friday’s game at Columbia on ASN.

“It would be a lot more fun, obviously, if we were in a better position as a team,” said Edosomwan, who leads the Ivy League in rebounding (10.3) and is eighth in scoring (14.3).

Still, he is showing signs that he is the player he was projected to be when he came out of Harvard-Westlake High School in Los Angeles (via Northfield-Mount Hermon, a Massachusetts-based prep school). Scout.com ranked him as the nation’s No. 72 recruit after his senior year of high school, and while various reports have put the number of scholarship offers he received at 39, he said it was more like “40-some.”

Never before had Harvard attracted a top-100 talent. But Edosomwan liked the Crimson’s coaches and players, loved Boston, loved everything about the school — particularly the academic challenge, since he had always been a studious sort. And he was very conscious of the fact that as he was making his decision, Harvard alum Jeremy Lin was making a splash in the NBA, a place he one day hopes to be.

But more than anything else, Edosomwan relished the idea of zigging when everybody else would have zagged.

“I’ve always taken different routes, and I kind of like it,” he said. “I kind of try to be in my own lane and I don’t really care about what other people think, as long as I’m making a difference.”

Credit his mom, Kehinde Ololade, for instilling that in him. She emigrated from Nigeria in 1987, at 22, with the idea of starting her own business, something she would not have been able to do in her native land. She first lived in Houston, where Zena was born, then moved to Los Angeles, where in 1998 she set up the hair salon she still operates.

So when her son mulled moving East, far be it from her to stand in his way. As it was related by Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn in 2012 (in one of the many stories Zena has declined to read), Kehinde’s message to him was simple: “I don’t want you to consider me at all. I want you to dream your own dream.”


He ultimately spurned such schools as Texas, UCLA, USC, Cal and Washington, committing to the Crimson on March 11, 2012, the same day the team earned its first ever NCAA bid. That was followed by a year at prep school and two years as a reserve, while some talented upperclassmen led the Crimson to back-to-back Ivy crowns.

He learned, though. Learned about the details of his craft, about the importance of practice, about mental toughness.

“You have to be able to respond to adversity quickly over time: How’s your spirit going to be?” he said. “Because if not, there’s another guy waiting to take your spot.”

Long interested in China — he believes it’s because he had high school friends from that nation — he has learned the language, learned the culture. He also immersed himself in an education group that established a student-to-student connection with those in China, notably during a trip there last summer that he hopes to reprise this year.

Involvement in such academic endeavors is, again, a big reason he came to Harvard to begin with. At a place like that, he said, “These things aren’t, like, amazing. It’s more just like, ‘You can do it.’ It’s a possibility.”

Edosomwan, whose biological father lives in Nigeria, was introduced to basketball by his stepdad, Muyiwa Ololade, when he was in fifth grade — and jarringly so. Zena was a heavyset kid (he went with “really fat”) and he recalled sitting in the family’s Southern California home one Saturday morning, eating Cocoa Puffs and watching cartoons, when Muyiwa said he wanted to take him somewhere.

Just like that, Zena found himself in a gym, and on a court. And, he said, “I really didn’t like it at all” — especially when a kid blocked his shot and called him a “fat ass.”

“I’ve come a long way,” Edosomwan said with a laugh.

He grew to like the game in middle school, as he slimmed down and began shooting up toward his current height. Still, there was work to do; he didn’t play varsity until his junior year at Harvard-Westlake. But by the following season, every college wanted him.

He chose the road less traveled. No surprise there.

Above and middle: Harvard’s Zena Edosomwan, the bilingual son of a Nigerian immigrant, leads the Ivy League in rebounding (10.3) and is eighth in scoring (14.3). (Courtesy Laura Jacobsen/Harvard Athletics and Jay Metzger/Harvard Athletics)

Gordie Jones

Gordie Jones is a freelance writer based in Lititz, Pa.