NEW YORK — Zakai Zeigler is a talker and a storyteller. At just 20, he can spin a tale like an oldhead and has a story for every situation. Walk down a staircase to exit a hotel, and he’ll explain how, as a kid, he always took the stairs so he could build up his leg muscles. “This right here,’’ he says while shimmying down the steps and out of a Brooklyn hotel, “this is how I got strong enough to dunk.’’

At the subway entrance on Jay Street, he turns away from the MetroCard machines and toward the emergency exit door. Despite his conspicuously bright orange Tennessee varsity jacket, Zeigler looks both ways, nods at a nearby passenger, and gives the ajar door a little push. It opens and Zakai waves his companions through. Their ride is on the city of New York today. Zakai grins but doesn’t apologize. When money is tight, a person has to do what he has to do, he says, and plenty of times this is what he did to complete the two-train, two-hour ride to high school. If someone manned the ticket booth, or if a police officer stood sentry, he’d wait until he heard the train coming and use the commotion to sneak in.

Zakai doesn’t so much walk down a street as he Yelp reviews his way through it. “That place,” he says nodding toward a small convenience store as he walks down Rockaway Beach Boulevard, “that’s bad. Went there once. Didn’t go back.” The Sandwich Shop, on the other hand, is open 24 hours. Very handy. And a deli, he tells you, will make whatever you need.

On and on, from the 35-minute A train subway ride from downtown Brooklyn to Far Rockaway, through the 24-block walk down the Queens’ neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, Zakai chats with a big smile and an open heart. Eventually the tour leads to Beach 91st Street. “We’re turning right here,” he says. He walks halfway down the dimly lit street to a squat, three-story brick building sandwiched in front of the projects and across the street from the Dutch colonial single-family homes. The ambient noise – the S train rattling overhead on the elevated tracks, and the occasional plane charting its flight path from nearby John F. Kennedy airport – continues.

Zakai Zeigler is silent.

A padlock secures the chain link fence that surrounds the tiny scrap of a front yard of the place he once called home. Zakai looks up, his eyes traveling the six windows that represent three apartments stacked atop one another. He stops at the top floor, his floor. The entire building is dark, the only house on the block without any lights. No Christmas bulbs for decoration, no lamps illuminating the inside. The only sign of life is a white and gray cat on the edge of the courtyard, its tail flapping in the silence. Finally, Zakai exhales. “This,” he says, “is crazy.”

The last time he saw the place was from his mother’s phone camera. All he could see then was black smoke billowing out of the building and the red flashing lights of the fire truck sirens. At that moment nine months ago, as his mother wept watching the home they worked so hard to find go up in flames, Zakai thought surely Beach 91st Street was his family’s dead end. Until strangers thousands of miles away showed him the way out.

The fire did what fires do. Consumed everything without impunity. Baby pictures, commemorative 1,000-point basketball, critical documents, a lucky pair of sneakers, medical equipment, furniture, walls and the floor, all of it rendered to ash or at best painted with a permanent black stain from the smoke. Started by a space heater in the second-floor apartment, it moved quickly, Charmane Zeigler only got out because the children beneath her pounded on her door. She threw on a pair of sweatpants, swaddled her grandson, Nori, in a jacket and ran down the three flights of smoke-filled stairs to watch the home that finally centered her rudderless family go up in flames.

When fire officials gave Charmane a few minutes to collect what she could, she picked her way through to find her necessary identification and then grabbed a painting. It hung in the only house she knew as a child, the one belonging to her grandfather. His brother painted it, and when her grandfather passed in 2011, Charmane took ownership of it. “I don’t know why I took it,’’ she says with a nervous laugh. “I guess it gave me a sense of security.”

Security is not something Charmane knew well. She lost her mother at 16 and relied on her instincts to get by. “I come from struggle,” is how she explains a life lived far away from the glitz and glamor of New York’s midtown. She did well for herself. Good grades in school, student council member, but getting out from under being the oldest of childless parents is near impossible. She, a child who barely knew parental guidance, was the guidepost for everyone else.

Charmane wanted better for her own kids, but wanting and making it aren’t always the same. She bought a car but hedged on the insurance. Paid for tuition to Upper Room Christian in Long Island for Zakai, a long way from their place in Queens Village, even if that meant the lights might not come on every night. When Nori was born with hydrocephalus, her daughter had just started college. Charmane assumed full-time care for Nori even though it limited her own ability to get work.

She didn’t shield her kids from reality. When a bill came due for $700 and she only had $400 to pay it, she’d tell them frankly that she didn’t know what they were going to do, but that she’d find a way. “I was never a ‘because I told you so’ mom,” she says. “Look both ways before you cross the street, why? Because you don’t want to get hit. I wanted them to always understand there are consequences to every action.”

