Thirty years ago this week, a rising but not-yet-ubiquitous kids network by the name of Nickelodeon launched its first original animated series. Introduced on August 11, 1991, under the brand of “Nicktoons,” Doug, Rugrats, and The Ren & Stimpy Show would quickly become hits and change the course of animation, television, and popular culture at large. To mark the anniversary, The Ringer is looking back at Nick’s best-ever characters and the legacy of the network as a whole. Throughout the week, we’ll be publishing essays, features, and interviews to get at the heart of what made Nick so dang fun—and now so nostalgic. And while Zoey 101 wasn’t represented in the bracket, this classic show, and classic sporting moment, warrants deep examination.
The pilot episode of any good television show sets the stage with the most important elements to come. Game of Thrones gives Daenerys dragon eggs. Friends reconnects Rachel with Ross. Lost crashes a plane. And Zoey 101, a TeenNick favorite from the mid-2000s, arranges a basketball game.
Starring Jamie Lynn Spears as the titular Zoey, the show was a minor phenomenon; at the time, it was the most-watched show among tweens, and its Season 3 finale was the highest-rated live action episode in Nickelodeon history, with more than 7 million viewers.
And on January 9, 2005, that success started with a basketball episode. Other internet analysts have broken down game tape from The Office and Space Jam, Hoosiers and Teen Wolf. Today, it’s time to give Zoey 101 the same sabermetric treatment.
The premise of this show, for any readers who weren’t in middle school in the 2005 to 2008 range, is that swanky all-boys boarding school Pacific Coast Academy has, at long last, opened its doors and dorms to girls. But on move-in day, protagonist Zoey is confronted with misogyny as she explores campus: A boy named Logan tells her that girls aren’t good enough at basketball to try out for the school team. Instead, he says, “They make cute cheerleaders.”
Affronted, Zoey challenges Logan to a five-on-five, boys-versus-girls battle. And on the first Friday of the school year, a sizable crowd arrives to watch the showdown. Although 11 players eventually compete, we’ll focus on the seven named characters. The four central girls are:
- Nicole, one of Zoey’s roommates, who summarizes her athletic history by asking, “Does shopping count as a sport?”
- Quinn, a mad scientist, whose only basketball experience is making a ball “explode” with “chemicals”
- Dana, Zoey’s other roommate, who initially resists joining the team
And the three central boys are:
- Chase, the main male character and Zoey’s future will-they-or-won’t-they love interest, who is so enamored upon first seeing her across the quad that he crashes his bike into a flagpole. According to a sizable contingent on Twitter, he also boasts an eerie resemblance to the writer of this piece.
- Michael, Chase’s best friend
With the school team’s coach serving as a very permissive referee, the game, which will feature two 15-minute halves, begins. The boys win the tip and Michael scores an immediate layup—an early bucket that’s a sign of things to come. The girls’ team is hopelessly outmatched; Zoey might be able to hoop—in real life, Spears played when she was younger—but she isn’t the best recruiter. As Nicole complains with an accurate observation, “Face it, Zoey, you’re the only girl on our team who can play this game. The rest of us are suckish.”
The boys force the girls into frequent turnovers and capitalize in transition, quickly building a double-digit lead. They also put together a rather ridiculous reel of highlights. As a fully grown adult, Spears is 5-foot-5, and at the tipoff, Logan looks to be about Zoey’s height. This is relevant because midway through the first half, Logan rises for a two-handed dunk. Moments later, Michael—who has maybe 2 or 3 inches on Zoey—throws down a windmill slam.
The halftime score is boys 24, girls 6. The game looks like a rout. But while the girls don’t have Michael Jordan’s Secret Stuff, they benefit from a different halftime adjustment: Dana’s a ringer, and she throws on basketball shorts and a pair of wristbands and joins the team in place of Quinn. By way of introduction, she sinks a half-court hook shot and orders, “Just pass me the ball whenever you can, and stay out of the way.”
Zoey is initially unimpressed—but she quickly changes her tune as she and Dana form a potent perimeter pairing. The ’90s had Jordan and Pippen at the United Center; the ’00s had Zoey and Dana at PCA.
On offense in the second half, backed by the guitar riffs of Jet’s “Are You Gonna Be My Girl,” the girls pick up the pace, with Zoey and Dana scoring every point. Their give-and-go early in the second half is the most elaborate offensive set from either team all game long.
On the other end, deprived of easy transition baskets, the boys’ once-prolific attack scuffles and manages just four points in the entire half. The comeback comes to a head in the final seconds, as the girls trail 28-27. (Somehow, they have an odd-numbered score despite never being shown making a free throw or 3-pointer.)
Logan races upcourt to try to put the game away, but with about three seconds left, Zoey swipes his dribble and passes to Dana for a beyond-half-court heave for the win. The attempt is on line, finds rim, and …
… swirls in and out. The buzzer sounds and the girls fall by a point. Let’s break down the key individual performances from this instant classic, with the caveat that the episode sadly didn’t show every play of the game.
