(plural: Tro·jans) noun
Definition: dedicated worker; somebody who is determined, strong, or courageous.
Trojan? Temitope Fagbenle is not a citizen of ancient Troy. Asking her where she is from would probably be preceded by a momentary silence before she responds with being a citizen of the world. That is because she is from Nigeria, Britain, and the United States, and as such there is no specific answer to the question.
Perhaps it’s the motley of nationalities and constantly on migration that infuses her with Trojan qualities – courageous, determined, and strong. That, and a blend of strong genes, coupled with being raised by Tunde Fagbenle, a diligent and brilliant father whose frank advocacy for social and economic development provides fodder for intellectual discourse in Nigeria’s media landscape.
Fagbenle credits her dad for being influential in her choice to play professional basketball. Even though she remembers faltering in her early attempts at basketball, she later found her rhythm and embraced the game that has brought her to limelight.
“My first practice – it was in shambles; I was literally like a baby deer. I fell down every single time. I remember the image of my first practice vividly because I was scared out of my mind. I hated basketball, but I persevered.”
At different points in her life, Fagbenle, who turned 24 last September, has demonstrated courage and embraced challenges, tackling them as opportunities for higher climb. When her dad stopped her tennis lessons and replaced it with basketball, citing economic reasons for the change, Fagbenle saw it as an opportunity to excel at something different and embraced the ropes gradually. This was despite the fact she had dreams of being the next Venus Williams as a little girl.
These qualities are some of the reasons Fagbenle thrives in dynamic environments and situations. Standing at 6’4, she towers above most women in any room she enters, making it rather impossible for her to blend with the crowd.
Though born in Maryland, United States, Fagbenle spent her formative years growing up in London. At 15, she moved to New Jersey to play basketball in a boarding school. That decision was another defining period in her life, which positioned her for a scholarship from Harvard University.
From Harvard, Fagbenle was selected to represent the British Women’s National Basketball Team at the 2012 Olympic Games, an experience she recalls with fond memories of going against some of the best athletes in her career.
In this interview, Temitope Titilola Fagbenle reveals her motive for staying back at USC even after the Minnesota Lynx drafted her at the 2016 WNBA Draft in April. She relives her Olympic experience in 2012 and weighs in on the debate regarding professional athletes and whether they should project their image to the fore of social issues. These and other issues comprise Basketball Within Borders’ One-on-One with the Citizen of the World, Olympian, and University of Southern California’s Trojan at the anchor position. Enjoy it!
BWB: After you were drafted last April by the Minnesota Lynx, you chose to stay one more year at USC to complete your studies. Besides the academic reason, what other factor influenced your decision?
TEMI: I made the decision to stay at USC to finish my studies some time before I was drafted. I know how hard it is to go back to school after time off, so I just wanted to secure my Masters before I moved on from school. I am using this time to get stronger athletically and further work on my game.
BWB: About a month before you played at the 2012 London Olympic Games, your team (Great Britain) went up against France and the United States in warm-up games. What was it like to defeat France and put up a stiff challenge to the US in those warm-ups?
TEMI: It was great to beat France. They are a strong team so beating them definitely boosted our team morale and confidence. The game against the US was amazing. There was a huge audience turnout and everyone was just so pumped to play against the best team in the world. We also had the USA and GB men’s teams on the sidelines watching us, which added to the excitement. I remember 19-year-old me going against Sylvia Fowles on the jump ball and being in shock at the reality of the situation. I actually smiled in disbelief and nearly burst out laughing. I was going up against Maya Moore and Candace Parker, to name a few, and I remember thinking, “wow this is really happening. I am actually on the same floor as these amazing players!”
We came out swinging. We were up by like 15, 20 points at one point, which got everyone on their toes! We really thought we had a chance to win, but ultimately the US proved us wrong haha! It was such a fantastic experience though, and I took away a lot about how much I needed to grow to get to the elite level.
BWB: Which athlete would you consider as influential in your drive as an athlete?
TEMI: I’ve always admired the Williams sisters’ drive. I grew up watching them and my younger sister and I wanted to be like them when we became professional tennis players ourselves. That was the plan, anyway. I was going to be Venus, and Tor was going to be Serena. We watched them overcome such adversity and rise to become two of the best tennis players in the world. I wanted to emulate their tenacity and drive to succeed.
BWB: Coming from a family that places much emphasis on academic education, it is no surprise that you’ve always shown a strong desire for academic pursuit, which you hinted at when you sat out your freshman year at Harvard per NCAA rules. You said in an article on ESPN in your reaction to the NCAA decision: “I was just heartbroken really. Although basketball isn’t the focus, I love basketball. I wanted to play. And so finding that out was just a shock.” So at what point in your career did you make the decision that you would play professional basketball?
TEMI: I decided I was going to play professional basketball when I first started playing. I knew I had the ability to reach the highest level of my sport, so it became one of my goals. When I said “basketball isn’t the focus,” I meant, basketball isn’t the ONLY focus. I strive to be the best me in everything I do.
BWB: Which basketball player do you think is the most influential in the game today, globally?
TEMI: Lebron James definitely has a global clout that not many basketball players possess. His sheer dominance on the court, in this day and age, is incredibly impressive.
BWB: How impactful were your parents in your basketball career? Were they totally supportive?
TEMI: Yes, they were very supportive and continue to be to this day. My dad was the one who suggested I stop tennis and take up basketball, and I’m glad he did. Without both of my parents’ support, I would not be where I am today.
