Zach Edey has been a driving force for the top-ranked Purdue Boilermakers, but it’s been his mother’s presence that has helped carve out his journey to NCAA basketball stardom.
The seven-foot-four, 305-pound centre is having a breakout junior season as the fourth-leading scorer and third-leading rebounder in the country (22.0 points and 13.0 rebounds per game), while deeply entrenched in the Player of the Year conversation.
It wasn’t always like this for him, however. His mother, Julia, convinced him to see through his high school journey down south and now stays in West Lafayette, Ind., where she's able to support him after retiring early.
“A lot of people look at their moms as kind of like their rocks in their life and I'm the same way,” the Toronto native told The Canadian Press.
“She retired going into my freshman year of college. That was always kind of our deal. She had said, basically, if I get a D1 scholarship then financially, she could retire. That kind of was a big reason why I wanted to get one of those scholarships. It's obviously been great.”
The deal stemmed from his hopes of playing college baseball, which became his only sport after he stopped playing hockey at 14. He told his mother at age 12 that he wanted to get a scholarship to allow her to retire.
“I remember being so touched and at the same time concerned, and I said to him, ’Hey, that's not your responsibility. … I love that you're worried about wanting me to be there and part of this, but at the same time don't take responsibility for that,’” Julia recalled.
“It meant a lot to him getting that scholarship knowing that he could help give me those options and it meant a lot to me. … I was thinking, I'm not missing a second of this.”
But baseball came to a halt in grade 10, as he said he “got too tall for the sport almost,” with his strike zone getting bigger and pitching causing him elbow issues.
Zach turned to basketball during the back half of the school year, but it wasn’t until he played AAU basketball that he came to love it. Shortly after, he was offered a chance to play at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
Knowing he’d be homesick almost proved to be an obstacle. Although he wanted to return home early on, his mother advised him to stay and see how it goes.
“I’d say the first few months were really hard on me,” Zach said. “I remember the turning point for me was around Thanksgiving (and) Christmas.
“Thanksgiving was really, really hard. I didn't want to go back (to IMG) at all. Christmas was a little easier to go back to school. Slowly but surely it got a little easier and I definitely am glad I did it.”
Julia wanted to make sure Zach knew what his options were.
“I said to Zach, ‘I just want to make sure you don't have any regrets,’” Julia said. “You can try and if it doesn't happen, then it doesn't happen. … You don't need to do this, but it depends if you want it.”
The words of wisdom came from experience for Julia. Trying out for the Ontario provincial basketball team as a 17-year-old, she didn't realize early enough that the oldest players would be 21, and that trying out for the junior national team instead, would have allowed her to compete against players 19 and under.
“I said to him that, on a personal level, I'd always had a little bit, in the back of my mind, a sadness that I didn't understand the space and I didn't even know how to get that information,” she said.
“I come from an immigrant family. There’s five kids, I’m number four. So my mom didn't have any time to figure this out and it wasn't something at that time that they would have ever thought was something to aspire (for) in terms of a dream.”
Zach and Julia have a tight mother-son bond, but there is also room between them.
“We're close because there's a respect. … He doesn't have to be worried about being himself,” Julia said. “Where the base comes from is learning to kind of trust yourself and learning to be able to tell your truth to each other and trust that it it'll be OK.
“I would go to all of his (AAU) games, but (his coach) laughed because he said, ‘You guys don't even look at each other during the game.’ And I said, ‘No, no, I'm here to see him but he's not here to perform for me. He's here for him.’ But (Zach) knows that I'm here for him and it's just that space.”
After passing on entering the 2022 NBA draft and now creating an even larger wave, Zach's maturation has come in staying even-keeled.
“Being able to play hard and play through success, it's something that really I think I've developed,” he said. “Being able to be on the scene that's been so successful and then have success for myself already, I've been able to stay level-headed through success.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2023.
Abdulhamid Ibrahim, The Canadian Press