Festus Ezeli's life, career paths take him back to Africa

Festus Ezeli has come a long way – literally and figuratively.

Born in Nigeria, he moved to the United States in 2004 as a 15-year-old and a year later he got cut the first time he tried out for his high school basketball team.

Now he is back in Nigeria as an NBA champion.

Ezeli will play for the Africa Team in Saturday’s NBA Africa Game, a first-of-its-kind event for that continent that will take place Saturday in Johannesburg, South Africa.

“To bring NBA basketball out there just shows how much basketball has grown in that continent," Ezeli told Yahoo Sports, in a lenghty piece about his life and his professional journey. "Pretty soon, Africa is going to be a contender in basketball. Eventually, it's going to rival the United States. We just haven't tapped that resource yet. This is the beginning."

Between his arrival in the United States and his recent turn as a role player for the Golden State Warriors in their run to the 2015 NBA championship, Ezeli spent five years at Vanderbilt, where he developed into an NBA draft pick (30th overall in 2012).

His mother preferred he go to Harvard, something each of them recounted for Yahoo, but Ezeli was interested in the best possible balance between education and basketball.

Now his mother would rather he not return to Africa because of concerns for his safety. Ezeli again made his own decision.

"I've been beyond lucky, blessed or whatever it is," Ezeli said via Yahoo. "I've had people come into my life that I never expected. I've had people come and support me that I never expected. They all are a part of my journey.

"… Nothing is impossible. You just have to be able to dream big and work hard for it."

(Photo: Getty Images)

Jul 31, 2015 11:59 AM

David Price goes flat after trade to Toronto

Former Vandy ace David Price is on his way north of the border after a trade sent him from Detroit to Toronto. That's a fairly short trip, but it's a good thing Price isn't scheduled to start for the Jays until Sunday. He caught a flat tire and has been tweeting the experience. The sort of tires he needs were not immediately available but a quick interview with Dan Patrick saved the day. Price's beloved ride, Jenny, will be ready to go in no time and the five-time All-Star should make it to Rogers Centre no problem — unfortunately, for this Royals fan.

Jul 31, 2015 11:57 AM

Belmont alumna's golf apparel venture takes off

Over at our sister blog Southern/alpha, Ayumi Fukuda Bennett has the story on the promising start of Sydney Elizabeth, a women's golf apparel company launched last year by Belmont then-student Sydney Hudson. Since launching formally online, the business has run through its inventory twice and Hudson now is working on custom gear for eight high school and college teams.

Though the business is still very young, Hudson’s next big goal is to be a vendor at the PGA Merchandise Show within the next year. And as she continues to grow her online traffic and physical presence in more stores, her golf apparel has extended to all customers who seek trendy, functional attire.

“A lot of girls buy them to wear with a t-shirt and sandals to go shopping or lunch with their friends!” said Hudson. “It has taken off faster than I ever imagined and I feel so blessed to get to wake up every morning and do what I love. I have God, my family, and friends to thank for that.”

Jul 31, 2015 11:44 AM

Reasons to believe: Titans in 2015

This is the time of year when anything is possible.

The Tennessee Titans, having missed out on the postseason for six straight years, have yet to lose a game. Of course, they haven’t won one either.

It is a challenge to think this team can craft a major turnaround with — among other things — a rookie quarterback, no proven running back and a continued transition to new schemes that were implemented in 2014. Yet for those inclined to do so, there is no current evidence to dispute their point of view.

If ever there was a time for optimism, this is it. So we offer it up, matched by an equal dose of pessimism for those who are convinced nothing notable has changed under coach Ken Whisenhunt and General Manager Ruston Webster.

 
Three reasons to believe the Titans will be a playoff team in 2015

The new kid: Marcus Mariota was named the starting quarterback about the time the Titans used the second overall pick in the 2015 draft to get him. In short, the guy is a winner. He got the 2014 Heisman Trophy, won 36 games as a three-year starter in college and threw 105 touchdown passes with just 14 interceptions at Oregon. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III recently got their respective teams to the playoffs as rookies. So it can happen.

The old man: The addition of Dick Lebeau to the coaching staff might have been more important than any offseason player transaction. There’s not a team in the league that doesn’t employ at least a few concepts on defense that Lebeau, who is 77 years old, pioneered. He has proven that he can make stars of high draft picks and undrafted longshots alike with his scheme that emphasizes speed and can attack an offense from most anywhere.