BWB: Your dad is popular in the media landscape in Nigeria for his strong views on social and political issues – the subject of intellectual discourse over the years. Would you describe yourself as having a similar trait?
TEMI: Yes, I try not to be wishy washy with my social and political views. I like to be firm with my stances/beliefs, whilst being open minded to different opinions and change.
BWB: Being a professional athlete inevitably comes with certain social expectations. As a professional athlete, what are your views about police brutality in the United States and the Black Lives Matter movement?
TEMI: As a human, I think it is a problem that people feel there is a need to proclaim that Black lives matter. How sad and frankly, pitiful is that? It should go without saying that Black lives matter. BLM is a call for all people to recognize that Black people are humans, too. It’s as simple as that. It is a call for some police (and the wider society) to view Black people as people, instead of animalistic threats to be put down for no appropriate reason.
BWB: How do you think athletes can use their star power to influence or inspire change in the socio-political landscape?
TEMI: Lead by example. Use their platforms to call for what they believe is right. Athletes have been doing this for a long time, but I think more can and should, instead of fearing for their reputations or statuses of endorsements.
BWB: As a woman and a democrat, what are your views about Hillary Clinton and her presidential candidature? Do you think she is capable of living up to the level of performance by Barack Obama if elected into office?
TEMI: I’m a Democrat? Since when? Haha, I don’t ascribe to any party, only to what aligns the most with my views. I think it is great to see a woman run for office. It’s about time. I think she will do a fine job. Better than her current counterpart, anyhow.
BWB: Among players in the WNBA, active and retired, which one(s) do you look up to?
TEMI: Maya Moore, Candace Parker, Lauren Jackson, Lisa Leslie, Elena Delle-Donne, Diana Taurasi, Tamika Catchings, Angel McCoughtry and Erika de Souza to name a few.
BWB: What do you do when you’re not playing basketball or studying?
TEMI: Planning my future, reading, writing, learning, laughing, singing, dancing, modeling, watching movies, working out.
BWB: Do you have any pre-game ritual?
TEMI: Not really. I like to make sure I look good. Doesn’t always work out, but I try, haha!
BWB: Name five tracks on your playlist that you enjoy most when working out.
TEMI: Gosh, I don’t even know. I love Afrobeats music, a lot of 80s and 90s RnB, soulful music, jazz, blues, some new school…really anything with a good beat, melody and/or meaningful lyrics. It’s all very subjective.
BWB: You began modeling recently. Is that something you’ve always wanted to do?
TEMI: Yes, however, my focus has changed from taking pretty pictures to creating/being art.
BWB: What are you doing presently to prepare you for your rookie season in the WNBA starting in 2017?
TEMI: Working out, getting stronger, basketball skill work and fundamentals, having fun, limiting stress.
BWB: What Nigerian food(s) do you enjoy eating the most?
TEMI: I love basically any Nigerian food. From simple jollof and dodo to iyan and efo. Amala, eba, egusi, ewedu, goat meat, shaki, moin moin…don’t get me started!
BWB: How fluent are you in Yoruba language?
TEMI: Mo gbo ati so Yoruba die die. I took classes at Harvard, but don’t practice regularly enough.
BWB: What was the longest single stretch of time you’ve ever spent in Nigeria, and what was the experience like? Any fond memories of Nigeria?
TEMI: The longest stretch that I remember was for about two months. It’s always a great experience going back home. I love being in Nigeria with my family. My most fond memories in Nigeria include running around playing with my siblings.
BWB: I believe you probably have read Kobe Bryant’s letter to his younger self when he was 17 years old. If you were to write a letter to your younger self, what age of your younger years would you write to? And what would you tell that younger you?
TEMI: I would write to my 15/16 year-old self. In short, I’d tell her to relax, accept help and trust more.
BWB: Have you ever played a deathly prank on anyone? What would that be if yes?
TEMI: In the early days of our relationship, I told a boyfriend in high school that I had a penis, and hoped he didn’t mind. In retrospect, not the best joke.
BWB: Do you have any fears (heights, spiders, being trapped in an elevator, snakes) you would wish to conquer someday?
BWB: Do you consider yourself an out-going person?
TEMI: Sometimes, yes. I am introverted by nature, but I love to socialize and meet new people. I usually need time to myself afterwards, though.
BWB: Which are the two most remarkable books (non-religious) that you’ve ever read and what about them that you find most intriguing or inspiring?
TEMI: My memory is terrible, I don’t remember names of anything, just how I felt interacting with it, if that.
BWB: Do you consider yourself a trendy person in matters of fashion?
TEMI: Not particularly. I don’t follow trends. If I see something I like, I’ll wear it, whether it’s trendy or not.
BWB: Your team is down by two points with five seconds on the shot clock just before your teammate makes an inbound pass to you. Would you risk a three-point attempt to win the game or would you take a two-point shot to get a tie and take the game into OT?
TEMI: Depends on so many things. But, I’d drive to the basket with the hope I’ll get fouled for an and1. I won’t just throw up a three with 5 whole seconds left. That’s a lot of time. If there’s one or two seconds left, I’m shooting the jumper or three.
Temi Fagbenle holds a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from Harvard University and is currently studying for her Master’s in Strategic Public Relations at University of Southern California. She was drafted by the Minnesota Lynx at the 2016 WNBA Draft but opted to stay at USC to complete her studies before joining the team.
Cover image from USC media portal. Except expressly stated, all images used are via Temi Fagbenle.