By Matt Crossman
A high school classroom in Maryland.
"Talib," the history teacher said, trying to get Talib Zanna's attention. He didn't answer. He appeared to be day-dreaming, staring out the window, like a thousand other freshmen in a thousand other classes in a thousand other high schools. She called his name again. He looked up. She told him to pay attention, but soon his eyes turned outside again. She asked what he was looking at. "Snow," he told her. "I've never seen it before."
The teacher's mood softened. She knew Zanna, who was born and raised in Nigeria, had only been in the United States for a few months. Like seemingly everyone else at Bishop McNamara High School in Maryland, she was taken by this giant, quiet student who was an emerging basketball star. As Zanna, now a fifth-year senior center at Pitt, recounts this scene, he sees it as a small story depicting a larger theme of his life in the United States: The people he has met have made him feel comfortable in his adopted homeland, whether they've helped him pick out skinny jeans, taught him to speak American English or told him to go play in the snow for the first time in his life in the middle of class.
"Two minutes," the teacher said. "Don't take long."
Wearing a blazer as part of his school uniform, Zanna didn't bother to bundle up. He ran outside. He looked up. He held out his hands, trying to catch the snow. His teacher took a picture.
"I'll never forget that day," he says.
A bus station in Nigeria.
Another day Zanna will never forget.
Zanna's journey to the United States began when he participated in a big man camp in Nigeria run by former Georgetown player Godwin Owinje. Bishop McNamara coach Marty Keithline, sweltering in heat he had never experienced and appalled by poverty he had never seen, discovered him there.
Not long after that, barely a teenager, Zanna sat waiting for a bus that would take him to the airport, where he would start a series of flights that would end in Washington, D.C. Once there, he would begin his new life in America.
First he had to say goodbye to his father, Zanna Awami, with whom he lived after his parents separated. "Do you really want to do this?" Awami asked. This was a heartfelt question, not a discouraging one, for his father had pushed him to move to the United States to pursue his basketball dream.
Zanna describes himself as "a daddy's boy," and leaving his father remains one of the hardest things he has ever done. But Zanna said yes. He wanted to do this.
He hugged his father. "He told me, 'Good luck. In whatever you do, stay wise. Always make the right decisions,'" Zanna says. "He said, 'There's going to be a lot of distractions but have fun with it.' He said, 'Stay away from whatever is going to hurt you.'"
His head swimming with that advice and his heart pounding with nerves, Zanna boarded the bus. He thought about that conversation with his dad. The words echoed in his mind and settled in his heart.
He never saw his father again.
When Zanna arrived in America, the first few weeks were, he says, "a disaster." He struggled to communicate. He didn't understand the culture. The food tasted like a mystery. He called his dad and said he wanted to come home. His dad told him to tough it out.
He stayed patient and fought through his struggles. He formed a tighter bond with Keithline. He became close with his host family. His host father, Ralph Bazilio, was born and raised in Guyana in South America. As a teenager, Bazilio moved to the United States to attend college and now is president and COO of an accounting firm in D.C.
Zanna is the same age as one of his host brothers, Brenden Bazilio, who also is a talented basketball player. Brenden became Zanna's tour guide through American culture, teaching him about clothes and how to cut the grass and why not to eat every piece of fruit the minute his mom brought it into the house.
Soon classmates, teachers and administrators at Bishop McNamara made Zanna feel like one of their own. He was, of course, the only 6'9" Muslim from Nigeria in this Catholic school in suburban D.C. His uniqueness drew students to him, and his personality kept them close.
He was a good student and talented writer, says Marco Clark, the school principal who taught Zanna's writing course. "He was very reflective. He had no problem sharing his dreams and aspirations, in a very real sense," Clark says. Most American students do nothing of the sort. "It was more matters of the heart -- being a good man, getting a good education."
Just like his father taught him.
As Zanna thrived at Bishop McNamara on a personal level, he became a star player, too, setting the school's all-time mark for rebounds. Highly recruited, he eventually chose to attend Pitt. Meanwhile, his relationship with his father deepened. Over the phone, Awami imparted wisdom and instruction to his son. A devout Muslim, Awami encouraged Zanna to stay strong in and develop his faith. Zanna follows this advice, fasting during Ramadan, praying and taking part in holy days when he can.
Zanna didn't know it, but diabetes was slowly killing his father. He had problems with his feet, as diabetics often do, but he never told anyone the extent of the problems. He was in and out of the hospital. One day on the phone, the conversation turned grave. "He was telling me, 'I'll probably not see you again. This might be my last time talking to you.' I was crying on the phone," Zanna says. "I was so sad when he told me that. That was just the end of the world. I was so sad, I couldn't say nothing: Uhhh. I was so sad about it."
