On the precipice

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Him in mind: Pittsburgh’s Zanna uses father’s death as motivation in basketball journey half a world from home

first_imgTalib Zanna broke down in tears. His sister, who was on the other line of the phone call in Nigeria, was also crying.Just seven hours earlier, he was on the phone with his father, Zanna Awami, half a planet away. The conversation was a somber one, as Talib likely knew it’d be the last time he’d ever get a chance to speak to the man who raised him.Even though he had a chance to say goodbye, it didn’t ease the pain of knowing his father was gone.“He gave me a couple words. He said, ‘Just be focused in whatever you do. Make the wise choice,’” Talib Zanna said. “It was really tough when he passed away. It was a struggle for me. Things happen in life, and we just have to let it go and move on.”Five years later, Zanna has developed into one of the best players for Pittsburgh (16-1, 4-0 Atlantic Coast), averaging a career-high 13 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. In Pitt’s last outing, Zanna logged 22 points and nine rebounds in a win at Georgia Tech.AdvertisementThis is placeholder textZanna was only a senior at Bishop McNamera (Md.) High School when his father passed. He had just committed to the Panthers, and the dream that led him to travel alone to the United States as a 16-year-old had come to fruition.Even though his father isn’t around to see his success, his passing bred a new sense of motivation in Zanna.He now plays every game for him.“Just having someone by our side that always looked out for us,” he said. “He helped us grow out of it and be a man.”His father was a huge sports fan and wanted his kids to play soccer because that was his favorite sport. But when Zanna and his younger brother Nura both hit massive growth spurts, their older brother suggested they focus solely on basketball.It was a transition their father had no qualms with. He wanted his sons to pursue their dreams, whatever they were.“He really supported us playing sports,” Zanna said, “because he kind of figured out that this is what we love doing.”And the support paid off. Zanna was invited to a Basketball Without Borders NBA camp in South Africa. There, he met Bishop McNamera head coach Marty Keithline, who offered him a scholarship to play basketball in the states.The choice was a no-brainer for Zanna. In Nigeria, where many people don’t go to school, playing professional sports is the ultimate dream, and sometimes the only means of making money.He had to go, even though it meant leaving home.“The hardest part was just not seeing my family,” Zanna said. “It was tough for me. I struggled with it. I just had to let it go to pursue my dream.“Zanna came to the United States speaking little English. He had a strong, but wiry frame. He had built himself into shape from running in the many hills and mountains that clutter the Nigerian landscape. But he didn’t have the bulk.“When he was a sophomore, he was long and gangly,” Keithline said. “He could run, jump and had great timing. He went from maybe 180-some pounds when he was here to about 220 when he left.”Zanna left as one of the most highly touted recruits in school history. His picture was in the papers back home. He was a celebrity in Nigeria before anyone knew his name in the United States.But after his father passed, Zanna adopted a new outlook on his career. He said everything he was doing would be for his father, who he knew was looking down on him.Just days after his passing, Zanna called Nura, who was still home pursuing the same dream.“I was about to call him and talk to him, but he called me,” Nura Zanna said. “He was telling me how we need to get past that now and work on our future and help our families.“(Zanna) kind of motivates me. I want to follow his footsteps.”Now they’re both playing for their family in the states, Zanna for the Panthers and Nura a freshman center at Long Island University-Brooklyn.Nura has yet to go back to Nigeria, while Zanna has just once. Still, their family remains as close as ever.“My brothers and my sisters, they really look up to us,” Nura said. “They want us to make it happen.“That’s what both of them are doing: Nura getting his feet wet with the Blackbirds and Zanna on the verge of playing professionally.They each credit their success to their father.Before every game, Zanna takes a picture of his father that hangs in his locker and holds it. He says a prayer then rubs the picture against his heart.He said he’s got to move on, but insists that every thing he does and all the success he has is in his father’s memory.“We’re all playing basketball for him,” Zanna said. “We’re doing this for him. I know he’s up there watching us.” Comments Facebook Twitter Google+ Published on January 17, 2014 at 4:00 am Contact Sam: [email protected] | @SamBlum3last_img read more

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