Basketball talent Eziyoda
Basketball talent Eziyoda "Ezi" Magbegor struts her stuff. Picture: Tim Carrafa

WNBA-bound Melbourne player blows Lauren Jackson away

YOU know you're the next big thing when Australia's greatest-ever basketball player christens you with a nickname.

First there was the legendary Lauren Jackson, then came the wildly talented Liz Cambage and now the Melbourne sensation, 20-year-old Eziyoda "Ezi" Magbegor, measuring 196cm, is next in line to be crowned Australia's queen of the court.

Jackson, four-time Olympic medallist and Australia's 2012 Games flag bearer in London, has been there and won that in international hoops and, now enjoying the game from the sidelines, is in awe of this rising star.

"I call Ezi 'smooth' because the way she moves on the court is so natural. She glides,'' Jackson said.

"She's going to be a very hard player to stop.

"Ezi's so incredibly athletic. She can jump, she's hard to guard, she's so quick, she's tall and she can move probably better than a lot of bigs in the game globally at the moment, which is no mean feat considering some of the athletes she'll be up against, especially at the Olympics.

Basketball talent Eziyoda
Basketball talent Eziyoda "Ezi" Magbegor at Edinburgh Gardens. Picture: Tim Carrafa

"As a spectator and fan, I just love watching Ezi move. It's so beautiful. She's incredible and
I can't wait to see her maximise the amazing potential she has."

The youngest player on the national squad, Magbegor will represent the Australian Opals at July's Olympics after the women's national team booked their ticket to Tokyo at the FIBA Olympic qualifying tournament in France earlier this month.

The star forward shone in Australia's second-round win over Puerto Rico, scoring 15 points, hauling in four rebounds and dishing out three assists.

A first-round selection in last year's Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) draft in America, Magbegor, who lives in Craigieburn, will head to the US in April to join the Seattle Storm and fulfil another childhood dream, playing in the world's No.1 women's league.

Magbegor became the 37th Aussie drafted to the competition since it began in 1997 and the fifth basketball player  from Down Under to be selected by the Storm, the club where Jackson had such a profound impact on court - winning two WNBA titles and being named WNBA MVP three times - that her guernsey was permanently retired at the end of her career in 2016.

"Last year was a big year and hopefully 2020 is even bigger," Magbegor says.

"We've just qualified for Tokyo, which was an incredible experience. There's WNBA, then the Olympics and I turn 21 in August. I can't stop smiling."

As a 12-year-old in 2012, Magbegor was glued to the television in the family lounge room, captivated and inspired as Jackson captained the Opals to a bronze medal and Cambage made history as the first woman to dunk at an Olympic Games.

Ezi Magbegor with her proud parents Appolus and Patience after her selection in the WNBA draft by the Seattle Storm. Picture: David Caird
Ezi Magbegor with her proud parents Appolus and Patience after her selection in the WNBA draft by the Seattle Storm. Picture: David Caird

 

Fast forward eight years and she will now take to the court alongside Cambage in Tokyo as the Opals - who have claimed five bronze and silver medals from nine Games campaigns - strive to win gold for the first time.

"It's every sportsperson's dream to make the OIympics," Magbegor said.

"I also remember watching Rio in 2016 thinking, 'I want to be there one day, I want to represent Australia at the Olympics.'

"That feeling would be just incredible and unreal, and I think about what it'll feel like now we have qualified. It will be pretty special. It's amazing how quick it's come around. It seemed unrealistic and that I was far away from that goal but now it's within reach."

Magbegor was born in New Zealand to Nigerian parents Appolus and Patience. The family migrated to Australia and settled in Oak Park in Melbourne's north when Magbegor was four years old.

She is the third of four tight-knit siblings - Elo, 24, Ovie, 21, and AJ, 15.

"Growing up, it was always busy at home,'' she recalled.

"When I was nine, I started playing basketball and became pretty sporty. We all played in the VJBL (Victorian Junior Basketball League) Friday night competition after school and Mum and Dad would drive us around and we'd get lifts because they had to get four kids to four different games all on at the same time. It was pretty hectic.

"It was great having siblings to play with all the time. We are all very close."

At 16, Magbegor moved to Canberra on a scholarship at the Australian Institute of Sport following in the footsteps of a plethora of Australian sporting champions who began their path to elite careers in the nation's capital.

"Being the first kid to move out of home was a pretty big deal and family means a lot to me,'' she said.

Ezi Magbegor with Lauren Jackson and then sport minister Bridget McKenzie. Picture: Stuart Milligan
Ezi Magbegor with Lauren Jackson and then sport minister Bridget McKenzie. Picture: Stuart Milligan

"It was hard at first. The first few months were OK but the third month I started to get really homesick. What was hardest was missing seeing my little brother grow up. He had my older brother and sister but I missed seeing him graduate from grade 6 and go into year 7. I've been back home for a while now so I get to see all those milestones.

