March Madness: Seniors find common goal while taking different paths in basketball

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Posted: Monday, March 17, 2014 12:29 am | Updated: 9:28 pm, Mon Apr 7, 2014.

The scenes of Talib Zanna and Lamar Patterson training to become college basketball players seem like they were pulled straight from a movie — like basketball’s rendition of Rocky Balboa pummeling away in a meat freezer.

Zanna’s cross-continent voyage to Pitt was cultivated while he was carving through the winding mountains outside Kaduna, Nigeria. He was just a wire-thin kid, trying to shape a gifted, malleable frame into an athlete’s body.

Lamar Patterson wasn’t darting around a mountainous landscape, but he still had a moment of pause. With his chest heaving between panting breaths, Patterson sat on the sidelines of the basketball court at St. Benedict’s Prep, a boarding high school in New Jersey with one of the most vaunted hoops programs in the country. As a senior in his first year at the school, he was competing with the best players his age — a choice he made when he transferred from J.P. McCaskey High School in Lancaster, Pa. — but by no means was he keeping up with them.

The Nigerian strived for more refinement in his skills, enrolling at a camp in Lagos that was run by a former Georgetown player. The American couldn’t keep ducking the intermittent breathers while his equally precocious teammates proved their superior conditioning.

Patterson and Zanna each had what the other needed to complete their games. After five years and a collective 275 games with Pitt’s program, they’ve taken bits and pieces from each other. But the give-and-take relationship is drawing to a close.

There is no guarantee of either playing in the NBA. For now, the players are working to extend the expiring clock on their collegiate careers.

Raw Talent

There are conflicting reports about Zanna’s training regiment.

The team’s media guide says he “ran up and down mountains to help increase his strength and speed.”

Godwin Owinje, a former player at Georgetown who has known Zanna, 23, since he was 9 or 10, laughed playfully about the claim.

“People that are not involved,” he said, “they are making stuff up.”

Marty Keithline coached Zanna at Bishop McNamara High School and first met him in May 2006. Keithline said in passing that it happened.

The truth?

“It was hills,” Zanna said, “just to get my legs stronger and get my body really fit.”

All clear, right? Maybe, except that Zanna later referred to them as mountains. It’s a trivial bit, sure, but what each source agrees on is that Zanna was always working and training any way he could to become bigger, faster and stronger.

When Owinje, who lived in Kaduna when he was young, first saw Zanna at the big man camps for basketball players that he runs throughout Nigeria, not much stood out. He looked like any other kid his age, hardly taller than most. Then Owinje remembered something.

“Talib was very skinny,” he said. “He’s probably twice his size now because he was really skinny.”

So imagine how much lankier he looked once he hit a growth spurt at about 13, “when he started leaving everybody behind with height,” as Owinje described it.

Until that point, Zanna was just as interested — if not more — in soccer, the most popular sport in Nigeria. Owinje said that basketball, while growing in participation and widely accessible in Kaduna, doesn’t even come close to garnering the fanfare that soccer does.

“Everybody in Nigeria plays soccer. Then you grow too tall and somebody will say, ‘Hey, why don’t you go play basketball?’” he added, laughing perhaps at the simplicity or reality of his statement — probably both.

Zanna’s older brother suggested he try it out because he could have a bright future in the sport, so Talib plugged away at learning the game. He worked with Owinje and together they attended other camps across Africa. But the mentor was traveling back and forth between continents, his home in Maryland and his camps in Nigeria. The student stayed focused on a newfound dream.

“At the early stage, he was just hungry,” Owinje said. “When he was 9, 10 [years old], every time I’d go back and run camps, he’s always had that dream of, ‘I want to go play basketball in the States.’ He told me that, but I was like, ‘You’re not ready, you gotta continue to work.’”

Owinje said that kids in Africa “would kill to have a chance to come play basketball in the States.”

“‘If I work hard,’ they say, ‘that right there will take me to the United States,’” he said. 

So Owinje would tell Zanna to work on his ball handling, and Talib would emphasize dribbling until he saw him again. The same with shooting, rebounding and all of the fundamentals.

Keithline’s first impressions of Zanna further indicate how explosive but raw he was on the court.

“He was long, had great timing, great skill at rebounding, a very good shot blocker — very good — just played so hard, played so hard,” he said.

