For Chris Egi, it felt like game day. The juices were flowing. Sleep was hard to come by. The moment was at hand.
He’d felt these same sensations flood through his nervous system for four seasons playing basketball at Harvard and on many other occasions while he represented Canada internationally.
He put some Drake on and turned the speakers up full blast before getting to the venue early, well before the crowd of 32,000 were scheduled to arrive. He warmed up, focusing on his breathing, his timing, losing himself in the details and determined to let everything he’d worked on in his practice flow naturally.
“I said a little prayer, did a deep breath, exactly like a free throw and just went and did it,” he said. “I tried to zone out.”
But this time it was bigger than basketball.
The captain of the Harvard basketball team was making history. He had been chosen to be one of the three graduating students to speak at Commencement Day, winning a contest among more than 100 of only the most qualified applicants.
No one I spoke with could remember a basketball player or even a varsity athlete being bestowed the honour in decades, if ever.
Egi wowed them, using his seven minutes on stage to talk about how his dream of attending Harvard was an extension of the dream his grandfather, a carpenter, ingrained in his daughters in the Nigerian village of Ososo, the same dream his mother Christiana and father Anthony shared with him and his brother and sister as they were raised in Aurora, Ont., north of Toronto.
He spoke about how his time on campus was framed by police shootings of young black men roughly his age – Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., around the time Egi was enrolling as a freshman and Stephon Clark in Sacramento just before he graduated with a degree in Economics and a 3.86 grade-point average.
He spoke confidently and with conviction about the need for change and the need for the those in the crowd – some of the best and brightest young minds on the planet – to be a part of that change.
On Thursday night the best and brightest basketball players on the planet will have a graduation of their own. Sixty young men will hear their named called and find themselves at the cusp of a career most have been working towards since middle school.
As he tore into the game with his characteristic passion and on-court ferocity, Egi always pictured himself as one of them. “I truly believed I had the skills and the athleticism to do it.”
In high school he was one of the top prospects anywhere. But instead of crossing the stage to meet the commissioner he’ll be watching at home as friends like Canadian Justin Jackson and Duke star Wendell Carter wait for their big moment.
Over the years an impressive roll call of his friends and former teammates have had their photo-op with Adam Silver.
There were D’Angelo Russell and Ben Simmons, his high school teammates at Montverde Academy in Florida where Egi helped win a national championship in 2014. When Egi captained Canada at the U19 World Championships in Prague in 2013, his starters included one-and-done first rounders Tyler Ennis and Trey Lyles; Xavier Rathan-Mayes went undrafted after starring at Florida but earned an NBA call-up this past season.
Egi ran on the AAU circuit on some loaded CIA Bounce clubs and caught lobs and set picks for the likes of 2014 No.1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins and Jamal Murray, taken No.7 overall by Denver in 2016.
“I’ve been blessed to play with some great players over the years,” says Egi. “When I see them doing their thing, honestly it drives me to work harder to continue to strive.”
But basketball won’t be at the centre of those efforts anymore. While the draft marks the beginning for his peers, Egi has decided to move on from hoops. He thought a breakout junior season might have kept his hopes alive, but it didn’t happen.
“I kind of made an agreement with myself that I’d put it all in for a final shot senior year,” he said. “But chances were it wasn’t going to be basketball for me unless something great happened.”
An early season concussion derailed that plan, and as his peers dot the NBA landscape, Egi has decided to move on.
Rather than try to earn an invitation to an NBA Summer League roster or investigate opportunities to play professionally in Europe, he’ll be starting on Wall Street as an investment analyst at Goldman Sachs.
“[Playing professionally] would be a great experience and part of me wants to do it,” he says. “But part of me feels like this isn’t the path for me and there are a lot of opportunities here that aren’t about playing basketball and I want to take advantage of those and get started on this new journey.”
Saying goodbye to hoops at age 22 isn’t easy, no matter how good your options are.
