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Joey van Zegeren: World traveler, NCAA Tournament dreamer

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Basketball has taken Joey van Zegeren all around the world. Now, it's brought him to Evanston to bring Northwestern an NCAA Tournament berth.

Brett Carlsen-USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON — Joey van Zegeren looks out of place. He leans forward, his imposing upper body and 6-foot-10 frame dwarfing the office chair beneath him. He seems a bit tense. After all, he's new around here. It's his first time ever living west of the Appalachian Trail, and he's approximately 8,500 miles from the place of his birth.

He sounds timid, or at least a tad uncomfortable. His voice is gentle, often pensive, and occasionally slips into a whisper. He smiles, at times gingerly when remembering the fond moments of his past, more so nervously when remembering the not so fond ones.

Gweru
-van Zegeren was born around 8,500 miles away from Evanston | Photo: Google Maps

But, although he may look it, van Zegeren isn't out of place. Not at all, actually. He's used to being the new guy. He's used to reaching back into his past, even if he's reticent to do so publicly. He maintains deep ties to his parents, even if they don't get involved on the basketball side of things. They still visit him, and stream his games online from home, staying up into the wee hours of the morning because of the time difference.

And Van Zegeren is so used to being removed from his comfort zone that the zone has become nearly all-inclusive.

So, out of place? Impossible.

Especially when basketball enters the picture. When van Zegeren steps onto a basketball court, he transforms. He describes himself as laid-back, and others gush about his friendliness. "He knows six languages, he gets along with different types of people, he can carry on a conversation with adults, he can mix in with his student body, he can talk about a lot of different subjects," says James Johnson, his former coach at Virginia Tech.

"On the court," Johnson says, "he's a competitor." When the whistle blows, ‘friendliness' becomes a foreign concept. ‘JVZ,' as he is known, becomes a menacing presence in the middle. He wants to swat your shot as far away as possible. He wants to put you on a poster, the rim shaking behind your head. He once described himself as "kind of a little bit athletic." He laughs now at the understatement.

Van Zegeren has given a lot to the game of basketball over the years. And he's got a lot more to give.

But basketball has also given a lot to him. It's led him on a mazy journey, from continent to continent, each new opportunity proving to be a temptation he couldn't resist, each locale more than just a point on the map.

Until recently, Van Zegeren's Twitter bio simply listed eight places. They were the eight stops on his journey. They were the eight places that have shaped him into the person he is today.

Gweru, Zimbabwe

Born to a Zimbabwean mother and Dutch father, Joey van Zegeren's journey began in Gweru, a decently sized city smackdab in the middle of Zimbabwe. His dad, Koos, was a biologist, brought to the southern African country by his profession.

But it was van Zegeren's mom, Ann McAdam, who introduced Joey and his older brother to the game they grew to love.

"We played a lot of soccer there," Joey says. "But my mom played basketball when she was in her community college, and one day she thought it was cool to set up a hoop against the wall of our house."

"At first she hung it pretty low so we were able to shoot into it... and she started teaching my brother how to play. I wasn't that good at it back then, so I didn't have much interest, [but] my brother really ended up liking it."

Van Zegeren's relationship with the country of his birth is complicated. Political instability has plagued the nation, and current laws prevent foreigners or expatriates from entering or returning to the nation. Van Zegeren, who holds dual citizenship, hasn't been back since he left as a child. But it is where he picked up a basketball for the first time. That will stick with him forever.

Gweru ==> Zomba, Malawi
Zomba ==> Gweru
Gweru ==> Hoogeveen, Netherlands

-van Zegeren, playing in Hoogeveen, was a guard growing up. | Photo: Joey van Zegeren

Around the age of eight or nine, van Zegeren and his family moved to Hoogeveen, a small town in northeastern Holland. His parents had planned all along to move to a western country for educational purposes, and decided on Hoogeveen, near Koos's hometown.

It was here that van Zegeren really took to basketball. Part of that he owes to his brother.

"My brother knew everybody," Joey says. "He was one of the better basketball players in the city back then. That's how everybody kind of knew me, because I looked like him."

There was no fierce sibling rivalry though. Joey enjoyed playing with his brother, and would tag along with him as much as possible.

As the two began playing more, it was actually Joey's brother who was getting looks from American college coaches. In fact, Joey never thought he'd be as good as his brother.

But as recruitment neared for Joey's brother, things came to an abrupt end. "He wasn't doing too well in school," Joey says, his eyes downcast, "and there was some other personal reasons, so my parents asked him to stop playing basketball."

As with many things, van Zegeren doesn't want to expand on those personal reasons. But it's clear the forced end to his brother's career is something that affected him.

"There were people trying to help him come over to college in America," Joey explains, "and him not being able to, that motivated me to pursue my dreams in basketball.

"I wanted to do it for myself, because I loved the game; but also for my brother, to try to realize what he was trying to do."

Hoogeveen ==> Zwolle, Netherlands

-van Zegeren, pictured playing in Zwolle, had a huge growth spurt around the age of 16. | Photo: Joey van Zegeren


One day back in Hoogeveen, van Zegeren had a doctor's appointment. One of the things on tap was a height measurement.

Van Zegeren, an average-sized kid, had played guard and forward growing up. Like any athlete, he would've loved to be big. But the doctors put a damper on those dreams.

"They told me I was going to be around 6-foot," van Zegeren remembers. "My mom is 5-foot-11, and my dad is 6-foot. My brother got up to 6-foot-3. But they said, ‘nah, you're never going to catch him. You're going to probably stay around 6-foot.'"