His best attributes were what came naturally for a lengthy kid with deceptive pound-for-pound strength. Shooting a jump-hook out of a pump fake in the post is more difficult than snaring a rebound with long arms.

Although Zanna kept working to improve, he knew he needed to get stronger to play in the United States. The frame was fit to be filled with muscle, and the potential was ready to burst through the roof, so Owinje decided to bring him to the United States to find a high school.

Zanna was 15, about 6-foot-8 but rail-thin and embarking on a journey you can’t comprehend unless you’ve experienced it. Keithline said his English was good for a non-native speaker.

Seventeen hours later, Zanna began living a new life in a new world. He would stay with Owinje until they found a school and a host family.

Owinje said Zanna was headed to Findlay Prep in Las Vegas — a top U.S. prep school — but he was also already in line to attend the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders camp in South Africa.

“Findlay Prep already started school and the camp was, I believe, in October. School had already started,” Owinje said. “By the time the camp was over, Findlay Prep said, ‘Oh, we can’t wait any longer.’”

DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md., was also an option, but Zanna said he didn’t want to attend an all-boys school. Other issues eliminated the D.C.-area school from the equation, too.

Zanna wasn’t overly concerned about the situation, though.

“Talib was just happy to be in the United States,” Owinje said. “He was worried, but he knew he was with me.”

Bishop McNamara administrators were ecstatic to educate and coach Zanna, so he moved in with a host family.

While his time at Bishop McNamara helped prepare him for the on-court rigors at Pitt, nothing could have readied him for the events in his personal life that would unfurl just before he began his career as a Panther. 

Shortly after committing to Pitt in 2009, Zanna learned of the death of his father, Zanna Awami.

A story that ran online shortly after his father’s death on My Catholic Standard, a Washington, D.C., publication, wrote that his host family, the Bazilios, held a prayer service for Zanna. Unable to return home, “Zanna and his American family were joined in their home by the Bishop McNamara men’s varsity basketball team, coaches, fellow seniors ... and members of the administration to pray with and for Talib and his family.”

He moved forward, thriving at McNamara and impressing Keithline, who said Zanna was “180 pounds soaking wet” when he first came to school.

“He put on some weight, he improved his ball-handling skills, his shooting, post moves,” he said. “He just worked every day at it — before school, after school, whenever we got in the weight room, worked in the gym on the weekends, always working.”

Keithline remembers the moment he knew Zanna had arrived as a legitimate Division-I prospect.

In a playoff game at the end of his sophomore season, an opposing player was streaking down the court, poised for an easy layup on the fastbreak. Zanna, whose first game in high school was lost after the other team sank a half-court buzzer beater, knew not to quit.

“He ran down a guy from behind and slapped the ball off the backboard and got the ball at right wing,” Keithline described. “Somehow he took about two or three giant steps and just dunked on somebody in a playoff game. I’m just thinking, wow this kid’s gonna be unbelievable.”

Shaping a well-rounded game

Much like Zanna’s path to Pitt, Patterson’s journey from high school in Lancaster, Pa., to earning second team All-ACC honors is far from typical. 

If Patterson seems like he’s a confident passer on the basketball court and never looks rushed, it’s because he has more time under less pressure than what he’s experienced before.

Patterson had always played basketball, joining a team in elementary school, but as he grew up, he picked up football as a second sport. Maybe he was following in the footsteps of his older brother, Perry, who thrived at both. At McCaskey, Perry was a second-team All-State selection in basketball, a versatile player with exceptional vision, but he was also among the top football recruits in Pennsylvania.

Perry, seven years older than Lamar, went to Syracuse, where he played quarterback from 2003 to 2006.

Lamar was in line to start as McCaskey’s quarterback entering his junior year, but he decided to focus on his basketball. He knew he fit perfectly for basketball, and Perry knew it, too, so he backed his little brother’s decision.

“My brother understood the decision,” Patterson told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette when he committed in late December 2007. “He always thought I was more of a basketball player anyway, so it wasn’t that tough of a decision to give up football.”

Maybe Perry had no choice but to recognize Lamar’s gifted skillset for the sport. Lamar was always competing with or against Perry and his other older brother, Lorne Creighton, who also played college hoops. 