“I’m a basketball player at heart,” he said. “I still remember having a little tyke set in my basement and I remember playing on that for hours, dreaming of playing in the NBA and going to camps, playing AAU, working your way up, get seen, get ranked, be seen as a prospect, get scholarship offers.
“A lot of work went into all of that and it was my life. So for it not to necessarily be my life any more that’s definitely a lot and obviously I love the game a lot, so it is really emotional.”
That his experience at Harvard was a dream come true – there’s a video of him as a six-year-old saying his goal was to study there – doesn’t mean it didn’t come with its own frustrations. Ranked No. 3 in Canada by NorthPoleHoops behind Ennis and Rathan-Mayes, Egi turned down a number of high-major scholarship offers to play in the Ivy League and combine his academic ambitions with hoops.
But hoops wouldn’t cooperate. There were injuries. There was competition on the roster. There were more injuries.
But the only person who knew the depth of his frustration was Egi himself.
To his teammates he was a leader, a worker, an inspiration. Heading into this 2017-18 year he was unanimously voted team captain, a considerable honour given Egi had started just 12 games through his first three seasons.
“We decided he was the person we wanted to be the face of our team and the best person to lead us just because of the attributes he has as a person and the presence he has on the team, regardless of whether he’s playing or not,” said fellow Canadian Corey Johnson of Ottawa, who played three seasons with Egi and will follow in his footsteps as a captain at Harvard in 2018-19. “He always had an amazing presence at practice he always expected the best of everybody and himself, more than anything. It was honestly a unanimous decision by the team that we wanted Chris to be our captain.”
For head coach Tommy Amaker, Egi proved his value during a mid-season slump that saw Harvard’s chances at winning the Ivy league title start to slip away.
He needed his team to take charge, and Egi stood up.
“Chris was the one who talked about the team coming together and he grabbed our team in a way that only he can do,” said Amaker. “We talked about, when it was all said and done, how would we want the story to read? I gave that assignment to our team, Chris embraced it and I was blown away.”
Egi asked his teammates to send him their favourite inspirational saying of Amaker’s and an explanation why it resonated with them, personally. He then assembled a PowerPoint presentation and had each player speak about it in a team meeting. He pulled it all together in a couple of days.
“It was powerful, it was very emotional. We had guys talking about pieces of their lives that a lot of us didn’t know about,” said Amakar. “It was a very powerful moment for our ball club and great example of Chris’ leadership.”
Harvard won their second Ivy League title in Egi’s four seasons.
“One of the things you notice about tremendous teammates is its never about them,” says Amaker. “I think for Chris, that come through loud and clear from Day 1. That’s how he plays as a player. He’s hard working, he’s unselfish he embraces doing the dirty work and when you have a teammate like that or a player like that, boy do they every ingratiate themselves to their teammates, boy do they ever rally around you, because they know you’re about team.
“He’s got everything you want in a leader, even if it wasn’t in the stat sheet all the time. We couldn’t do what we do this year without Chris Egi.”
Which is why when it was time for his big moment his teammates were well represented in the crowd, out to support him the way he’d supported them. He had helped them tell their story and now he was telling the world his.
The big centre talked about dreams achieved, denied and deferred, expertly weaving in references to the poem of the same theme by Harlem renaissance poet Langston Hughes.
He touched on his family’s journey from Nigeria to Canada. One of the best and brightest spoke about how as a black man he felt a connection to those who wouldn’t get to see their futures unfolding in front of them.
“I get chills thinking about that speech,” says Amaker. “When we signed Chris someone said to me ‘You do know that you got a future prime minister of Canada?’ Which was an amazing statement, but once you get to know Chris and spend time with him and learn about him and see him perform and work and lead and be all that he’s capable of being you certainly understand how that statement was made and how it’s certainly a possibility.”
In his last, biggest moment at Harvard six-foot-nine Chris Egi stood tall, looked to the future and didn’t mention basketball one time but left the stage to a standing ovation anyway.