Tuesday, February 4, 2020 9:34 pm
By Mike Henson
Temi Fagbenle’s basketball journey began on a court marked with tramlines, not free-throw lines.
A little over a decade ago, she was playing tennis with her younger sister in north London, without a single hoop dream in her head.
Last month, she played a low-key pick-up game with three of her brothers on a neighbourhood court in the capital.
The locations are only few miles apart. The cast of characters drawn from the same family. The switch apparently simple. But the route between the two times and places is a fantastical trip via Harvard and Hollywood, Lagos and Los Angeles, Stratford and Salamanca.
And the most exciting chapter may be about to be written.
“We had a plan to be the next Serena and Venus. It didn’t turn out that way.”
Temi and her younger sister Torera had just finished a practice session, hitting with a hired coach, when her father Tunde approached.
Six foot three inches tall, 14 years old, with a bullwhip forehand, a concussive serve and an endless appetite to learn and improve, Temi was undeniably a prospect.
But, just when many tennis parents are pushing their offspring on, Tunde switched tracks.
“After that session, my dad said I should move to basketball,” she remembers.
It was no glaring glitch in Temi’s tennis technique, no deficit in Tunde’s belief, just a clear-headed reading of the odds and outlay.
“I didn’t really like the idea, but I understood,” Temi continues. “Coming from a big family of 12 kids it was going to get a bit expensive paying for all these sessions.
“I had only started playing tennis quite late, and if you want to be a pro you have to have a real knack at it or have started in the womb.”
Tunde’s plan was to find a sport that would invest in his daughter’s future, rather than continuing to chase the losses of a late start in tennis.
And while 11 siblings may have stretched family finances, they also broadened Temi’s horizons.
Her brother Dapo had already left home in Barnet, riding a basketball scholarship to university in the United States. It was an example she was determined to follow.
“I knew basketball could be a good chance for me to get a free education at great institutions,” she says.
“I felt so stifled and restricted by the monotony of going to secondary school, doing the same thing over and over. It was too boring.”
It quickly got less so.
Less than two years after taking up basketball, she had soared through the ranks of her Haringey Angels basketball club to win a full scholarship to Blair Academy – an exclusive £49,000-a-year prep school set in beautiful countryside, 60 miles west of New York, that British former NBA star Luol Deng attended on a similar offer.
The rapid rise continued on the other side of the Atlantic. She led Blair to a State title, was named in the All American team and, by the time it came to think about university, was fielding offers, that to others would have been as precious as biblical parchment, in bin bags.
“There were more than 60 schools trying to recruit me. Each of them would send you letters every day it felt like. I would have bin bags full to go through,” she says.
For appearances’ sake, Fagbenle narrowed the field to a stellar shortlist of Duke, Boston College, Columbia University and Harvard. But in reality, her destination was already decided.
“I knew I wanted to go to Harvard because academics are such a priority in our family, it is such a bastion of academia all over the world,” she says.
“Wherever you are if you say that name, people know what that means. It was a no-brainer. It was an easy decision.”
She duly enrolled on an anthropology course at one of the world’s most famous seats of learning.
But Fagbenle’s basketball skills took her back home too. After leaving her friends and family behind at the age of 15 for the United States, she had returned each summer break to represent England and Great Britain at age-grade levels.
An outsider for a spot at London 2012, she came through a gruelling multi-day X-Factor style selection process in Surrey to win a place on the squad for her home Olympics at just 19 years old.
“That week was just crazy,” remembers Fagbenle.
“My knee was really hurting me and I would be popping paracetamol and ibuprofen to get the edge off the pain. Day by day people would be eliminated, it was kind of a fight to the death.
“When me and my room mate Dominique Allen made the final cut, we just were ecstatic, jumping on our beds and shouting.
“I hadn’t even played a college game yet, but I was going to the Olympics.”
Fagbenle played in all five games at London 2012 – “everyone on the other teams just looked like these big women and I was just this little girl compared to them” – before returning to the States to complete her degree and kick-start her college sporting career.
Now 27, she has turned into a ‘big woman’ of the world game herself. Since graduating from Harvard, she has been drafted by top-flight Minnesota Lynx, when she won an WNBA title, and represented clubs in Polkowice in Poland, where she won consecutive national championships and claimed MVP accolades, Botas in Turkey and Salamanca in Spain. She’s picked up a Masters degree in Public Relations from University of Southern California for good measure as well.
After Great Britain missed out on qualification for Rio 2016, Fagbenle is spearheading their attempts to return to Olympic action at Tokyo 2020.
This February, Great Britain’s women will play China, Spain and South Korea in a four-team round-robin, with the top three earning their ticket to Japan.
“It was great to be on that stage at London. For those that went to the first Olympics in 2012 we know we just have to get back,” she says.
An Olympian, a Harvard graduate, a WNBA title winner, with a fledgling modelling career, acting ambitions (“I have a specific look but I would love to be a gladiator/witch/queen in fantasy type movie”) and a small business (“premium confectionary coming to your online store soon”) about to be launched.
The most gallingly successful member of the family, right? Well, the Fagbenles are a little different.
Twelve children born to former journalist Tunde and six different mothers, spread over a 39-year age-gap and several continents, but connected by modern technology and an all-conquering approach to life.
Perhaps most famous is OT Fagbenle, who is a bona-fide Hollywood star after starring opposite Elisabeth Moss in the hit television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. He is also signed up for Black Widow – the next Marvel blockbuster.
Fellow older brothers Luti and Dapo are top producers and directors respectively, creating music videos for Beyonce, Drake, Stormzy, Nicky Minaj and many more.
There is Seyi, an in-demand music producer, brought in by a host of blue-chip brands to sharpen their image. Oldest sister Banke is inspiring future generations as a teacher in London.
Pekun is studying political science in Tambov, Russia, Tito is a talented musician, performing all over Europe, Torera is exploring opportunities in Nigeria after graduating from the prestigious Lafayette College in the states.
Second-youngest Toto is studying in England, but has inherited the basketball bug, while Tani, only 12, is in Temi’s words “the firework of the family”.
Eldest Kunle – a high-flying lawyer in Nigeria and the United States – died in May 2018 aged 49.
What mix of nature and nurture has produced success across such diverse fields, from one family?
“We just want to be the best at whatever we are doing,” explains Temi simply.
“We are all competitive and we are competing with each other – when we play board games and debate stuff there is an amazing spectacle. But also, not really.
“We definitely all want each other to do so well. It is like the Fagbenle clan, showing the world that we are a force to be reckoned with. We didn’t plan it that way but it became that way because we are all so driven individually.
“Whatever you are doing, you are kind of representing the Fagbenles. You know the name is bigger than yourself so you don’t want to hold yourself to a low standard or act erratically or in a way that will put a bad name on the family.
“That makes it sound so serious, but you hold yourself to a high standard.”
Over Christmas, the Fagbenles briefly turned from figurative team to literal line-up.
Temi, Toto, OT and Luti came together on a court close to their family homes in London that all have now left behind.
“They didn’t know what they were getting into,” remembers Temi of a befuddled opposition.
“We just locked them down. I wish I could send you a picture of us all heading back on defence, it was a beautiful thing.”
The Fagbenles, taking on all-comers and succeeding, is not such a rare thing.