His father died the next day. Zanna Awami was 64.
Zanna was unable to return to Nigeria for the funeral. His host family and friends at Bishop McNamara held what amounted to a wake in his father's honor. Today, Zanna tries to live his life and play his game in a way that would make Awami proud.
He keeps a picture of Awami in his locker. He touches it and says a prayer before every game. He pulls up his left sleeve to reveal a tattoo, designed by Brenden Bazilio, an aspiring artist. It looks like an open book, and it reads, "I love you, dad," along with the date of his death.
"I miss everything about him, as a father, as a man, just being there, pushing me hard," Zanna says. "I miss everything about him, the love he had for me."
Since arriving as a shy and skinny boy, Zanna has blossomed into a confident man. "To this day, I wish I would've taken a 'before' picture," Keithline says, laughing at the memory. "You could say he was skinny."
No more. Or at least not so much. Today Zanna is 6'9", 230 pounds of pure adrenaline. Once known mostly as a defensive player, he has added offensive skills as his game has progressed. When he showed off the tattoo honoring his father, he revealed muscle definition more pronounced than most basketball players. Teammates and coaches marvel at his work ethic on the court, and his studies off the court impressed his host father.
"He seemed to search the pros for players that played his type of position, his type of ball, and accomplished what he aspired to," Ralph Bazilio says.
Zanna settled on Kevin Garnett as his favorite player to watch and emulate. "He has six or seven Garnett posters on his wall," says teammate Lamar Patterson, a close friend of Zanna who has been his teammate at Pitt for five years. "You can see it in his game. The face up, the shimmy with the defender. You can see Garnett in him. You can see the progress. He kept advancing his game. It's been amazing to watch."
Zanna's days of being a wide-eyed kid in America are mostly, if not entirely, over. The days of the ACC reacting to Zanna in a similar way might be just beginning. Pitt joins the ACC in basketball this year, and if the school is going make a run at a league title, it will need Zanna to have the best season of his career.
He sees this season as his opportunity to fulfill the dreams that have driven him since the day he said goodbye to his father. His coaches, family and friends expect big things from him this season, that his years of hard work and study will culminate in a breakout year.
Last season, he averaged 9.6 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. While he is expected to improve upon both of those, stats don't tell the whole story about his game. "He's a tough, physical guy," says Baye Moussa Keita, a senior at Syracuse who has played against Zanna for three seasons in the Big East and will match up against him again this year in the ACC. "He's the hustle player. When you play him, he's the one who's going to dive for the loose ball."
Patterson says Zanna runs the floor "like a maniac" and wears out opponents with his nonstop energy. Zanna showed signs of becoming a star last year but then disappeared for stretches -- inconsistency has plagued him throughout his career. He always has been strong defensively and on the offensive boards. To play at the next level, he must establish a more well-rounded offensive game and play at a high level all season.
Graduation at Pitt, this spring.
A day nobody who was with Zanna will forget.
In his first four years at Pitt, Zanna earned a degree in social sciences, and while he plays out his final year of eligibility, he has started working on another, in legal studies. His mother, Maimuna Zanna, a Christian who has grown close to his host mother, flew in from Nigeria for the ceremony. Zanna's sister and brother-in-law were there, as were members of his host family. Keithline and Pitt coach Jamie Dixon were there. So was Patterson.
Something intangible happened at this gathering, as this collection of disparate people from all across the world celebrated Zanna's graduation. "We sensed it before. It was becoming an event," Dixon says. "The whole family was coming in. We had to kind of organize it, make sure every one was in the right position. We had to take (Maimuna Zanna) up, get her to the right spot, because we had it in an arena with 15,000 people. It was not our typical graduation."
For Zanna's American and Nigerian families, and his high school and college coaches, sharing this day with him created memories none of them could have imagined a few years before. From the nervous kid dreaming of America to the fully grown man with a college degree whose goal this season is "to make history," Zanna had undergone a startling transformation.
Of all the moments Keithline has shared with Zanna, from first seeing him on the only wood court in Nigeria to watching him grow up as a part of the Bishop McNamara community to all the little things along the way, this is his favorite. He couldn't take his eyes off of Zanna's mother. "She just kept repeating herself, how thankful she was for treating him like one of my own," Keithline says.
She is blind, and Keithline watched with chills as she was led around to meet the people who played such crucial roles in her son's life. "She was able to feel the warmth and compassion for Talib."
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