The bad boys: Increasingly over the last couple years, the Titans have been willing to take on guys who come with character concerns but who also have undeniable ability. They drafted tackle Taylor Lewan in the first round last year and wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham in the second round this year. They also added free agent cornerback Perrish Cox this offseason. They all offer the potential to provide significant upgrades — just as long as they can stay out of trouble.

 
Three reasons to believe the Titans will miss the playoffs once again

The quarterback: For all of Mariota’s obvious virtues, he ran a spread offense at Oregon and the vast majority of spread quarterbacks have struggled with the transition to the NFL. For crying out loud, the guy never had called a play from a huddle until his first workout with the Titans. It’s simply asking too much for him to learn all he needs to know about a pro style offense and elevate this team at the same time.

The coach: Yes, Whisenhunt (pictured) led the Arizona Cardinals to their only Super Bowl appearance in his second season as head coach of that franchise. Then, though, he went 8-8 in his first season and only improved by one game (9-7) before his team got hot in the playoffs. Overall, his record as a head coach is 45-65 and he has not had a winning record in his last four seasons in that role.

The talent: Tennessee has had one player named to the Pro Bowl in the last four years — and that one, cornerback Alterraun Verner, left in free agency the ensuing offseason. The interior of the offensive line is the same group that struggled much of the last two seasons, and the defense does not have a proven pass rusher (no one has led the team in sacks in back-to-back seasons since Kyle Vanden Bosch in 2005, '06 and '07). Last year’s leading rusher, Bishop Sankey, had 569 yards. Examples of where this team comes up short are abundant.

 
The bottom line

Yes, it happens in the NFL. Teams got from terrible to the top (or at least close to it) in short order. One recent example is the Kansas City Chiefs, who were 2-14 in 2012 but then went 11-5 and made the playoffs the following season, their first under coach Andy Reid. That, however, is the exception. And that Chiefs team had a handful of Pro Bowl players in place.

The Titans remain very much a work in progress, and there is a lot that must be done before this franchise legitimately can ponder the possibility of a playoff berth.


(Photo: Getty Images)

Jul 31, 2015 11:00 AM

Newgarden out front when it comes to leading IndyCar laps

It is not clear where Josef Newgarden will race next season.

The Hendersonville native is competing on the IndyCar Series this season on a one-year contract with Carpenter Fisher Hartman Racing. At 25 years old and with two victories and one runner-up finish in 2015, he could be a target for higher-profile teams in a sport desperate for more American stars.

For now, though, the first place to look for Newgarden is in first place. Through 13 races, he is the IndyCar leader in laps led this season.

OUT IN FRONT
A look at the 2015 IndyCar Series leaders in laps led:

Josef Newgarden – 296
Will Power – 270
Scott Dixon – 250
Tony Kanaan – 186
Helio Castroneves – 168

Newgarden led a race-high 111 laps July 18 at Iowa, the most recent race, and was out front for 30 (tied for the most), including the last one, June 14 at Toronto. In his first victory, he led 46 of the 90 laps at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

He has led 296 laps in 13 races this season. Prior to 2015, he was out front for 21 laps in 51 career starts.

Next on the IndyCar schedule is Sunday’s Honda Indy Car 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. A year ago on the 2.258-mile road course that has 13 turns, Newgarden started on the front row and took the lead on lap 62. He stayed in front for seven laps, which at the time matched his career-high.

“We had a strong event there last year so we should be able to put really good race cars on the track this year,” Newgarden said, according to nextgenindy.com.

Chances are he’ll even put it out front, at least for a time.

 
(Photo: Getty Images)

Jul 31, 2015 10:00 AM

Whisenhunt gets rare opportunity to improve upon 2-14 season

Ken Whisenhunt knows what people want to hear about how the Tennessee Titans will do this season.

“What I would like to say is we’ll be better,” the second-year head coach said Thursday. “I mean, you know better than 2-14 isn’t hard – I hope. So, be a better football team.”

Whether or not he can make that happen remains to be seen because, in terms of franchise history, he is in uncharted territory.

When the Titans went 2-14 last year, it was the third time the franchise sunk to such depths. Each of the first two times it happened the head coach did not even make it to the end of that season, let alone the start of the next one.

Each of the first two times the team, then the Houston Oilers, did improve the following season.

The positive sign for Whisenhunt is that in the most recent case, 1995, a 7-9 mark immediately followed the 2-14. That five-game jump included a bit of coaching continuity. Jeff Fisher was named interim coach after Jack Pardee was fired en route to 2-14 and got the job on a full-time basis the following year.