When the brothers teamed up, their offense operated by seniority. The positions weren’t guard, forward and center; the roles were youngest, middle and oldest.

Steve Powell, who coached each of the boys on the varsity team at McCaskey, has known Patterson since he was about 7 years old. Powell noticed that Patterson was always following his brothers around, trying to emulate their athleticism.

“Him playing with Perry and Lorne and other older people, with him being the young guy, he was more of a facilitator early on,” Powell said. “He always liked to pass and set people up.”

Powell added that Patterson became a more mature player by working alongside the older players, while also holding his own against tougher competition, thriving off a rare, broad combination of abilities that don’t usually develop together.

This led to Patterson’s role on McCaskey’s varsity team as a freshman. The team was already winning and didn’t need an underclassman to be the superstar to take shots and be a leader in any category, but it needed someone who could plug a leak in the game.

He was used to that deferential role, so he kept improving the ancillary skills, eventually seeing time in playoff games as McCaskey rolled as far as the state quarterfinals.

If it weren’t for his poor strength and conditioning, though, Patterson might have forced Powell into giving him more time on varsity.

Powell said Patterson’s skill was absolutely ahead of his body.

“I don’t think he took that part of it seriously,” he said, laughing at how productive the 6-foot-4 forward was, regardless. “He was always more advanced. His skill set got him over a lot of times.”

By his sophomore season, though, Patterson made it clear that a stop-gap role wasn’t even close to his potential. Cementing a spot in the starting lineup, he would lead the team in scoring and assists while averaging the second-most rebounds per game.

Nothing changed in his junior year, except a boom in scoring that lifted him to the second-highest scoring average in the area. McCaskey continued winning Lebanon-League and section titles and Patterson, cruising by on a preternaturally balanced approach, kept raking in honors and awards.

While McCaskey finished its 2007-2008 season 16-0 in Lebanon-League play, Pitt was moving forward, and Patterson decided to pay the campus and the team an official visit Dec. 15. A week later he was at Madison Square Garden, one of 19,544 in attendance for the Aeropostale Classic, which pitted No. 11 Pitt against No. 6 Duke. Both teams boasted 10-0 records.

Pitt erased a 16-point deficit from the first half and won, 65-64 on Levance Fields’ stepback 3-pointer with under five seconds to play in overtime. Patterson verbally committed one week later — bypassing offers from Arizona, Arizona State, Miami, Michigan, Syracuse and Virginia — but not solely because of Fields’ winning shot. The team’s reaction to Mike Cook’s tearing his left ACL during the game was part of the equation, too.

”The way they came back, that showed me a lot,” Patterson then told the Post-Gazette. “And when Mike Cook got hurt, coach Dixon was right by his side. I liked that.”

Patterson knew how to play the game and knew he had the skill to play at the next level. All that changed was that he knew where he would play in college. But first, he had to decide where to finish high school.

In mid-May, McCaskey learned it would be losing its leader when Patterson declared that he would be transferring to St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark, N.J., for his senior year.

“I wanted to go to a school that would get me better prepared for Pitt,” Patterson told Lancaster Online after he made the decision. “St. Benedict’s is a great school, and it has one of the best basketball programs in the nation. It felt like the right place for me.”

At first it wasn’t, though.

Powell said he knew Patterson was leaving mostly to face better competition — St. Benedict’s is a nationall ranked powerhouse in the high school ranks — but he struggled internally upon arrival.

Since St. Benedict’s is an all-male boarding school, he struggled with a change in scenery and living on his own, away from his family. He had to adjust to learning a new system under coach Dan Hurley, but his natural feel for the game alleviated some of the stress. His physical conditioning, though, nearly left him in the dust before he played a game there.

He made it through half the practice — a “very laidback workout for us,” Hurley told Lancaster Online afterward — before he became short of breath and fatigued.

“These guys were doing it like it was nothing,” Patterson would admit to Lancaster Online.

Talk about a first impression.

Those guys — his teammates — were high school superstars, players who Division I coaches were dreaming of —  including Tristan Thompson, who would play at Texas for one year before becoming the No. 4 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft.

In between gasps for air and gulps of water, Patterson realized he asked for this struggle because he wasn’t serious about conditioning. So he pushed himself to get in better shape, impressing his new coach.