Zakai intuited what he saw, understanding that life was hard and there is really only one person you can rely on. “Nobody is supposed to have my back, nobody but my mom,” he says. “That’s how I always looked at things. It was always, all right, man, you gotta do it yourself.”

And for years, Zakai did just as his mother did – found a way to make it work. He transferred an initial love for football to basketball in middle school, when he realized that puberty came early to some of his classmates and did not make for an even playing field for a kid still hoping to crack 5 feet. On the court, he used his size as an asset to zip around his flat-footed opponents.

When Immaculate Conception High offered him a more affordable tuition, he transferred to the New Jersey-based high school, even though it meant a 5 a.m. wake-up call, a subway to Penn Station, N.J. Transit train ride to Montclair and a quick walk to the school. Some days he’d leave at 6 in the morning and get home at 11 at night. Plenty of nights, he crashed at his coach’s house.

For years the family made it work, until the whole thing collapsed like a house of cards. Charmane lost her job, her car and eventually the house. On Jan. 1, 2020, Zakai helped his mother load up all of their possessions into a storage unit. “That was it,” Zakai says. “No choice. We’re just looking around like, now what? What are we going to do?”

Zakai is trying to explain what it feels like to not have a home. He is walking down the street, talking about a good friend he knew in Harlem, how the two got to talking about hardship. Each knew tough times – the days when it was hard to put food on the table, or the nights when the lights didn’t come on. Not having a home, that’s different. Zakai always had a place to stay – his grandfather’s place, his coach’s house, his cousin’s apartment – so he wasn’t exactly what people thought of as homeless. But he still didn’t have a home. In the 10-month gap, when people would ask where Zakai lived, he would tell them that he was born in Long Island. “And I’d leave it at that,’’ he says. “Not lying, but didn’t have to explain it, either.”

He carried the weight of it all more than he realized. Charmane dotes on her son, so much so that she not only admits that he’s her favorite child, she tells her other kids you might as well know it up front. Zakai dotes on her right back. He feels the burden of being a son, the one meant to provide and fix things. Except there’s not much a teenage boy can do to help find his family a home. “I never wanted him to feel that,” Charmane says. “His success, that’s the sign of me doing my job. That’s what I told him. ‘Do your thing.’”

Except for months, Zakai couldn’t even do his thing. As if the situation weren’t dire enough, the pandemic exacerbated everything. Charmane couldn’t find a job in a city shuttered by COVID-19 and when the family – Zakai, his mother, two nephews, sisters, grandfather and grandfather’s wife — all crammed in to his grandfather’s two-bedroom home, it was near-suffocating. Zakai headed outside to play basketball, but even that proved impossible as a terrified New York dealt with spiking COVID numbers. One day, a woman approached Zakai and his buddy shooting outside, asking what they were doing. The next day, the rims were gone. In other parks, city workers zip-tied the nets and in some cases, took down the backboards entirely. Zakai took classes online, but it felt like his basketball skills were atrophying.

Worse, college coaches couldn’t see him play and, listed at an unusually honest 5-9, Zakai knew coaches needed to see him to appreciate him. His was not a skill set that jumped off the paper: “I was playing good, but nobody knew about it.” Charmane knew Zakai was questioning everything – his basketball future, his personal future. She kept telling him, promising him, really, that if he kept putting good into the universe, eventually it would return it to him in full.

In November 2020, she had proof. Back on her feet with a job, Charmane had found a house. It was not close – not close to Zakai’s high school, not close to their extended family. Far Rockaway is just that. It’s on the eastern edge of Queens, nestled up against the Atlantic Ocean. But Charmane liked the idea of being near the ocean, and both price and place were right.

On the blocks nearest the train station, neat condos surrounded by actual white picket fences and an ocean-facing high rise line the street. That is not Zakai’s Far Rockaway. “Somewhere, there’s almost like a street where it shifts,” he says as he walks along the boulevard, recalling nights where his mother worried after hearing gunshots.

To his point, things shift subtly, the bright condos giving way to tattered high rises bordered by bent chain-link fences, their courtyards littered with debris. Zakai walks by one – the Hamilton Projects – fronted by basketball courts. Asked if he played there, he shakes his head no. “Too much stuff going on,’’ he says simply. He nods to other buildings off to the left, relaying a story of a time he did play ball there. Crossed up a team so fiercely that afterward some older dude challenged him to a game of one-on-one. One hundred bucks to the winner. Only after the man reached in his pocket to pay off his debt did Zakai notice the gun stuck in his waistband.

