How UT basketball player Zakai Zeigler went from wanting to quit to falling in love with the game

Zekai Zeigler’s connection to the game has shaped him as a person and proved vital in his life.
Zekai Zeigler’s connection to the game has shaped him as a person, and proved vital in his life.
Published: Jul. 28, 2022 at 4:15 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 28, 2022 at 9:52 PM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - Five-foot-nine-inch guard Zakai Zeigler didn’t always love the game he plays, but now he says he couldn’t go a day without basketball in his life.

“I was on the verge of quitting and not playing,” Zeigler said about his early basketball career. That call changed on a summer day in South Carolina during the Peach Jam tournament.

“July 23, 2021, is when I fell in love with the game,” Zeigler said. It was a day of basketball and stitches for him- an in-game injury to his face had landed him in the hospital. All he could think about, though, was getting back in the game.

“I had another game in an hour,” Zeigler said. “Ate half a sandwich... and then all of a sudden I pop up in warm-ups and in the first quarter I had five 3′s, and the rest was history.”

His teammates might think he’s crazy, but his attitude and toughness managed to catch the eyes of several head coaches, among them, Tennessee’s Rick Barnes.

“After that night my whole life changed. I got about six offers from big major schools. I was like ‘ope I guess this is what I’m going go to do,” he said. “Then I got to Tennessee, and I just fell in love with the game.”

Zeigler went from nearly quitting a year ago to becoming a fan favorite as one of Tennessee’s most crucial pieces off the bench in their 27-8 season.

“The guys, my teammates they helped me with the game so much and they made me like it even more. Now I can’t go a day without playing,” Zeigler told WVLT Sports. His connection to Rocky Top proved vital when tragedy struck his family in late February.

Zeigler’s New York home burned down, but a GoFundMe campaign raised more than $350,000 to help his family relocate and buy a home in Knoxville. Zeigler said having a home is a feeling like no other.

“The last time I lived in a house was eight grade and I’ve lived in apartments ever since. And it’s been a struggle. And New York apartments are like a box. Just to be in a house, not even with any furniture, but to say this is my house, and this is where I live, is a feeling like no other,” he said.

Zeigler has always had a strong belief in himself, something he’s ready for everyone else to notice.

“Honestly, I say I didn’t feel like a diamond in rough,” he said. “I was, just nobody believed it at first. So I don’t feel like I was a diamond in the rough. I was always a diamond, just nobody believed it.”

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