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Zach Edey Is Just Different

Purdue’s 7-foot-4 center might be college basketball’s biggest lightning rod, but he’s learned how to harness the hate, turning him into arguably the best big man in the country. “I play better when I’m pissed off,” he says.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Zach Edey stands at one end of Purdue’s practice court, directly under the basket. He stretches his arms high above the hardwood, and his fingers claw their way into the holes of the net; he doesn’t even have to leave his feet.

With his 7-foot-4 frame and 7-foot-7 wingspan, Edey hangs on to the nylon, swinging back and forth, making the feat look like the easiest thing in the world.

Purdue’s larger-than-life big man can do anything he wants at the rim. The Naismith Player of the Year award semifinalist is one of the most singular forces in all of college basketball, not just this year but in recent memory. There is simply nobody with his size, mobility, and skill set in today’s game. And, miraculously, he picked up hoops just six years ago; he played baseball and hockey in Canada for most of his life instead.

On this late February afternoon in West Lafayette, Indiana, as Purdue huddles at center court, Edey is reminded of his purpose. He’s a big reason the no. 3–ranked Boilermakers (29-5) are eyeing a breakthrough in this NCAA tournament. Purdue has reached two Final Fours and one championship game but has never won a national title. With Edey, this might be the Boilermakers’ best chance yet, as the no. 1 seed faces the winner of Texas Southern–Fairleigh Dickinson in the East region on Friday.

This past Sunday, Edey led the team to its first Big Ten tournament title since 2009. Edey averaged 26 points and 12.7 rebounds, earning the tourney’s MVP honors. He has been under intense scrutiny all season, but the NCAA tournament will put the junior under his biggest spotlight yet, especially as NBA scouts evaluate his potential for the next level.

But Edey is focused on the present. Back at practice, he turns his gaze to the court, entering a state of stillness. He looks calm, stoic, borderline detached, even. He doesn’t hear anything. He tunes out in games this way, too; he doesn’t hear the crowd, the refs, the music. Pure silence.

Internally, though, he’s the exact opposite. He’s burning; on the cusp of combustion. He doesn’t think; he only sees red. Only turns his attention toward dominating his next opponent. “I usually try to get myself angry,” Edey says. “I’ll just find some reason.”

He mostly thinks of how he’s perceived: He’s succeeding only because he’s tall. He’s scoring only because he’s big. He thinks of how little he was recruited out of IMG Academy, back when he was ranked no. 436 in his high school class, per 247Sports. He thinks of how many suggested he redshirt his first year at Purdue; they predicted he would never find his way.

FUCK YOU. YOU’RE WRONG. I’LL SHOW YOU.

Edey might literally be the biggest target in all of college hoops, and he receives an extraordinary amount of vitriol from opposing fan bases each game. He leans into it, though, using it as fuel during practice and games. His lock screen features lyrics from the Game and 50 Cent’s “Hate It or Love It.” He often thinks of how even the compliments he receives feel somewhat conditional. “I guess he’s athletic, for a 7-footer.” More red, more ammunition. More f-bombs.

I’LL SHOW YOU AGAIN. I’LL KEEP SHOWING YOU HOW WRONG YOU ARE.

His anger, though, is controlled. He doesn’t get emotional or step out of his team’s offense. He’s averaging only 1.7 fouls per game, a career low. He’s always been able to harness his fire to his advantage. And the competitive drive he has had since he was a child, back when he got irked when his hockey teammates didn’t touch the line during sprints, explodes into something beautiful. Unstoppable. He’s averaging 22.3 points and 12.8 rebounds on 61 percent shooting from the field.

“I play better when I’m pissed off,” Edey says.

In that practice last month, he has more than enough reason to be irritated. Purdue had dropped three games over a four-game stretch, losing its no. 1 overall ranking. One of Edey’s teammates, 7-foot-2 center Will Berg, would feel the brunt of Edey’s frustration. In one practice sequence, Edey seals Berg off, spins, and dunks with two hands. The rim shakes. Berg battles back, digging into Edey’s back and fouling him left and right.

Now Edey is really pissed off. “Stop fucking holding me,” he says.

Purdue coach Matt Painter and assistant coach Brandon Brantley break into wide smiles. This is their favorite version of Edey. And they often stoke the fire, especially Brantley. He’ll send Edey tweets or articles that leave him off lists of the country’s top big men. He’ll tell him that whichever center they’re facing next has sent him a box of chocolates or flowers. He’ll tell him that so-and-so really is the best center in the country; Edey’s not even close. Edey always responds with one word, “Interesting,” storing away the information for future use.

