Warriors’ Festus Ezeli foots the bill for Thanksgiving feast

You’ll have to excuse Festus Ezeli for starting his Thanksgiving celebration 10 days early.

It’s just that he has lots for which to be thankful.

The center has started 10 games during the Warriors’ franchise-best, 11-0 start, and the 26-year-old is averaging career highs in points (8.7), rebounds (5.7), assists (1.2), steals (0.4), blocked shots (1.5) and field-goal percentage (57.4).

This season, Ezeli has scored in double figures six times — a feat he accomplished five times in his first three seasons combined. He also used a six-day span earlier this month to record the first two double-doubles of his career.

“I’m healthy, we’re winning and we’re playing well,” Ezeli said Monday night. “Everything is clicking, but we have to continue to improve. We have a lot of talent on our team, and we have a lot of hunger, as well. I think that’s a lethal combination.

“Thanksgiving is a time for being grateful and thankful, but I also feel it’s a time for me to give back.”

That’s why Ezeli was at the Bayview Hunters Point YMCA on Monday. He was greeted with raucous cheers when he walked into the gymnasium and dapped a child wearing Warriors gear before telling the crowd: “I can’t be with my family for Thanksgiving, so I wanted to be with you.”

For the third straight season, Ezeli catered a holiday meal and stood beside other YMCA volunteers in serving about 200 members of the Bayview community. If that wasn’t enough, Ezeli also sent families home with grocery bags filled with turkey and all the trimmings.

He also hosted a free basketball camp there this summer and is searching for even more ways to help after being hooked by the youth at a bowling event during his rookie season.

“I just fell in love with the kids, and I think that’s one of my purposes here: to help mold young minds,” Ezeli said. “… I’m just trying to find different ways I can impact the community.”

The 6-foot-11, 265-pounder is finding plenty of ways to impact the Warriors following some dark days. After starting 41 games as a rookie, Ezeli had offseason surgery to reinforce both the medial collateral and posterior cruciate ligaments in his right knee.

The procedure cost him the entire 2013-14 season, which he spent doing arduous rehabilitation apart from the team. Even last season, Ezeli didn’t often look like his explosive self until the playoffs, when he scored 10 points in 11 minutes of the championship-clinching Game 6 in Cleveland.

“Everything in life serves a purpose,” said Ezeli, whose Vanderbilt degree is in economics, not philosophy. “Those days of rehab and going through a whole year of not playing basketball, make you appreciate it a lot more. I appreciate being on the court. I don’t take that for granted, at all.

“You can fail forward.”

Ezeli has leaped forward into what will be a huge payday. His agent, Bill Duffy, met with Warriors general manager Bob Myers about a possible contract extension this summer, but with the salary cap expected to skyrocket and Ezeli expected to emerge, the big man chose to test restricted free agency next summer.

“I love this team. I love this city. I love being a part of something really special here,” Ezeli said. “I want to be here, and I could see myself being here for a very long time. That part wasn’t the issue.”

Ezeli said he doesn’t feel pressure to perform to attract a big offer. He sure doesn’t seem to be playing with any butterflies, showing confident hands, attacking the glass for rebounds and displaying a knack for blocking shots.

As many as two-thirds of the league’s teams are expected to have about $20 million to spend under the 2016-17 salary cap. Any of those teams could come calling on Ezeli.

“I don’t play for money. That’s not why I play this game. If I think about it in that regard, it’s not as enjoyable for me,” Ezeli said. “… I just want to enjoy the moment with my teammates. We are defending the title, and that’s exciting enough for me.”

And, it gives him reason for thanks.

By: Rusty Simmons, SF Gate

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