"I wanted to be a basketballer but when I said it, it was always a whisper. I never said it out loud because I didn't think I could do it as a profession.

"When I was offered a scholarship, I realised I could do it. I had an opportunity to get better, develop and train with experienced players and amazing coaches.

"Knowing about and having watched Lauren, Liz and so many of the incredible Australian female basketballers who came before me, I was able to learn more about them and their experiences in junior basketball at the AIS.

"It's pretty special that I've been able to watch and learn from them and now I get to play with amazing athletes like Liz for Australia. She's such a dynamo on the court. Learning from her, and my teammates, is great for me and it's really special to play with those athletes I grew up idolising."

Magbegor burst on to the international scene in 2016 at the FIBA Under-17 World Championships in Spain, helping lead the Australian Sapphires junior team to a gold medal while earning tournament MVP honours and selection in the All-Star Five.

Opting to stay in Australia and play in the Women's National Basketball League (WNBL), the country's longest-running elite women's sporting competition, rather than take up lucrative college offers in the US, Magbegor continued to develop and shine on home soil, culminating in another gold medal, this time on national senior debut with the Opals at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast and later a silver medal at the World Championships in Spain.

Ezi Magbegor runs past New Zealand’s Antonia Edmondson at the 2018 Comm Games in Brisbane. Picture: Tracey Nearmy
Ezi Magbegor runs past New Zealand’s Antonia Edmondson at the 2018 Comm Games in Brisbane. Picture: Tracey Nearmy

"I've been lucky to have played in some big games already so early in my career, and in different teams I've had different roles," she says.

"It's pretty special playing in those big games. Comm Games, especially in front of a home crowd and my family, was really special.

"Being selected for the Opals as a teenager, at such a young age, and getting the chance to represent my country was just amazing. When I step on the court to play for the Opals it's a mix of nerves and excitement, a feeling like no other. Also knowing the hard work you've put it goes a long way."

On an early autumn April morning last year, Magbegor and her parents arrived at manager Bruce Kaider's Essendon North office to watch the WNBA draft.

Kaider had been on the phone all night fielding calls from several of the US clubs interested in his young gun. While there was
a tonne of interest in the athletic forward, nobody was really sure where she would land.

A bundle of nerves, the quietly spoken gentle giant let out a squeal of relief and excitement when Seattle called out her name with pick No.12.

Her wide, beaming smile quickly followed.

"Draft day came around pretty quickly. There was so much anticipation, I didn't know which club would draft me or what number I'd go. There was a lot of emotion. Looking back now, I was grateful having my family and Bruce there and it was a really special day," Magbegor recalls.

"As an athlete you can control your preparation and performance but I had no control over this situation. I was pretty nervous. The feeling when they read my name out, it really was a mix of emotions - so much relief, excitement and overall happiness."

Following her campaign with the Melbourne Boomers - who host defending champions Canberra in game two of their semi-final series at Wantirna South's State Basketball Centre on Sunday, February 23 - Magbegor will continue to fulfil national team commitments before heading to Seattle to begin what she hopes is a long and successful WNBA career.

Basketball rising star Ezi Magbegor in Melbourne Boomers kit shows her span in central Melbourne. Picture: Lawrence Pinder
Basketball rising star Ezi Magbegor in Melbourne Boomers kit shows her span in central Melbourne. Picture: Lawrence Pinder

Beyond the baseline, Magbegor was this month announced as sporting brand Spalding's first female ambassador and is also studying psychology at Deakin University.

She cherishes time spent with family and friends and enjoys reading and writing in her journal. The book currently on her bedside table? Becoming by Michelle Obama. A woman she's inspired by, but her greatest role model is a little closer to home.

"I look up to my mum and older sister. They are both such strong people and have gone through a lot," Magbegor says.

"I look up to them and want to be as strong as they are. My mum is a hard worker who has always put us kids first. Her strength and care are attributes I want to have."

Now, as one of world basketball's most exciting young prospects, she too is a role model. After each Melbourne Boomers home game, Magbegor and her teammates spend about 45 minutes on court signing autographs and taking photos with fans of all ages.

"I love meeting the kids. When I see a child wearing my singlet with my name and number on it, it's pretty crazy and blows me away," Magbegor says.

"Having a little chat with the boys and girls after the game is such a highlight for me. They're excited and they always say, 'You played well' even if you didn't, which is cute.

"I see plenty of Coburg Giants and Northern Rebels girls, the teams where I played my basketball growing up, and that makes me really proud.

"Being a role model to me means carrying yourself well and showing kids there isn't a gap between them and me. Accessibility is important. Being down to earth and approachable means a lot to me. It's also playing well on the court but overall being a good person and teammate."

With a swag of accolades already under her belt and the world at her feet (size 13 men's shoe), you get the feeling it's just the beginning for Magbegor.