Quantcast

Above the Rim

Pitt forward Talib Zanna’s 5,000-mile journey to Oakland is paying off in points and confounded opponents.




Photo by Renee Rosensteel
 

One morning, about 10 years ago, Talib Zanna returned from a lung-busting run through the mountains outside Kaduna, Nigeria. Exhausted, he walked through his family home, passing his brother Muhammed’s room; inside, his elder sibling sat rapt in front of a TV. Muhammed was staring intently at an NBA game between the Spurs and the Rockets, recorded onto a VHS tape days ago.

“I just liked the way Tim Duncan was playing,” Zanna says, remembering the grainy recording that propelled him toward a life of basketball and the University of Pittsburgh. “I wanted to be in the same position that [he was].”

Like everyone in Nigeria, Zanna played soccer as a child. When a growth spurt shot Talib above the 6-foot mark (he stands at a towering 6’9’’ today), hoops-obsessed Muhammed introduced him to a coach.

“I started to get the feel of the game,” he recalls. “I kept working hard, and I fell in love with it.”

The determined forward grabbed the attention of coaches and scouts as he progressed to a camp in booming Lagos; a selection as one of Africa’s top 100 prospects landed him in front of NCAA Division I coaches. If there was going to be a next step in Zanna’s career — and his athleticism, talent and size certainly made it likely — it would take him to America.

He moved, on his own, in 2006. Zanna’s distinguished high-school career at Bishop McNamara High School in the D.C. suburbs brought interest from a dozen colleges — but he chose Pitt. As part of the highly touted incoming class of 2009, he was met with fanfare. But an injured finger sidelined him for the 2009-10 season; he showed flashes of his potential in 2010-11, but continued to struggle with injuries.

As his confidence returned, though, so did his shot. In his first 2011-12 appearances, Zanna created trouble for Pitt’s foes; his quick movements and seemingly endless reach led to easy rebounds and frustrated opponents. As Pitt was stumbling, Zanna was emerging as a serious scoring threat; last March, he led the Panthers through the College Basketball Invitational Tournament, averaging 11.8 points per game. At season’s end, the team named him its best defensive player.

If Zanna keeps up the pace he’s set through the beginning of this, his junior season, he’ll be in line for awards on both sides of the ball. Through 16 games, Zanna led the team with 13.2 points per game. Against a limp Delaware State at the Petersen Events Center on Dec. 19, he totaled 20, matching a career high.

Scoring seems to come easy for Zanna, who’s effortlessly positioned to shoot. He’s quick to share the credit — “James [Robinson] and Tray [Woodall] are pass-first point guards. If you’re open, they’ll pass it to you,” he says — but anyone with a view of the court can see the unhumble truth: Talib Zanna can do a lot with the ball, and he knows it.

Before each game, as the Panthers charge from the locker room, Zanna — a devout Muslim — pauses, taps his chest and points toward the heavens. But this game-time prayer isn’t simply a matter of routine. “When I was 18 — I had the SAT the next day — I got a call from Nigeria,” he says. “My father had passed away.” Zanna hadn’t been home in years, not since the day he moved to the States. “I broke down. I couldn’t do anything. It took me a while.”

But after the shock lessened, the journey ahead was made all the more clear. “He loved the game, so now I’m playing the game for him. I want to make him proud.” 
 

Hot Reads

7 Things You Need to Know About the Pittsburgh Marathon

7 Things You Need to Know About the Pittsburgh Marathon

Before you head for the course, brush up on etiquette for the race.
Best Doctors 2014

Best Doctors 2014

We present to your our list of the 608 leading regional physicians across 77 specialties.
Review: Crested Duck Restaurant

Review: Crested Duck Restaurant

Crested Duck is a prime place to enjoy cured meats, pickled plates and European-inspired bistro dishes, such as chicken roulade.
Crazy in Love, Even at 40

Crazy in Love, Even at 40

As PittGirl approaches her 40th birthday, she rekindles her love for Pittsburgh.

The 412

7 Throwback Commercials From Pittsburgh’s (Weird) Past

7 Throwback Commercials From Pittsburgh’s (Weird) Past

Come for the nostalgia, stay for KDKA’s John Cigna being kidnapped via helicopter.
Iron Worker Relaxes on I-Beam at the Top of PNC Plaza, Takes Bonkers Photo

Iron Worker Relaxes on I-Beam at the Top of PNC Plaza, Takes Bonkers Photo

This man is not to be trifled with, you guys.
Pittsburgh is the 15th-Best City in America for Millennials, According to Millennials

Pittsburgh is the 15th-Best City in America for Millennials, According to Millennials

Half a million college students can’t be wrong.
Here's How Bad This Neverending Winter Stinks, Visualized With Zoo Animals

Here's How Bad This Neverending Winter Stinks, Visualized With Zoo Animals

Bummed about the April snow? Here's a friendly reminder that it could always be worse.

Hot Reads

7 Things You Need to Know About the Pittsburgh Marathon

7 Things You Need to Know About the Pittsburgh Marathon

Before you head for the course, brush up on etiquette for the race.
Best Doctors 2014

Best Doctors 2014

We present to your our list of the 608 leading regional physicians across 77 specialties.
Review: Crested Duck Restaurant

Review: Crested Duck Restaurant

Crested Duck is a prime place to enjoy cured meats, pickled plates and European-inspired bistro dishes, such as chicken roulade.
Crazy in Love, Even at 40

Crazy in Love, Even at 40

As PittGirl approaches her 40th birthday, she rekindles her love for Pittsburgh.
Warhol Redux

Warhol Redux

The Andy Warhol Museum has turned things upside down.
Top 10

Top 10

The best things to do in Pittsburgh in April.