But the first night that Zakai and Charmane moved into their new house, they didn’t see the blight or worry about the neighborhood. They tucked Nori up in his room, and laid down directly on the hard floors, covered in blankets. “We didn’t even have beds yet,” Zakai says. “But we had a home. It felt like we were living in a palace.”

Zeigler, shown here during a game against Vanderbilt in February, fit well at Tennessee. (Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee Athletics)

Happy after a February win against Auburn, Zakai went to a teammate’s house to relax. He already had talked with his mom, the two reliving his 13-point night. Zakai saw a missed call from his sister but dismissed it, figuring she was just calling to talk about the game, too. She called again. He declined that one as well. Finally she texted, telling Zakai to call her immediately. That’s how he learned about the fire.

Minutes later, Charmane turned her phone around and showed Zakai their house – their palace – going up in flames. “We were finally on our feet again,” Zakai says. “Everything was going so well.’’

And not just the house; after so many stops and starts, Zakai’s career had taken off, too.

The COVID year had pushed Zakai to the brink. With no one biting on a scholarship offer, he considered quitting, tired of putting so much into a sport and getting nothing in return. In his senior season, he averaged 20 points and 4.6 assists per game. Shaheen Holloway, then at Saint Peter’s, offered him a take-it-or-leave-it scholarship. So did Bryant. No one else so much as reached out. His mother convinced him to stick it out, to see how the summer showcase season went. He grudgingly went to Peach Jam with his Team Lightning squad, and in the parlance of college basketball recruiting, “blew up.” In six games, he averaged 15.3 points and 5.5 assists, playing the championship game with six stitches over his eye after diving for a loose ball.

Not long after, Zakai was on the familiar A train when his phone rang. Rick Barnes introduced himself and said Tennessee was very interested in bringing Zakai to campus. Barnes told him about his program, his own history, some of the great point guards he coached. “I’m gonna be honest, I had no idea who he was,” Zakai laughs. A few phone calls and he learned more about Barnes – his ears especially pricked up when he learned he coached Kevin Durant – and agreed to a visit. By the time he left, he decided to commit to Tennessee.

The fit made sense. Barnes likes defense, and Zakai likes to play it. Still, the coach figured he’d redshirt Zakai, banking him for the Vols’ starting point guard after five-star Kennedy Chandler invariably went pro. “After the first week of practice, we were talking about redshirting Kennedy,” Barnes laughs. He is sitting off to the side of Tennessee’s pre-game walkthrough prior to the Maryland game, watching Zakai, the tiniest guy on the court, muscle his way through the big bodies to find an open player or fearlessly defend players in the post who have 6 inches on him. “I just love him,” he says.

Instead of redshirting, Zakai “became the DNA of our program,” Barnes says. He practiced as hard as he played, guarding Chandler so hard it invariably made him a better player. In a December game against Texas Tech at Madison Square Garden, Barnes worried. The coaching staff had yet to put the entire defensive package in, and he didn’t know if Zakai could handle guarding bigger guards in the post. “He did it on guts and instincts,” Barnes says. “We never worried about it again.” In January, in a tight game against Florida, Zakai guarded Tyrese Appleby so closely he actually reached out and squeezed the Gator guard’s nose. Almost a year later, Barnes still is so tickled by the sheer audacity of it that he jumps up to demonstrate it, bending his own knees and reaching out to honk a reporter’s nose.

By late February, Zakai was a pivotal piece in the Vol machine, a sixth-man spark who was averaging 8.9 points per game. When his mother wept while their house burned, none of that mattered. All Zakai could think was, “This is my fault. If I was there, I could have done something.” He relives that night now, standing in front of the vacant building, explaining how helpless he felt; how guilty. He carried it around like an anvil in his chest for days, going through the motions at practice, and playing horribly in Tennessee’s next game, at Georgia. In the locker room afterward, the player taught by his mother to never let them see you sweat, fell apart. He sobbed, not for what he had lost. “The stuff didn’t matter,’’ he says. “I just couldn’t stop thinking that I should have been there.”

Turns out, he was exactly where he was supposed to be.

No one exactly decided to start the GoFundMe. It was more about keeping things organized. When news broke about the Zeiglers’ home, the athletic department fielded countless calls from fans, asking how they could help, what they could donate and where. Barnes and his staff met with compliance and with his athletic director, Danny White, to see if they could centralize all of the good will in a GoFundMe. After crossing the necessary Ts and dotting the requisite Is, they told Zakai about the plan.