Zoey: 12 points, 1 assist, 1 steal, 2 turnovers, 6-6 shooting
Zoey really can play; she isn’t “suckish” at all. However, while her stat line looks mighty efficient, it’s worth noting that Dana’s would-be buzzer-beater is the only missed shot on the game film. Without any other misses, neither team collects a single rebound all game. (Space Jam was the same, with just one missed shot and zero rebounds as well.)
While Zoey acts as her team’s main ball handler, she does all of her scoring damage near the basket: All six of her makes are layups, five from the right side and one down the middle. She knows her strengths and keeps to them, the mark of a player with solid savvy and fundamentals. However, she would do well to expand her shot profile, lest she go the Ben Simmons route and end up as a point guard with no range.
(Interestingly, Zoey scores a left-handed layup in the opening montage during the show’s jammin’ theme song. But Zoey never shoots lefty in this episode; rather, the montage clip appears to be a mirror image flip of a right-handed layup she makes in the first half. Conspiracy!)
Dana: 8 points, 2 assists, 1 steal, 4-5 shooting
Dana’s most impressive statistic doesn’t appear in the basic box score. It’s her net rating, as the girls are plus-17 in 15 minutes with Dana and minus-18 in 15 minutes without her. Assuming a similar rate of possessions to the average college game from 2005, that translates to a rating differential of about 70 points per 100 possessions.
To repeat, with the necessary emphasis: 70 points per 100 possessions. For reference, the biggest differential for a rotation player in the last NBA season belonged to Draymond Green, at 15.1 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. Dana’s differential in Zoey 101’s showcase is nearly five times as high.
Dana is clearly the most well-rounded player on the court, as she also flashes skills that no other PCA player possesses. A right-hand-dominant player, she makes a left-handed layup on a fast break, and in addition to her half-court hook shot, she makes two jump shots during the game and takes the only attempts from outside the restricted area from either team.
Between Dana’s perimeter prowess and Zoey’s interior dominance, perhaps Jordan and Pippen are the wrong superstar duo comparison. The setting is Southern California in the 2000s, after all.
Quinn: 2 turnovers
The girls suffer a turnover every time Quinn touches the ball, including one possession when a pass from Zoey ricochets off Quinn’s face and another when Quinn, scared of the boys’ press, pulls a Dan Orlovsky.
Nicole: No recorded statistics
Nicole finishes with 30 minutes played and no other marks in the box score—a remarkable 30 “trillion.” The lack of attempts is probably for the best for the girls’ team, however, given that on Nicole’s lone touch during warmups, she travels, then catapults a shot over the backboard.
Chase: 2 points, 1-1 shooting
Despite his apparent presence on the school team, Chase never seems too comfortable on the basketball court; he’s more of a disc golfer, a later episode reveals. Or perhaps he’s too distracted by his budding love for Zoey to compete properly. He should have taken a page out of Jim Halpert’s much more productive playbook if he wanted to impress a crush on the court.
Michael: 6 points, 1 assist, 3-3 shooting
While he suffers a few defensive lapses in the second half, Michael plays a flawless offensive game. His windmill dunk alone suggests he should be a highly touted recruit, says Ringer draft expert Jonathan Tjarks, who notes that this sort of ability is “pretty preposterous at that age. Not that many guys in the NBA can do in-game windmills.”
Based on the characters’ ages, Michael would have been in the class of 2009. In retrospect, the best player in that recruiting class—although he wasn’t ranked nearly so high at the time—was Kawhi Leonard, who happened to grow up in Moreno Valley, less than 100 miles from PCA’s fictional location. One can only imagine the fierce high-school duels between Michael and Kawhi.
Logan: 12 points, 1 assist, 2 steals, 2 turnovers, 6-6 shooting
To his chauvinistic credit, Logan matches Zoey point for point. He needs to work on his late-game execution, as careless handling nearly costs his team the win, but Logan’s also a team player, caring more about the victory than his individual stats; after Dana’s game-winning attempt rims out, he taunts the girls for their team defeat.
But while Logan wins the exhibition game, he loses something more important by virtue of his hubris. The school team’s coach, remember, was acting as the referee, and after the final buzzer, he promptly offers Dana and Zoey spots on the team. “I think you’d make an excellent point guard,” he tells the latter.
Logan protests: “Coach, I play point guard!”
“Sometimes,” the coach responds with a mic drop while walking away, “things change.”
Indeed, things change—like, for instance, the relevance of basketball to this show. Despite being sufficiently important to warrant focus in the pilot episode of a show that ran for four celebrated seasons, the sport is only rarely referenced in passing afterward. Zoey might have some skills, and she might have met new friends and challenged gender boundaries on the court, but apparently, tragically, ball is not life at PCA.