With 3:05 left in the second half in a game against Elmira College on Jan. 12, freshman guard Peter Ezema has only one thing on his mind: basketball. His teammate, sophomore Marc Rozynes-Chasin, saved the ball from traveling out of bounds, and as Ezema approached the paint, he spotted two Soaring Eagles right in his face.
Despite the pressure, he laid up the ball for a hook shot, and as he fell to the ground, sliding on his back, he watched the shot sink in. The shot put the Bombers up 64–59 over the Soaring Eagles, and they would never look back, going on to win their 11th game of the season, the most for the Bombers in January since 2013.
It’s this kind of adversity that Ezema overcomes not only in basketball, but also in his life. And just like in basketball, he always seems to dominate.
At the beginning of the 2015–16 season, calling the men’s basketball squad undersized was an understatement. In fact, the tallest player, freshman Adam Kleckner, who stands at 6 feet 5 inches, does not match up against foes, such as Hartwick College and St. John Fisher College, in the Empire 8 Conference.
Those concerns, along with six total freshmen on the roster of 13 players, pegged the Bombers for another mediocre season. Now at 11–9 and clinging onto the fourth-place seed in the Empire 8 Tournament, the Bombers are back in contention thanks to the play of newcomer Ezema.
Beyond basketball, Ezema is a health care management major and said the field has a significant impact on the lives of others as well as on his own.
“I believe this field will help me affect the lives of the sick, the poor and the less privileged in a very positive way,” Ezema said. “Being a health care management major also allows me to make good decisions to keep myself healthy.”
Born in Nigeria, Ezema eventually moved to the United States in the summer of 2013 by himself. Ezema’s family eventually moved to the states the following year, where he and his family bounced around from North Carolina to Georgia to finally settling in New York City.
“It’s been tough, but I felt like every day, so many challenges, I always can handle it,” he said.
His mother, Jacinta Ezema, has been an inspiration for him throughout his life.
“My mom, she is a very optimistic person,” he said. “Most times you face challenges, my mom stays crazily positive. I’ll be like, ‘Ma, this is what’s going on. Why do you want to stay positive about it?’ I felt like growing up and watching my mom be like that, I felt like expect the worst and still pray for the best.”
Unbeknownst to most, Ezema almost never made it onto the hardwood. Ezema grew up playing soccer, but as he began high school, he said he had a growth spurt and became too tall for the sport he loved as a child.
“I guess you could say I outgrew soccer,” Ezema said. “I started getting taller, and I got into basketball, I tried the game once and had fun, so I started playing.”
Despite Ezema’s late arrival to the game, his playing career at the High School for Health Professions and Human Services in Manhattan was unparalleled. He received the Mayor’s Award of Excellence in Science and Technology in Manhattan while becoming the star of his team. Ezema credits his teammates for allowing him to flourish.
“I played with great players,” Ezema said. “I had to carry the team on my shoulders, which was challenging, but I was able to overcome the situation, and that really helped me get into the game.”
The success Ezema enjoyed in high school allowed him to gain recognition from Ithaca College’s head coach Jim Mullins, who sent an assistant coach to watch him play.
“Peter visited campus in the spring, and we got him,” Mullins said. “He was pretty high on our radar.”
Mullins said Ezema’s athleticism, or his ability to make the switch from dribbling a soccer ball with his feet to dribbling a basketball with his hands, was a primary reason he wanted to bring Ezema to South Hill.
“He rebounds way bigger than his size,” Mullins said. “If someone were to look at just his rebound numbers, they would assume he’s 6 feet 8 inches”, but he’s only 6 feet 3 inches.”
Accumulating 76 offensive rebounds so far into his rookie campaign, Ezema has been a dominating presence in the paint. In comparison, big man Keefe Gitto ’15 totaled just 76 offensive rebounds last season. In fact, those 76 rebounds are the most by an Ithaca College Bomber since Phil Barera ’11 racked up 97 in 2010–11.
Off to a potent start to the season, Ezema has been a key contributor offensively. In a tough road loss at Nazareth College on Jan. 30, the freshman relished a career day, tallying 29 points and 17 rebounds for his ninth double-double of the year. Through 20 games, he is averaging a double-double with 13.9 points per game and 11.2 rebounds per game. His 223 total rebounds on the season ranks 19th in Division III.
Despite the impressive score sheet, Ezema said he enjoys how the college game emphasizes other aspects of the game besides just scoring.
“I’ve been a very good athlete, but I never realized my ability to rebound the ball,” he said. “In high school, most of the time what they’re looking at is the guy who can score.”
He has produced numerous awards in his short-lived career with the Bombers so far. He has been tabbed Empire 8 Rookie of the Week four times this season and was named Rookie of the Week by the Eastern College Athletic Conference in December.
Mullins said he has been impressed by the early returns from Ezema but said even with all the film his staff had seen, they could not have predicted he would factor into their game plan this quickly.
“You can try to project what a freshman will do from tape you’ve seen,” Mullins said. “But he has adjusted to the change in intensity in the college game. He gets better daily and has only scratched the surface of what he can do. The sky’s the limit for him.”
As the only senior on the squad this year, guard Sam Bevan was anticipating carrying the load offensively for the Bombers but said he has welcomed the surprise that Ezema has been.
“I did not expect to see a freshman contribute this quickly,” Bevan said. “It’s always hard for a freshman to come in and have a hot start.”
The lone captain also said Ezema’s rebounding skills have been vital for the team this season.
“Obviously everyone is supposed to rebound,” Bevan said. “But he takes care of most of that for the team, which makes everyone’s job easier.”
As the season wears on, Ezema said he expects to continue his hot start but also admits there are things he has to learn in order to get better.
“I never get complacent,” he said. “I always want to do more. I always want to see myself become the best I can be in the league and the nation. I want to be a guy the team can be proud of.”
His compulsion to helping others both on and off the court is what Ezema focuses his future on.
“I just don’t want to complete my story,” he said. “I just want to make sure the story has a worthy ending. It’s not worth telling now until I get to the end of it.”