“He’s not Zach Edey without that chip,” Brantley says.

Sure enough, Edey closes the practice scrimmage by pushing Berg back, drop-stepping, and throwing down another thunderous dunk. Afterward, as Edey swishes eight straight free throws on a side court, guard David Jenkins Jr. comes up to him: “Z! You was on one today!”

Edey smiles: “Always.”

Penn State v Purdue
Zach Edey during the Big Ten tournament in 2023
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Edey’s ability to find that dark place where he sees red comes from his childhood. Growing up, he struggled to fit in and feel comfortable in his own skin, given his size. He used to put on his headphones and look at his phone while walking because he knew the second he looked up, he’d see people staring at him and hear cruel comments.

“As a teenager,” he says, “you’re already a little insecure. … For me, to almost know that a lot of people are just talking about me, especially when I walk by strangers, it was really, really hard on me.”

All his life, he has felt like an outsider, different from his peers. It’s not just because of his size, but also because he’s Chinese Canadian in a sport in which so few look like him. He hails from Toronto, Ontario. He started playing basketball only when he was a sophomore in high school. He was under-recruited as a three-star prospect, and he’s a traditional back-to-the-basket big in a game in which 3-point shooting now rules.

“I’m just very, very, very different,” Edey says.

He wasn’t always able to embrace his uniqueness, see it as a positive, let alone an advantage. But being different, Edey has come to realize, is a good thing. It’s his gift. “Being different,” Edey says, “it made me find myself. It made me embrace who I am because I can’t be like everyone else.”

That mentality has benefited him on the court. He is a double-double machine with excellent hands and a soft touch. He’s classic in the sense that he thrives off jump hooks and drop steps, like big men of a foregone era. But he’s also classic in his approach. He still gets excited for each Purdue practice, like he’s a fresh-faced walk-on. Basketball, after all, is still relatively new for him.

When he was growing up, local Canadian coaches hounded him to play hoops, but he resisted for years. It’s not that he didn’t like basketball: “I just didn’t like the idea that people wanted me to play basketball.” He felt that a sport was something a person should choose. He didn’t think he’d be able to give full effort unless he decided to play.

“Obviously, he’s got a great physical presence,” Painter says, “but there’s a basketball player inside there. If he was 6-foot-4, he’d play basketball.”

Edey has transformed into a superstar for Purdue this season after contributing as a role player for the previous two. He had been a productive reserve, another efficient center following Purdue’s long history of developing traditional big men. But Edey was relatively anonymous outside his conference. There was no magic potion for his ascension to becoming one of the biggest breakout stars of the college season. He worked, and worked, and worked.

“He’s got to be the most athletic 7-foot-4, 300-pound guy in the country,” Painter says. “There’s just not very many people at that size that can run the way he can and move.” Painter points out the relentlessness with which Edey chases rebounds, no matter where the ball lands. “That’s not normal for somebody that size.”

But it wasn’t always easy for Edey to accept himself. Growing up, he was never able to blend into a crowd. The last time he was shorter than a teacher was in the third grade. These days he has to duck under most doors and watch out for tricky ceiling sprinklers. He once ran straight through an exit sign during an AAU tournament. Another time, he suffered a concussion from walking into a doorway at IMG Academy. Fortunately, he says, Mackey’s doorways are 8 feet tall.

The feeling of being on the outside looking in has long tugged at him. “Even just being Chinese in basketball. Being a tall Chinese person,” he says. “You almost feel like you versus the world a little bit.”

He is proud to be Chinese Canadian. He’s not playing just for himself, but for the kids of Asian descent watching him. “You can probably count on your fingers how many Asian people there are in our conference, so that’s something I take a lot of pride in,” he says. “I’m proud that I can represent our culture.”

Especially, he says, as violence against Asian Americans rises. He says he’s constantly receiving racist Instagram direct messages. “When we lost to Maryland [in February], someone called me a ‘stupid chink’ in my DMs,” he says. “There’s a lot of insensitive stuff … all the coronavirus jokes.”

He tries to let it roll off him, reminding himself that there are many more people that support him. His parents, Julia and Glen; his teammates; his coaches; the Purdue community; and the kids that look up to him, many of whom were present at a youth basketball camp he held with Jeremy Lin in Toronto in 2022. Edey gave a speech: “I talked about what it’s like to be playing basketball as a Chinese person,” he says, “sometimes feeling like an outsider.” He would use that to his advantage as he transformed himself at Purdue, turning into very much a fan favorite. Edey, now known as “Big Maple” around West Lafayette, is almost a cult hero on campus. He signs autographs for hours after games. His name is even starting to rise on NBA mock draft boards.