Neither he nor Charmane were against it, but both were uneasy. Two people so accustomed to relying on no one and asking for nothing felt funny okaying a fundraiser for themselves. They didn’t have any idea what to expect but hoped maybe they could raise enough to buy some of the medical supplies lost for Nori. The initial ask was for $50,000. “I was like, 50 grand?” Zakai says. “You really think we can get that?” A few minutes after the site launched, Zakai bumped into Mary-Carter Eggert, the team’s director of basketball operations, as he headed in for treatment at the Pratt Pavilion. Eggert told him they’d already raised $10,000. By the time Zakai got done with the athletic trainer, it had topped the $50,000 mark. “That couldn’t have been 30 minutes,” Zakai says. Within three hours, it stood at $200,000 and by the time the athletic department closed the GoFundMe, Vols supporters, with help from SEC fans from other schools, Vanderbilt coach Jerry Stackhouse and White, had raised more than $360,000.

Zakai was then and is now, months later, speechless. He has run into some of the 5,600 people who contributed, and told them all the same thing. “Don’t tell me what you donated,’’ he says. “I don’t care if it was $1 or $1,000, you helped me. That’s all that matters.” He is not so much motivated to play for them – though the 11.1 points, 3.4 assists and 2.4 steals for the No. 8 Vols is well received – but to behave for them. “I don’t want anyone to ever say, ‘Why did I help that kid?” he says. “I want to make them proud.” He says yes to any birthday party appearances requested of him, and stops to grin for one selfie after the next postgame. One of Barnes’ fellow church-goers recently stopped the coach after services, saying how she just so happened to be in Chick-Fil-A when Zakai came in. “She said he made every single person he met feel important,” Barnes says. “That’s just who he is. He’s kind, he’s gentle, tenacious, tough. He’s all of it. And he doesn’t have a selfish bone in his body.”

A fact that, especially this year, has served Tennessee well. Zakai started the first two games for the Vols, but after they lost to Colorado, Barnes thought his team needed a shakeup. He missed the spark that Zakai gave them off the bench, and asked him if he would mind surrendering his starting role in favor of a return to the sixth-man gig. Zakai admits that anyone who says they don’t care if they start is lying, but he cares more about winning. Tennessee won eight straight after the switch, and its defense has grabbed the top spot in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings.

The house sits on a hill, with a view of the mountains. There’s a race car bed for Nori and stainless steel appliances for Charmane. Though he still lives on campus, Zakai has his own room as well. Charmane’s painting, the one she salvaged from the fire that first night, hangs on the wall.

When the GoFundMe funds kept pouring in, far exceeding the money necessary to get Nori what he needed, Charmane started to think bigger. “I think,’’ she told her son, “we can get a house.’’ They talked about where they’d live. Zakai is still attached to New York, but Charmane wanted out. She had enough of the cold and the crime in their neighborhood, and wanted a fresh start. They talked about Atlanta, where she has family. She tossed out Florida, which he quickly vetoed. Finally, they agreed that the best place would be with the people who restored them. In August, the Zeiglers moved into their home in Knoxville. Standing in the Barclays Center watching her son score 12 in a win against Maryland, Charmane waves to the Tennessee crowd around her. “These people,” she says, dragging her fingertips across her eyes to wipe away the tears, “they saved my life. They saved my family. It feels like a movie. I watch this stuff on TV.”

The first time he walked into the house, Zakai felt the pressure fall off his shoulders. He was excited to check out his room, and he was stoked to see it had one of those fancy codes to get in; he didn’t even need a key. “I just unlock and lock the door for fun,” he says. But it’s more than the decor or what the four walls look like; it’s what the house represents. The house is stability, it is permanence, roots dug deep after so many years of living untethered. Zakai’s name is on the deed, alongside his mother’s.

He’s describing his Knoxville house as he stands in front of the shell that he thought was his family’s dead end. American Craftsman stickers signal that the windows have been replaced, and each unit now has air conditioners instead of the uninsulated cutouts for AC units from Zakai’s days as a tenant. Clearly they are renovating, getting ready to rent again. Zakai snaps a picture, shares a few good memories – like how he’d blast his music in the shower – and after a good long while decides he’s ready to leave.

He winds his way back to the train station, detouring quickly to visit the courts along the boardwalk where he used to play. This time a station attendant is behind the plexiglass by the ticket machine, and a uniformed officer stands just on the other side of the turnstile. No free ride back, and Zakai grudgingly dips his credit card in for the $2.75 fare. As he takes a seat and the train rumbles away from Rockaway, he reconsiders the question that used to be so hard to answer:

Where do you live?

“I’m from New York,’’ he says, “but my home is in Tennessee.”

(Top image: John Bradford / The Athletic; Photos: Andrew Ferguston Unsplash, Angela Loria, Brian Lundquist / Tennessee Athletics)


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