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.” 
 

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Best of the 'Burgh 2017

Best of the 'Burgh 2017

Host an event in Pittsburgh’s urban sustainable homestead. Join a club for mushroom hunters. Tour a coal mine. Listen to some banjo music. We list our new favorite experiences, food, drink, personalities, stores, items and activities in the ’Burgh.
Daytripping: The ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’

Daytripping: The ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’

Fourteen years ago this month, the mighty Kinzua Viaduct met its match.
Restaurant Review: The Café Carnegie

Restaurant Review: The Café Carnegie

The restaurant, run by Dinette’s Sonja J. Finn, boosts the dining experience at the Carnegie museums in Oakland.
Thrive: Smooth Moves While Getting Lost in the Music

Thrive: Smooth Moves While Getting Lost in the Music

FASTER Pittsburghʼs Hip Hop Cardio promises to get your workout into a groove.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Watch: Pittsburgh Penguins Video Tribute to Marc-André Fleury

Watch: Pittsburgh Penguins Video Tribute to Marc-André Fleury

With a tear in our eye, we bid the “Flower” Au Revoir.
Finally, a Faster Way From Pittsburgh to Oakland and Beyond

Finally, a Faster Way From Pittsburgh to Oakland and Beyond

A proposed route for new electric buses will connect 30,000 people throughout 24 neighborhoods.
Extras Wanted: Cate Blanchett Shooting Movie in Pittsburgh

Extras Wanted: Cate Blanchett Shooting Movie in Pittsburgh

“Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” a movie based on the best-selling comedic novel, will begin filming in the ‘Burgh next month.
What We Know about Anthony Bourdain’s Visit to Pittsburgh

What We Know about Anthony Bourdain’s Visit to Pittsburgh

While Bourdain and his crew aren’t talking, they left plenty of hints about what’s likely to be in the Pittsburgh episode of “Parts Unknown.”
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Best of the 'Burgh 2017

Best of the 'Burgh 2017

Host an event in Pittsburgh’s urban sustainable homestead. Join a club for mushroom hunters. Tour a coal mine. Listen to some banjo music. We list our new favorite experiences, food, drink, personalities, stores, items and activities in the ’Burgh.
Daytripping: The ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’

Daytripping: The ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’

Fourteen years ago this month, the mighty Kinzua Viaduct met its match.
Restaurant Review: The Café Carnegie

Restaurant Review: The Café Carnegie

The restaurant, run by Dinette’s Sonja J. Finn, boosts the dining experience at the Carnegie museums in Oakland.
Thrive: Smooth Moves While Getting Lost in the Music

Thrive: Smooth Moves While Getting Lost in the Music

FASTER Pittsburghʼs Hip Hop Cardio promises to get your workout into a groove.
Curling in Pittsburgh: ‘It's Basically Golf and Chess on Ice’

Curling in Pittsburgh: ‘It's Basically Golf and Chess on Ice’

On the eve of its largest annual event, the Pittsburgh Curling Club has plans to increase Pittsburgh’s appreciation for its intricate sport.
Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in June

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in June

This month's best bets in the ’Burgh.
Edit Module
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Watch: Pittsburgh Penguins Video Tribute to Marc-André Fleury

Watch: Pittsburgh Penguins Video Tribute to Marc-André Fleury

With a tear in our eye, we bid the “Flower” Au Revoir.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Pusadee's Garden Will Close at End of Year (But Not Forever)

Pusadee's Garden Will Close at End of Year (But Not Forever)

Look for some big changes at the Upper Lawrenceville restaurant, which is expected to shutter for at least a year.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Best Places for Kids on Rainy Days in Pittsburgh

Best Places for Kids on Rainy Days in Pittsburgh

Read on for some under-the-radar ideas on how you and the kids can survive a rainy day this summer.

Comments


High-Wire Acts at Carnegie Science Center

High-Wire Acts at Carnegie Science Center

The North Shore landmark's new ropes course is a draw for adults and youths alike.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
History Can Wait Until Penguins Are Done Making It

History Can Wait Until Penguins Are Done Making It

The desire for more a year ago helped fuel the Penguins’ quest to repeat this season. Should their thirst for yet another Cup prove as unquenchable next season, there’s no limit to what they might yet achieve. Even a Three-peat.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Make the Cut with Jonathan Moran Woodworks

Make the Cut with Jonathan Moran Woodworks

The Strip District-based woodworker's cutting boards can be custom made with the wood of your choice.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
Buckle Up ... Again, as Cars 3 Hits Theaters

Buckle Up ... Again, as Cars 3 Hits Theaters

Reviews of "Cars 3" and "47 Meters Down," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Enchanting Summery Trends to Illuminate Your Wedding Palette

Enchanting Summery Trends to Illuminate Your Wedding Palette

You’ll definitely want to pin these new summer wedding trends to your Pinterest board.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Blooming: Pittsburgh Botanic Garden Hosts Town & Country Tour

Blooming: Pittsburgh Botanic Garden Hosts Town & Country Tour

From a forest of Japanese maples to a rocky urban sanctuary, the annual tour covers 14 very different gardens across the East End.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Visit Thiel College for a Summer BBQ

Visit Thiel College for a Summer BBQ

On three days this summer, the college will host visit days for prospective students.

Comments

Edit Module