As big as he is, as rare of a recruit as he was, still: “Nobody saw it coming,” says Michael Meeks, Canada Basketball’s assistant general manager of men’s high performance.

Nobody, maybe, except for Edey. Even after his first day on campus freshman year, when he stank during open gym. “I just got my ass busted so bad,” he says. He couldn’t make a bucket. He wasn’t in the best physical shape, either. Teammates weren’t sure whether he would make it. They predicted he might be able to play … in a few years. “We were all sort of like, ‘Who the hell is this kid?!’” says junior guard Ethan Morton.

But Edey wasn’t discouraged. He likes challenges. He’s used to feeling uncomfortable. Being on the outside looking in gave him no choice but to lean into those feelings. If he would never be able to blend in, as he came to realize, he’d better find joy in the struggle. But after a lifetime on the outside, he’s approaching unfamiliar territory: national acclaim. He won National Player of the Year honors from The Sporting News and Big Ten Player of the Year. He’s a finalist for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award, given to the nation’s top center.

But he doesn’t ever allow himself to feel comfortable. Maybe some part of him must see himself as that underdog. No. 436.

“It’ll always just be part of his DNA,” his mom, Julia, says. “It fuels him.”

He still battles the perception that he’s succeeding only because of his height, his weight, rather than because of the hours he’s spent perfecting his post moves. And he still gets hacked in the paint, bloody gashes lining his arms, often without fouls called. He often thinks: It shouldn’t hurt. You’re so big.

So he keeps working, keeps doing the same drill, over and over in practice; he snatches the ball from the ground, drop-steps, lays the ball up. It’s not highlight worthy. It’s not complicated. But that’s the beauty of his game: “Simple, but not easy,” Edey says.

“Different.”

Sitting on a couch deep inside Mackey Arena, Edey wears a necklace draped around his neck. It has a jade horse (he was born in the Chinese Year of the Horse) and a jade Buddha: “When I was a little kid, I was so fat my parents called me Little Buddha.”

He was born 11 pounds, 3 ounces. “Here’s the growth charts,” doctors told Julia and Glen, signaling to a line. “And here’s him.” And as the weeks went on, Zach drifted further above the line. “He was an outlier,” says Julia, who is 6-foot-3 herself.

As Zach sprouted to nearly 6-foot-10 by the end of eighth grade, he became known as “the big guy who played baseball.” Coaches kept asking him to play basketball. “I tried my hardest to just never play it,” Edey says. “I made it a point to just never touch a basketball, kind of like a screw you thing.”

Julia and Glen never steered Zach to try hoops, even as Zach’s hockey coach once told Julia, “If he was my kid, I’d have him sleeping with a basketball under his pillow.” Besides, Zach loved the pressure of being a closer in baseball. And he loved how fast, how intense, hockey was. He was a standout athlete in both sports. But no matter how much he excelled, he couldn’t escape people gawking at him. If someone got in trouble in class, Edey knew he might be a suspect: He’s so big, it must have been him.

When he was a young child, Edey thought being tall was cool. “I wanna be 7 feet!” he used to tell his parents. It wasn’t until others made him aware of his size that he learned that different somehow meant wrong.

When he was in third grade, he attended a science summer camp. He enjoyed it, opting to go again the following summer. But when that time came, he hesitated: “Mom, I don’t know if I want to go.”

“Why? You’ve been really loving it.”

“Because what do I do if a kid asks me why I’m so freakishly tall?”

Julia’s heart sank as she realized someone must have called him that. She tried humor: “Tell them, ‘Just take a look at my mom. She’s freakishly tall.’”

As Zach got older, she instinctively walked close to him in public so that he wouldn’t feel as out of the ordinary. She understood him in a way others didn’t. She is Chinese (Glen is white). “Being Chinese, growing up in Toronto, it wasn’t as multicultural as it is now,” she says. “We used to get chased going home.”

English was her parents’ second language. Being Chinese, tall, and a woman, Julia says she was made to feel like a “freak.” A man once walked straight into a pole while staring at her.

A generation later, as Zach navigated a less-than-diverse middle-class neighborhood, people would see him and shout: “Hey, Yao Ming!” He wasn’t even playing basketball at that point.

He played up an age group in baseball because his parents were afraid he might unintentionally hurt someone. It was a tough position to be in: play hard and be perceived as threatening; hold back and be perceived as soft.

One afternoon, Zach was walking home from middle school when two women stopped to gawk at him: “Look at that big, goofy dude!”

