Standing Tall

Brian Zoubek '10 faced three injury-plagued seasons before establishing himself as an effective center during his senior year—and some analysts say it was his contributions that allowed the Blue Devils to capture the national title. He was involved in nearly all of the biggest plays during the Final Four, including the anxiety-inducing final moments of the championship game. Zoubek, literally "big man on campus" at seven feet one inch, was a fan favorite at Duke, and he plans to continue playing basketball professionally after graduation (this issue went to press before the NBA draft on June 24). Three weeks after capturing the title with his teammates, Zoubek looked back on his time on campus, on maturing as a student and a basketball player, and, of course, on the big game.

I've got to know—why did you grow the beard?

I got pretty lazy last summer, and I started letting it grow out a little bit. I was playing well in pickup games, and then, before the season, we had our individual meetings with the coaches. I went in, and we were talking about the year, and when we were almost done, coach [Mike Krzyzewski] asked me, "So, what about the beard? What is this?"

Coach Wojo [Steve Wojciechowski '98] spoke up—and thank God he did—and said, "You know, I like it. I think he should keep it." And everybody went around and said they liked it, too. They thought it made me look tougher and that hopefully I'd play tougher. So as long as I kept it up, they said I could keep the beard.

Finally being healthy must have helped, too.

Yeah, it was a progression, and it just took a lot of time—a lot of rehab, a lot of ice footbaths, a lot of hard work. And it was definitely a process over a couple of years to finally get to where my foot felt completely fine.

What part of your game improved the most this season?

Specifically, it was my rebounding and just knowing my role better. I think that, obviously, my role wasn't going to be scoring twenty points a game. I had to recognize that and realize that they needed me to play defense, they needed me to rebound, to play off the other guys and help screen. And I really feel like I did a much better job of embracing that.

You also got a lot of support from the Cameron Crazies. Why do you think that is?

I think I play hard, and I think that people respect that. I play with a lot of emotion. I wouldn't be able to play well unless I was able to harness the anger and emotion that I do have and turn it into a performance on the court. I think that people respond to that. People like it.

It's hard to really know the depth of how people support you. They saw me go through the injuries and deal with it, and every time I started coming back and playing well, something else would happen. So I think that as satisfied as I am, the fans and all my supporters have been just as satisfied.

Is it a surreal experience to have so much attention focused on you?

Absolutely. I think my expectation level has taken a huge leap in one year in terms of what I could possibly do with my basketball career and what people think of me. It's unbelievable for me. I knew I was capable of being this good or at least performing like this throughout my career, it's just that things had been limiting me, and that really hurt my mental attitude.

When you put that much effort and that much hard work into something that you love, and you're concentrating on it every single day, and you're shutting everything else out and putting all your focus on one thing, and it's not working out for you—that's a hell of a shot to your mind and your confidence.

Tell me about Butler's final possession in the championship game.

Kyle [Singler '11] is on [Butler forward Gordon] Hayward, and Hayward tries to take him left because that's the way he loves the most. Kyle does a good job on defense, but Hayward kind of gets away from him a little bit, creates a little space, and goes to the right side. He's going into his jump shot, and I realize that Kyle's not on him anymore. So I try to get a hand up, bother him a little bit.

It's weird because people say time slows down, and it's hard to imagine that actually happening. But when you get in that position, you realize in your mind that, Wow, this is the culmination of everything—right now—in this one play. I realized that Hayward had been money all tournament, so I was praying that I did a good enough job and that he would miss it. And thank God he did! And the rebound came right down to me.

I had to get the rebound no matter what. If it hadn't come to me, I think I would have barreled over somebody and gotten it.

What happened in the final seconds?

I missed the second foul shot—purposefully—and Hayward gets it. I try to body him up a little bit so he takes a little more time off the clock. Now, I'm running right next to him the whole time, pretty much, and I see Kyle trying to come over. And then Kyle gets blasted by a screen, and so it creates a little separation. I have to go around him, around the screen the other way, so Hayward gets about as good of a look as a half-court shot can be. I watch it going slow-mo, and I think it's going to bank right in. Thank God, it didn't.

You can see the surprise and joy on my face [in replays]. It's hard at that moment to realize that you actually did win because it was that close! Even though you know that you're up and there are zero seconds on the clock, it's like, Wait a second, don't we have to do something else?

What are your plans beyond trying out for NBA squads?

I think that whenever my basketball career ends, I definitely want to go into business, whether it's in something like a corporation or starting my own type of thing.

There was this class, "Social Psychology of Business," that I took with two professors who work for Duke Corporate Education [Peter Gerend M.B.A. '03 and Jared Bleak], and I loved it. It was a great discussion group, and we worked on business case studies. At the time, we were studying Lehman and Merrill Lynch, and that was at the exact time that they were going under. I loved coming to class every day, so, for me, that might be an indication of what business school would be like.

How do you feel about the "Z" sign?

[Laughs.] I think it's funny. I think it's kind of awkward when somebody I don't know just does it when they're walking past me. But it's a lot of love and a lot of support and, hopefully, it will continue wherever I go.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity by Aaron Kirschenfeld.

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