That was not the case the first time it happened.

BOUNCING BACK?
A look at how the Houston Oilers answered the previous two 2-14 seasons in franchise history:

1994: 2-14; coach Jack Pardee-x
1995: 7-9; coach Jeff Fisher
(x-Pardee was fired and Fisher was named interim coach with five games remaining in 1994)

• 1983: 2-14; coach Chuck Studley-x
• 1984: 3-13: coach Hugh Campbell
(x-Studley was fired and Ed Biles was named interim coach with six games remaining in 1982)

When the players reported for training camp Thursday, they were not so much concerned with the impact of a 2-14 season on the coach as they were with the impact on themselves and their fans.

“We owe this city something,” left tackle Taylor Lewan said. “… I mean, this is such a great city. Everywhere I go people are – even though we had such a rough season last year – are just positive and have a great outlook on it. We might not have the tradition of the Steelers or the Packers or something like that, but it’s something we owe this city. And we owe it to ourselves.”

They’re also not the Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts, St. Louis Rams or Carolina Panthers. All of them went 2-14 in the four years prior to last season and all of them changed coaches the next year. Indianapolis in 2012 and Kansas City in 2013 both made the playoffs. Fisher virtually repeated his Houston performance and led St. Louis to a 7-8-1 mark in 2012.

No team that went 2-14 between 2009 and 2013 stood pat. Last season two teams finished with that mark (Tampa Bay was the other) and both gave their coach a second chance. Absent a change at the top, players are still expecting things to be different.

“I think up and down the football team … guys are really motivated to have a better season, to build upon what we’ve already set as a standard in OTAs,” rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota said. “As a rookie coming in that’s exciting. It’s fun to be a part of that. I hope I can build upon this attitude and make sure that as we continue forward we’re always getting better.”

As Whisenhunt said, it will be tough to get worse.

Briefly: Veteran defensive tackle Sammie Hill was placed on the physically unable to perform list and will spend the first part of camp doing conditioning work after having spent a good portion of the offseason rehabbing from knee surgery. Whisenhunt said he did think it would be long before Hill was on the active roster.

Isaako Aaitui (6-foot-4, 307 pounds) was signed to replace Hill. Undrafted in 2011, he has spent time with Miami, the New York Jets, New Orleans and Washington but has appeared in just four games (all with Miami).

Also, tight end Dorin Dickerson was placed on injured reserve.

(Photo: Getty Images)
 

Jul 31, 2015 5:15 AM

General manager says Price makes Blue Jays look more like winners

The Toronto Blue Jays have been good enough this season to be in the playoff chase with 60 games remaining.

They expect David Price to make them better.

Toronto, which has not made the postseason since 1993, when it won the second of back-to-back World Series titles, traded for the left-hander out of Vanderbilt on Thursday, a move their general manager believes gives them a chance to win it all this season.

"We really haven't had a true No. 1 since Roy Halladay was here [from 1998-2009]," Alex Anthopoulos said, according to MLB.com. "You kind of forget what it was like, the innings, the expectations of winning day in and day out.

“… I think getting guys like Price, that type of impact, those No. 1 starters can make you a great team all by themselves.”

Price, a five-time All-Star and the 2012 A.L. Cy Young Award winner, is among the Major Leagues’ top five in innings pitched (146) and is in the top 12 in strikeouts (138) and ERA (2.53). He was 9-4 in 21 starts for the Tigers prior to the trade.

He also has pitched in the playoffs five times in his seven MLB seasons.

Chances are he won’t be with the Blue Jays for long. He is scheduled to be a free agent at the end of the season.

For Anthopoulos, whose team was four games back in the A.L. wild card race at the time of the trade, the future is for another day.

"These types of players, the great superstar players, rarely become available,” the general manager said. “We had an opportunity to do it, it's more of a reflection on the belief of the guys that we have right now on the roster.

“We think we're a good team and adding a guy like Price, we think makes us that much stronger and gives us a chance to win.”

And if Price helps them do that, he’ll have a lasting impact – regardless of how long he stays.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Jul 31, 2015 5:10 AM

Fulmer: Butch Jones avoids 'asinine' actions of his predecessors

Philip Fulmer no longer has a say in what happens with the University of Tennessee football program.

That does not mean people don’t want to hear what he has to say on the subject, though.

The latest example was Monday, when he spoke at the Hardin County Sports Hall of Fame banquet. The man who led the Volunteers to 15 bowl games (eight victories) in 17 years stuck to the philosophy if you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all. When he discussed what has happened since 2008, his final season, he stuck to current coach Butch Jones and did not mention either Lane Kiffin or Derek Dooley, according to The Jackson Sun.