Edey tried to keep it together. Keep walking. But once he got home, he cried, telling his mom what had happened. She ached, wanting to protect him, knowing she couldn’t. She comforted him, sharing her own experiences of feeling out of place.

“People are always going to find something to pick on you. It could be curly hair. It could be glasses,” she told him. “So, if it wasn’t you being super tall, it’s going to be something else. It’ll be because you’re Chinese. It’ll be because your hair’s straight.”

She said, “You can’t change who you are. So why not embrace it?”

Something loosened in Zach. “That’s the point where it all kind of turned for me.” He would no longer internalize others’ comments. He even started to like his size. “I like the fact that I stick out,” he says.

“It kind of made me. I can’t live my whole life feeling insecure. I might as well just embrace what I am.”

HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL: JAN 18 Spalding Hoophall Classic
Edey plays for IMG in 2020
Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

About midway through Edey’s sophomore year of high school, his friend’s dad took over a local club basketball team. He kept nudging Edey to play, but Edey refused. A few weeks later, though, as he sat home, bored in the dead of winter, he thought about giving hoops a try.

He went to the team’s practice. They did layup lines, and he couldn’t figure out the footwork, tripping all over himself. Practice ended with 15 straight minutes of suicides. Edey was beyond winded but loved it. He had thought basketball would be easy, and the fact that it challenged him made him want to pursue the sport.

He saw how being a multisport athlete aided him in hoops. Baseball helped him develop active hands and hand-eye coordination. The same two fingers he’d use to pitch were the last two he flicked when shooting a basketball, yielding a soft touch. Hockey gave him anticipatory skills, as he learned to read plays while quickly reacting on defense.

Rumors circulated within Canadian hoops circles that there was an unknown 16-year-old 7-footer roaming basketball courts. Meeks, the Canadian coach, referred to him as a “Polkaroo,” a mythical character from a Canadian TV show, Polka Dot Door. “He was a mythical unicorn,” Meeks says. A unicorn who had the raw talent to compete against peers who had been playing for much longer.

He kept getting better and better, kept challenging himself by playing up an age group. One tournament, while Zach was playing for the AAU team the Northern Kings, he and Julia walked closely, side by side, as they had done for years. Zach paused, looking at his mom: “Do you think that when I’m walking beside you, I don’t look as tall?”

She knew she had been caught. “Yeah,” she said, shyly.

“Mom,” he said, smiling. “I kind of want to look tall.”

Julia beamed. Her son no longer seemed to define himself on others’ terms. And the more he excelled in AAU ball, the more he began to dream bigger: He was set on playing college ball in America. Zach and his parents made the decision that he’d move to America to attend IMG Academy in Florida. Vidal Massiah, who ran the Northern Kings, had sent film of Zach to Brian Nash, the director of basketball at IMG. “He was an unknown,” Nash says. “We were like, let’s roll the dice, and let’s get him down here, and let’s see what we can do with him.”

Edey played on the high school team rather than on IMG’s top squad, the national team, for his first season. That would give him a chance to get more experience. He worked daily with former NBA player and IMG coach Daniel Santiago, and the two 7-footers labored on footwork and jump hooks.

“He was a very quick learner,” Santiago says. He tried to instill confidence in Edey, knowing the unique pressures of being a player of such size. “You’re human. You’re going to make mistakes,” Santiago would tell him, as if to affirm: You’re allowed not to be as advanced as your peers yet. You’re still allowed to learn.

Zach struggled off the court more than on it. Though he had dreamed of playing in America, he has long struggled with homesickness. Even when spending a week at sleepaway camp, he always missed home. That was one of the reasons he’d wanted to go to IMG: to break his homesickness habit so that he’d be ready for freshman year of college. Still, as hard as he tried, he struggled in Florida early on. “I was miserable,” Edey says. “I didn’t want to do it anymore.” Julia told him to stick it out until Christmas, and then they would reevaluate.

He labored over his post moves, spent more time in the gym, and started to find his way. But he yearned to be on the national team. He’d watch Power Five college coaches sit in the gym, not looking his way. That motivated him more.

Eventually, he played on the national team his senior year, and he started gaining some attention. He was set on attending Baylor until Purdue entered the picture. Painter had a reputation for developing big men, and Edey loved his time on campus during his visit.

He knew he had work to do. He says he arrived at Purdue overweight. The first couple of practices, Brantley thought they might want to redshirt him. But Edey kept working, trimmed down, asked to shoot more, and watched film with Brantley for hours after practice.

