Basketball

Australian basketballer Ezi Magbegor rolled with the punches of a tumultuous 2020 and emerged as one of her sport’s biggest stars. Now, as the WNBA champion embarks on the WNBL season, her sights are firmly set on the Tokyo Olympics. By Luke Dodemaide.

Ezi Magbegor shoots to the top

Ezi Magbegor sets up a play for the Seattle Storm during game two of the 2020 WNBA finals against the Las Vegas Aces last month.
Credit: AP Photo / Phelan M. Ebenhack

A series of strange things happened on the way to Eziyoda Magbegor’s basketball coronation. There was a global pandemic. A WNBA draft she couldn’t attend in person and instead watched live on her iPhone. The knowledge that in her new base of Seattle she’d forever be in the shadow of another Australian, Lauren Jackson, who just happens to be the most celebrated basketball player in the city.

Then before Eziyoda, or Ezi as she is known, got to even bounce a basketball competitively at the Angel of the Winds Arena, Covid-19 shut down the sports world. She was shipped off to Florida and the “wubble”, the WNBA’s equivalent of the NBA’s “bubble”.

“It was definitely a tough decision to make with the whole pandemic going on and just the uncertainty of the league,” Magbegor, 21, tells The Saturday Paper. “Because we didn’t know it was going to happen until the very last minute.”

Magbegor, who was born to Nigerian parents in New Zealand before moving with her family to Australia at age six, has always been known for her ability to improvise. As a child, she took up basketball only because she was tagging along to the local courts with her siblings. “I sort of started playing by following my older brother and sister’s footsteps,” says Magbegor, recalling her first visits to the local courts in Coburg, in Melbourne’s north.

“I was seven and I guess it took me a while to find my feet in the sport, and sort of understand that it was something that I wanted to do in the future.”

She says she was “unco-ordinated” and more inclined to bury her nose in a book rather than race to the court.

“I loved the whole social aspect of the game when I was like nine or 10,” Magbegor says. “But I didn’t think I was good enough back then. It wasn’t until around 16, when I was selected for state sides, that I began to take things seriously.” This was 2016, but when Magbegor tells the story it sounds like a lifetime ago.

As her body grew into her 194-centimetre frame, she impressed at under-17 level for the Australian Sapphires and won WNBL rookie of the year for her 2017 season with the Canberra Capitals. She then signed with the Melbourne Boomers to be closer to home, debuted for the national team at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, winning a gold medal with the Opals in the process, and began to attract the attention of international scouts.

Lauren Jackson, who won three WNBA MVPs and two WNBA championships with the Storm, says Seattle is a natural fit for Magbegor’s game.

“I think in terms of her pure, raw athletic ability she is far ahead of anyone I have ever seen,” Jackson tells The Saturday Paper.

“Her aerobic ability is out of this world. Someone her height and the way she can jump and move, it is very rare. It looks like it comes very naturally for her as an athlete. It is pretty special.”

The decision on whether to compete in the unique 2020 season was a tough one, but on the back of Seattle’s veteran leadership group, the Storm were able to field their full 12-player roster, the only team in the league to achieve that feat.

On top of the coronavirus, there was unrest erupting in the United States sparked by George Floyd’s murder. Following the shooting of another African–American man, Jacob Blake, the WNBA did not take the court. When they did, they wore T-shirts that read “arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor”. Taylor was fatally shot by plainclothes police officers during a raid on her Louisville, Kentucky apartment.

The Black Lives Matter protests gave Magbegor extra motivation on the court.

“One of the main things that we stated going into the bubble was we were playing for more than just basketball,” she says. “We were playing for social justice and racial issues that are going on in America and all over the world as well. Knowing what we did throughout that season and what we achieved, I think we made that experience more worthwhile and more impactful.”

 

If the best way to honour and bring attention to a cause is to excel in your chosen field, then no team achieved this quite like the Storm.

Fronted by two-time WNBA finals MVP Breanna Stewart and 11-time WNBA all-star Sue Bird, the Storm overwhelmed the rest of the competition before defeating the Las Vegas Aces 3-0 in the finals to claim their fourth WNBA championship. The Storm clinched the best-of-five series with a virtuoso 92-59 victory.

“We did it by playing hard defence,” says Magbegor. “That’s what Seattle basketball is and what they’ve built the program to be. WNBA championships are really hard to come by and to be a part of the Storm and their history as well is something great.”

Having arrived back in Australia to prepare for the WNBL season, which began this week, Magbegor once again faced a uniquely 2020 situation: quarantine. She took that in her stride as well.

“I’m excited for the season ahead,” she says. “With there being no imports this year, it’s different. Obviously Liz [Cambage] is back.”

Magbegor returns to the Melbourne Boomers while Cambage represents their crosstown rivals, the Southside Flyers. They are two of the marquee names in a season that will take place in a Queensland hub and, despite the challenges of 2020, has secured a near unprecedented amount of coverage.

“I think the WNBL is at the point where it is growing,” says Magbegor. “Not just the WNBL, but women’s sport. So to be able to ride that wave with other sports is great.”

In hushed tones, the basketball world is also eagerly awaiting the delayed Tokyo Olympic Games, which, when and if they occur, will see Magbegor become a cornerstone of the Australian Opals’ gold medal chances.

“I’m waiting for the next few months to plan it out, but I’m focused on the WNBL season now and hopefully we can get a few training camps with the national team in place,” she says. “Hopefully the Olympics end up happening next year.”

It has been an intense, and this year wild, ride since Magbegor first followed her siblings to the neighbourhood courts in Coburg. But instead of settling for a “holding pattern” season in 2020, Magbegor has taken the opportunity to become a bona fide Australian star of the sport. Whenever the Tokyo Olympics take place, you can guarantee Magbegor will be ready. She always is.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 14, 2020 as "Ezi does it".

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Luke Dodemaide is an award-winning sports writer and editor based in Melbourne.