“It’s his program. It’s completely his program,” Fulmer said, according to the newspaper. “But he wants to know how we did it and all those things, and I’ll help him any way I can.

“ ... He reached out to the past coaches and players, you know, and welcomed everybody back. What the other guys did was asinine. To alienate the very people that are part of the legacy was silly. But anyway, we’re on the right track.”

Under Jones, the Volunteers made it to a bowl game last season, their first since 2010 Dooley’s first season, and recorded their first bowl victory since 2007, when Fulmer was still coach.

Thursday, Tennessee was ranked 25th in the preseason Amway Coaches poll.

“I think we went through a really unnecessary hard time and I think Butch has got us back on track,” Fulmer said. “Because he’s doing it as we did it, recruiting well and coaching them hard. I like what he’s doing.

“We went through just a terrible time for no reason.”

Jul 31, 2015 5:05 AM

Mariota laughs off rumor that desire to surf stalled contract talks

Marcus Mariota did not take a stand about his desire to surf during contract negotiations with the Tennessee Titans.

In fact, the second pick in the 2015 NFL draft said Thursday he never stood on a surfboard until rumors circulated in recent weeks that his desire to take part in the water sport was a point of contention with the team.

As a joke, therefore, he said he and some buddies decided they should do it.

“I had tried it before and I wasn’t too good at it,” Mariota said. “So I kind of brushed it off. This time around I was able to stand up and catch a few waves. So it was fun.

“… I had never really surfed in my life, to be honest with you.”

He stressed that his preferred water toy is the boogie board, which is considered far less dangerous. It’s still a means to ride a wave but people do so by laying on a small piece of hydrodynamic foam.

Even so he rated his performance surfing that day as “not bad, actually.”

The native Hawaiian never has been an NFL quarterback either but the Titans expect him to do even better in that regard.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt reiterated on the day that players reported for the start of training camp that he plans for Mariota to be the starter in Week 1 and that the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner has shown a promising ability to quickly learn some of the particulars of an NFL offense.

Undoubtedly, the amount of time Mariota spent on the practice field during rookie orientation, organized team activities (OTAs) and minicamp greatly exceeded his preparation to surf. The hope, therefore, is he is much better than “not bad” when he finally gets to stand in the pocket.

“I called him afterward and said, ‘Really? Surfing clause?’” Whisenhunt said. “We had a good laugh about that. I know Marcus does a good job getting himself ready. I’m not worried about that.”

Mariota said he likewise was nonplussed by the fact that he was the last of this year’s first-round NFL picks to sign a contract. He and the Titans finally finalized their deal on July 21.

“I trusted the entire process with my agent and the entire Titans organization,” he said. “I knew that it would get done.”

He was so confident, in fact, that he decided to have a little fun in the meantime.

“I think when we had our surfboards out there, the reactions people had of like, ‘You’re not supposed to be doing that,’” he said. “It was funny to see.”

(Photo: Getty Images)
 

Jul 30, 2015 2:35 PM

University of Tennessee sets annual athletics fund-raising record

The University of Tennessee athletics department set a record for financial donations and membership in the Tennessee Fund reached its highest level in five years, the school announced Thursday.

UT said it received $48.4 million in cash and support in the fiscal year, which ended June 30. That broke the previous high of $47 million set in 2008.

The Tennessee Fund, the athletics department’s fundraising arm, currently has 12,954 members, the most since 2010.

From UT’s athletics website:

Annual giving to the Tennessee Fund accounted for $28.3 million (58 percent) of the total figure, an increase of $3.65 million from 2013-14. Gifts given specifically to support capital projects totaled $12.6 million. The remaining dollars raised, approximately $7.5 million came in the form of endowments, planned gifts and gift-in-kind contributions.

Since launching the Campaign for Comprehensive Excellence in the fall of 2013, the Tennessee Fund has raised more than $112 million in cash and pledges, including over $31 million for capital projects, over $21 million in planned gifts, and $5.3 million to fund educational initiatives including the SouthEast Bank Renewing Academic Commitment program.

“This is another illustration of the tremendous passion and generosity of our donors,” Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics Dave Hart said in a release. “Their generosity directly funds scholarships for the young men and women in our athletics program and affords us the ability to continue to enhance the student-athlete experience at the University of Tennessee."

Jul 30, 2015 2:02 PM