At that age, van Zegeren yearned to dunk. Eventually, having hit that 6-foot mark, he was able to. So he wasn't too disappointed.

But at the age of 16, around the time he moved to Zwolle to attend boarding school and focus on basketball, his body defied that doctor's forecast. He shot up at least 8 inches in around two years.

Van Zegeren admits he was a bit shocked. But he wasted no time making the transition from guard to big man, and his development took off.

Zwolle ==> Rotterdam, Netherlands

-van Zegeren had his best year of basketball in Rotterdam | Photo: Joey van Zegeren


After two years in Zwolle, another basketball-driven move brought him to Rotterdam, Holland's second largest city. It was a short stay, just one year, but it was van Zegeren's best year yet on the court. In Rotterdam, van Zegeren practiced with multiple teams, one of which he led to the under-20 national championship.

On the day of the final, a coach from the Canarias Basketball Academy had come to scout one of van Zegeren's opponents. But instead, it was van Zegeren who caught the coach's eye. And pretty soon, despite having completed his traditional pre-college schooling, van Zegeren was on the move again.

Rotterdam ==> Las Palmas, Canary Islands, Spain

The Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago off the northwestern coast of Africa, are downright beautiful.

"Palm trees, sun," van Zegeren recalls. "You can smell the ocean."

-van Zegeren attracted the attention of college coaches at CBA | Photo: Joey van Zegeren

But at the Canarias Basketball Academy (CBA), an intensive program with a pedigree for sending top European basketball talent to professional leagues and American colleges, opportunities to enjoy the picturesque island were sparse. "We were in the gym from dusk till dawn," van Zegeren says.

For van Zegeren, who had sprouted to 6-foot-10, it was a post-grad year to focus almost exclusively on basketball. His team at CBA travelled to mainland Spain, to elsewhere in Europe, and to tournaments in the U.S., all the while gaining exposure to college coaches.

One of those coaches was Rob Ehsan, an assistant at Maryland. He was interested in bringing the big Dutchman to College Park. But around that time, longtime Maryland head coach Gary Williams retired. In came Mark Turgeon, in came a new staff, and therefore out went Ehsan.

Ehsan landed at Virginia Tech though, and pretty soon, van Zegeren and his coach at CBA, Rob Orellana, were in contact with Seth Greenberg. It seemed like a fit. So late in the spring of 2011, van Zegeren signed his letter of intent, and shortly thereafter, he was embarking on his next adventure.

Canary Islands ==> Blacksburg, Virginia, United States

"It was really strange," van Zegeren says of his first few months in America. "I think everywhere you go, you get this little culture shock where you're like, ‘Oh, do I really belong here? Do I want to go home?'"

The transition on the court was tough, too. Van Zegeren had to adapt to the faster pace and physicality of the college game, and that took some time. He also suffered a somewhat serious concussion early in his first season. The injury had a big part in his and the program's decision to redshirt.

-Photo: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

Two things kept van Zegeren on track though. One was his support system of coaches, teammates and friends. And the other, simply, was basketball. He had set out to play college basketball, to make a career for himself. He never came close to giving up on that goal.

But then more adversity hit. Greenberg was fired after van Zegeren's redshirt freshman year. His replacement was James Johnson, an assistant at Virginia Tech the year prior, and van Zegeren developed a strong relationship with him. He also became a key contributor for the Hokies. But two years later, Johnson was also fired.

This time, in came Buzz Williams, promising a new direction for a sputtering program. In early January, Williams suspended van Zegeren indefinitely. van Zegeren had been the team's leading rebounder and third-leading scorer. Williams claimed van Zegeren "demonstrated a lack of discipline and self-control at practice." Three weeks later, his suspension still not lifted, van Zegeren announced he would transfer. In related news, van Zegeren's decision meant the Hokies would no longer be over the scholarship limit for 2015-16.

Van Zegeren never told his side of the story. He still refuses to do so. "It's over," he says. "I'm focusing on now and the future."

Chris Collins also won't relay details. But Collins and his staff did their "due diligence." Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips spoke with Virginia Tech AD Whit Babcock. And, again in related news, van Zegeren is now enrolled at Northwestern.

Blacksburg ==> Evanston, Illinois

About a month before that alleged incident in practice, Chris Collins and his staff had been watching film in Cancun, Mexico, preparing for the final of their preseason tournament against Northern Iowa. The Panthers had just handled Virginia Tech in their semifinal, and Collins was devising a plan to combat Northern Iowa big man Seth Tuttle.

But he couldn't help but notice Tuttle's opponent that day — Joey van Zegeren. Collins and his assistants even commented on Virginia Tech's 6-foot-10 center:

"We could really use a big guy like that," they thought.

"A few weeks later," Collins recalls, "it hit the wire that he was going to be available, and because we had seen him up close and personal, we jumped right on it."

Now, a half a year later, Van Zegeren leans forward again. The uneasy smile is gone now. There's a more lively one in its place. His eyes light up. The subject now is the NCAA Tournament.

"It's a really big deal," even in the Netherlands, he says. "They all make brackets there too."

Van Zegeren, like so many, dreams of the NCAA Tournament. He never got there at Virginia Tech. He knows all too well that Northwestern has never been either.

If this year ends without that Tournament berth, van Zegeren will move on, and Evanston will just be remembered as another stop on the journey, another point on the map.

But if van Zegeren and his roommate Alex Olah can form what Collins describes as a "two-headed monster" down low, it could be much more that that.