Oct. 28, 2009
GETTING TO KNOW Talib Zanna
As part of our Countdown to Tipoff features, we will profile several of the 2009-10 Pitt men's basketball players or a certain aspect of the program. Today, we feature Talib Zanna. The rest of the schedule for the week: Thursday: Feature on redshirt freshman Travon Woodall; Friday: Pitt's current NBA players DeJuan Blair, Sam Young and Aaron Gray; Saturday: Where are They Now?, former Pitt players and their whereabouts in professional basketball; Sunday: Pitt vs. Slippery Rock recap; Monday: Feature on Chase Adams.
Reprinted from the October 12, 2009 Panther Eyes edition
By Mike Gladysz, Panther Eyes
Imagine this: You're a 15-year-old kid from Kaduna, Nigeria, who never ventured very far from your hometown. You speak very little English and never even envisioned living a few miles away, let alone on another continent, but your plane just touched down in the United States.
Waiting for you is a host family you've never met before, a school you've never seen and a culture you can't come close to relating to. Now imagine you'll be in that place for at least three years without the sight of your parents, brothers or sisters.
Welcome to the life of Talib Zanna. A freshman on the men's basketball team, Zanna moved from his hometown in Nigeria to the U.S. in 2006 with a dream of playing basketball.
Since his arrival he's fought through injuries, struggled to fit in and was forced to adapt to a completely new lifestyle. Then, this past spring, he got a phone call from his sister that would've deflated most people for good.
"She told me that our father had died," Zanna said. "It was the saddest thing I've heard."
Regretfully, Zanna couldn't make it home for his father's funeral. In fact, he hadn't seen any family members since 2006, just before he arrived at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Md. It was there that he made his home. But it was eight years ago, as a 10-year old-boy in Nigeria, when Zanna's story really began.
That was when Zanna first picked up a basketball and began to play a sport that was gaining more and more popularity on the African continent. Like many in Nigeria, Zanna played soccer throughout his entire life, and basketball was something new. But it was basketball that changed his life.
"I was good in soccer, but I was also growing taller," he said. "My older brother played basketball, and he told me, `Drop soccer and play basketball, it could be a good future.' So I did that. He helped me onto a good club basketball team and I picked up everything pretty quick."
There's no question about that. A few years later and several inches taller, Zanna was spotted by American high school coaches at a big-man camp in Lagos, Nigeria, and people in the U.S. began talking. Well, more like scrambling.
After months of paperwork to secure a visa and clarify eligibility, Zanna was on his way to Bishop McNamara. It didn't take long for him to realize that he wasn't on his way to some sort of vacation. He was leaving his family in Nigeria for good. Zanna's new school helped to set him up with a host family, and he went from there.
"It was a real tough transition because I had to come over here into a new culture," he said. "I had to get used to it and start all over."
Aside from dealing with a new world, Zanna broke his ankle during his first year. He felt like he might not be able to make it in the U.S., but when he spoke with his father, he was told to keep working toward his goals. After hearing that, Zanna didn't look back.
"When I started playing basketball, everyone tells me to keep working hard because of my talent," he said. "They said to do it for my future, but I just have a love for the game, and that is why I play. I want to build a future, yes, but I love playing."
Throughout high school, Zanna made undeniable strides on the basketball court. He averaged 14.6 points and 11.8 rebounds during his senior year en route to first-team All-MET honors by the Washington Post, among several other nods.
He started mostly as a rebounder and a shot-blocker, using his raw speed, size and athleticism to dominate around the glass. But just like his personality and life off the court, his game eventually developed.
"With everything being so new, I had to stick with my teammates and my teachers to help me," Zanna said. "They helped me a lot in my high school years. I got used to everything and now I feel comfortable."
That's the thing that made Pitt stand out when Zanna was looking at different colleges. The 6-foot-9 forward snagged the attention of schools all around the country, including places like Oklahoma, Colorado, Connecticut, Boston College and Georgetown, among others. He wanted to go somewhere new and exciting, where he could continue to grow. The most important thing, though, was finding somewhere he'd be comfortable.
"Pitt has a good basketball program and academics, and I liked the coaches," said Zanna, who is now fluent in four languages. "I talked with coach [Jamie] Dixon and I came to some games. I really liked everything."
One of the games Zanna attended was the Pitt-Connecticut matchup at the Petersen Events Center. Pitt, ranked No. 4 overall at the time, defeated the No. 1-ranked Huskies for the second time on the year.
"It was a fun environment to see," Zanna said. "It's very different."
From there, Zanna was set on Pitt, and it looked like he had it made. But his hardest moment by far came when he got that phone call from his sister.
Zanna hadn't been back to Nigeria since he moved, and he wanted desperately to get back for the funeral. But there was just no way to make it work. He finally got a chance to visit his family in Nigeria this summer, but things were different for obvious reasons.
"The saddest thing was I didn't get to see my father," he said. "He had never seen me play basketball. I tried to play the game so he can come see me, and now I know that's not going to happen."
Zanna said he hopes his mother and some of his siblings [he has five] will visit to see him play some time during his college career at Pitt -- a career that has all the makings to be an outstanding one.
"He's really a fun, outgoing kid," Dixon said. "He appreciates his opportunity, and we appreciate having him here. There's a lot of growth left, and it's amazing because he's gone through a lot. He's here for the right reasons, and he's going to have a great career here at Pitt."
Zanna said he can't wait until he can finally sport the Pitt uniform when the Panthers play their first exhibition game of the year against Slippery Rock on Nov. 1 at the Petersen Events Center.
But it's more than just that. He's excited to be at Pitt and is excited to be part of something that seems to grow stronger each year.
It seems that as of now, the kid who used to run up mountains in Nigeria to help increase his speed and strength is setting his goals even higher. He plans on studying business, following in the footsteps of his father, who was a successful businessman in Nigeria. And every time he picks up a basketball, the image of his father runs through his head. It's that memory that keeps him going and keeps him motivated.
Things are different now, and there's no question that certain times are harder than others. But at this point, that's something that Zanna isn't afraid of.
"Everything has been going well," he said. "It's a long distance...a very big adjustment. I'm used to it now. And I still play thinking of my father."
COURTSIDE: Pitt Goes Retro in Win Over No. 17 FSU
Pittsburgh upsets No. 17 Florida State 80-66
GAME NOTES: Panthers Host No. 17 Florida State Saturday
Pitt Falls to Virginia Tech 66-63
GAME NOTES: Pitt Seeks Third Straight Win Tuesday Evening
COURTSIDE: Panthers Top Syracuse for Sixth Time in Seven Games