Edey quickly made leaps: He was catching the ball better, being more aggressive. His coaches were even taken aback by the sudden progress. “Yeah, we’re good,” Edey remembers Painter telling him. Meaning: He wasn’t going to redshirt.

Still, he struggled with consistency. He fouled too much, turned the ball over too much. One day, during a drill in which the big passes out of a double-team, Edey coughed up yet another turnover. “Man, you can’t make a simple pass! You never been taught how to pass?” Brantley said.

“No,” Zach said. “I haven’t.”

“Nobody’s ever worked with you on passing?”

Zach shook his head. It was a shocking admission, but given that he had picked up a ball only about four years earlier, he was very much still learning. Brantley showed him how to throw chest passes, bounce passes, overhead passes. “Guys that might have a big ego would say, ‘Man, I’m not doing that,’” Brantley says.

Not Edey. He spent so much time perfecting his moves in the gym with Brantley late into the night that sometimes Brantley would say: “I’ve got to go home.”

Edey burned to prove that he belonged. His phone’s cracked lock screen that year displayed a compilation of tweets of the worst things Purdue fans said about him: “Zach won’t be ready.” “Maybe he’ll be playable as a junior.” “We don’t have anyone at backup center.”

No matter how many mistakes Edey made, Painter kept telling players: “Throw Zach the ball!” He wouldn’t let Zach shrink, even when Edey wasn’t as confident as he normally was, when he had a human moment, thinking: Maybe I don’t want the ball. “[Painter] was more confident in me sometimes than I was in myself,” Edey says.

He battled daily with Trevion Williams, the starting center. And when Williams got the best of him, Edey pushed himself harder. One practice, Edey hurt his elbow but played the rest of the session with one arm. Brantley realized: “I can go to war with this guy.” Edey’s work ethic rubbed off on teammates, too. “It’s definitely contagious,” says Purdue sophomore forward Caleb Furst.

Edey played more his sophomore season, proving to be both reliable and skilled in the post. The summer after that season, he worked hard on his conditioning and lateral movement. “The progress he had from June when I got here until October when we started official practice was insane,” says Jason Kabo, Purdue’s director of strength and conditioning.

Now playing far more minutes in his junior year, Edey has truly blossomed. And when the team beat no. 6 Gonzaga and no. 8 Duke in November behind monster performances from Edey, he realized how far he had come.

“Those [schools], they get to pick whoever, whatever recruit they want. And me, as the 436th recruit …” He trails off, smiling. “Neither of those schools ever even sniffed me.”

In the coming months, Edey would be challenged again. Purdue, then the no. 1 team in the nation, fell to Indiana, Northwestern, and Maryland in February. Critics doubted Purdue, doubted Edey. That was all the motivation Edey needed.

“You’re the best damn player in the country,” Ethan Morton, his friend and roommate, told him. “You are doing something unprecedented. Don’t forget that.”

Morton knew his teammate just needed a little reminding of the magical season he’s having. As confident as Edey is, he can be hard on himself, especially with the heavy expectations on his shoulders—expectations he’s never experienced before—to lead this team to fulfill its promise. And Morton wanted him to know that the entire team was behind him as they headed toward the NCAA tournament. “We’re ride or die with him,” he says.

That sentiment would become even more prevalent when Purdue gave up a 17-point lead against Penn State in the Big Ten championship last week, allowing the Nittany Lions to pull within four with just two minutes left.

Yet Edey remained calm as he caught the ball in the post, hounded by a triple-team. He looked to kick it out to his teammates but didn’t find anyone open. He spun to the basket, finishing with an up-and-under, momentum-changing shot.

Penn State wouldn’t quit, though, nearly pulling off the upset. Purdue held on, surviving with a defensive stop with 0.6 seconds left. Its star center finished with 30 points and 13 rebounds.

Edey held the ball, screaming. The outsider was again in his element. He hugged his teammates, celebrating, after the buzzer sounded.

Soon thereafter, Purdue’s players lined up behind a giant ladder, each climbing up to cut a piece of the net. Edey, last in line, took a look at the rim, letting how far he had come sink in. How many people who’d said he couldn’t reach this point.

Unlike his teammates, though, he didn’t need the ladder. Stepping to its side, Edey walked right under the rim, lifting his arm to cut down a piece of nylon with ease, feet still on the ground. As his teammates cheered, he tugged the entire net down before reaching up one last time to pull a final stray piece.

Edey smiled, pulling the net around his neck and wearing it as a necklace. No more putting his head down. No more hoping others wouldn’t see him.

Different, indeed. Edey walked to center court, shoulders back, head high, embracing all his glory.

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