By Chris Fahrendorf
At 5 feet 8 inches tall, Zachary Aird is below the average height for a college basketball player. But that doesn’t stop the Ottawa freshman from succeeding.
To succeed he had to perfect everything he does on and off the court to prove that he belongs. In sixth grade Aird was cut from his middle school team and he hasn’t looked back. He has always put in the extra work because, he says, he never wanted to feel again like he did that day.
Even though Aird’s father, David, never played basketball, he says his dad was committed to helping him become the best player.
“We would always go play at the park. I would make him come get my boards and he would tell me what’s wrong with my jump shot,” Aird says. “He was a big factor for me playing college, because he was always motivating me. Whether it was a bad game or a good game, he was always telling me what I could do next.”
After middle school, Aird attended St. Mary’s Catholic High School in Phoenix. During his sophomore year, the head varsity basketball coach, Ty Amundsen, left to coach at Millennium. He was unsure if he would stay once he heard the news, but immediately changed his mind after meeting Amundsen’s replacement, Damin Lopez.
“I remember when he first came in and talked to us, I just saw another father figure,” Aird says. “He was calm, and it wasn’t really about basketball when Lopez was talking. It was about life skills.”
According to Aird, Lopez was the first person who believed he could play in college. Lopez also encouraged him to play college ball, despite his height. Lopez, who stands at just 5 feet 9 inches, played at Pepperdine University and led them to multiple NCAA appearances.
Aird believes he learned valuable lessons from Lopez because Lopez had similar experiences growing up. The coach told Aird to always play with a chip on his shoulder.
“There could be a 6-foot-2 (player) and he has no discipline or no drive to keep playing,” Aird says. “Me, on the other hand, I have to keep playing while being under the height. I always have to be a step ahead.”
When Aird officially toured Ottawa, he knew it was a match made in heaven because of its similarities to St. Mary’s.
“When I had their tour, coach Keeley was almost like coach Lopez,” Aird says. “We didn’t even talk about basketball till the last 10 minutes. He just asked me how my faith was, how my family was. It was more like a family, like St. Mary’s.”
At Ottawa University, Aird has suffered a couple setbacks early in his college career. According to Aird, the NAIA had trouble with his transcripts and he partially tore his right meniscus during summer.
Even so, Aird is committed to helping the team as a practice player for the Spirit. His teammates motivate him to continue his career.
While he is out, Aird believes there are a number of things he must work on if he wants to get solid minutes for the team next year.
“The game is really fast from high school to college. So, I think shooting when tired is a big thing I’ve been working on,” Aird said. “In high school, you can just shoot whenever, but now it’s 7 footers closing out on you and it’s pretty tough to get a shot off.”
Overall, Aird is glad he has put in the work to get here, but he is far from finished. He is excited to play in his first game for the Spirit next year so he can say that as a 5-foot-8 guard he actually played in a college game.
This is Ottawa University’s third year with a basketball program, and Aird is excited to be a part of it. One day he hopes to be able to help bring the Spirit a championship, but for now he is just taking it one step at a time.
“They had so much growth and development going on and I just saw I could be a part of that,” Aird says. “I just saw improvement with Ottawa. I just put my faith toward them.”