“We’ve had kids [have to leave workouts early] before, and I never hear from them again,” Hurley, who now coaches at Rhode Island and was unavailable to speak for this story, said in a Lancaster Online article from December 2008. “I wasn’t disappointed. I was more pleased with his reaction.”

Hurley’s no-nonsense program featured after-school practices for three hours, early mornings, the rigors of a day at school and a late-night study hall.

“They probably question why they came to St. Benedict’s,” Hurley said in the same story. “Then they go to bed, get up and do it again.”

Maybe that happened to Thompson, a year younger than Patterson. Hurley kicked him off the team for insubordination, so Thompson went to a prep school in Las Vegas. When another player left the program, starting spots opened up, and Patterson capitalized.

“Lamar ended up playing a lot and he dedicated himself to [fitness],” Powell said. “That surrounding cast he had was initially not there.”

Patterson became more versatile, built on his skills and, most importantly, was ready physically for college basketball, which was the first hurdle Hurley wanted to see him clear before his skill and feel for the game could truly shine.

“We wanted him to earn [a starting job],” Hurley told Mike Gross of Lancaster Online in January 2009. “He’s been playing starter’s minutes all along. Right now, his body is in Big East shape for the first time.”

One last shot

Jamie Dixon remembers the first time he saw both of his seniors.

Dixon stayed overnight at Madison Square Garden after the thriller against Duke, planning to drive to Lancaster the next morning and see Patterson, a then-junior at McCaskey. Immediately, he recognized the multifaceted threat Patterson could become.

“I was amazed at his skillset since he was a two-sport guy,” Dixon said. “His passing, his shooting — he wasn’t shooting it great, but he had good form, good release, but you could tell he had good skills. He was young for his class, so you thought the body would develop and become more athletic as time went on.”

But Dixon also noticed what was holding him back, too.

“New school, new position was a challenge, but I think his weight was an issue,” he said before reconsidering again and again. “His weight was definitely an issue. I know it was an issue. That was probably the No. 1 issue.”

He remembers watching Zanna workout before getting the chance to see him play, but he felt that was enough to assess the sprouting big man.

“I thought he had good enough skills and didn’t know how tough he was from the practice, but once he got here, his energy, work ethic could help his skills. I felt very good about him,” he said.

Together, Zanna and Patterson worked to iron out the kinks.

Zanna, who has bulked up to 225 pounds with rippling muscles, switched from running hills in Nigeria to running steps in the Petersen Events Center.

“Running steps is for you to have quick feet and keep your legs strong,” he said. “Running mountains is just for you to condition and help on the court how fast you react to the ball and go end to end on the floor.”

Patterson, meanwhile, changed his diet and work ethic immediately after coming into Pitt weighing 240 pounds. He shed 19 after one year and kept dedicated the next four. He now weighs 225 pounds, the same as Zanna.

“I went from going 90 percent every day to having to go 110 percent every day — be it lifting every day or whatever,” he said. “It’s different from high school. This is a man’s league, a man’s game in college. You have to be prepared, or you won’t last.”

Taking bits from other players’ games, according to redshirt junior forward Cameron Wright, is also a huge part of basketball. Wright has picked apart the seniors, and they’ve learned from each other, too.

“I took a lot from Talib,” Patterson said. “He works out like no other. He’s by far the hardest worker I’ve ever known. That stuff builds confidence on and you see it on the court. You see how his game has progressed.”

Zanna echoed the praise, saying he’s helped improve every aspect of his skill game — even as he took on the center position this year and effectively decreased scoring opportunities.

Dixon said he spoke about the two on senior day but “didn’t get to speak enough or eloquently enough about [them].” 

“But to be graduates, put up the numbers they’ve put up and to play through injuries and to provide the leadership with a very young group overall,” he said.

Although Patterson was a top-100 recruit per ESPN, and Zanna wasn’t, neither player was bound to be a one-and-done phenom. After all, both were medical redshirts in their freshman years. Now, they realize their careers at Pitt — highlighted by a Big East Conference title in 2010-2011 — are almost done. 

As their final NCAA Tournament approaches, they have one more part of the game to share.

“We wanna go out with a win, and going out with a win means a national championship,” Patterson said. “That’s our goal, and it’s everyone else’s goal in the tournament, so it’s do or die. Any game could be our last collegiate game, and we know that.”


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