It’s a safe bet that if you were to survey the swarms of fans who pack into the Kermode Kave for any given home game, Mike Zayas’s name likely wouldn’t top their list of main attractions.
He doesn’t captivate fans with the ball-handling wizardry as Cartiea-French Toney did in years past, nor does he enthrall onlookers with the home-run hitting power of a Theo VandenEkart three-point barrage.
He’s a grit and grind type of guy.
Lockdown defence, a dozen or so rebounds and a myriad of pass deflections is what a die-hard Zayas fan would be in store for in a scintillating night by the 22-year-old.
It’s uneventful stuff to the casual fan.
But for those who have been engrained within the Quest Kermode basketball culture, it may just be one of the most overlooked reasons for why the university has turned a perennial bottom-feeder program into a PACWEST title contender.
In his years on the team, “we created a culture of winning and that was a goal of mine coming in,” said Zayas, who entered the program a season after the Kermodes went 1-15.
“I already knew that when myself, Denzel (Laguerta) and Cartiea (French-Toney) came in as recruits, we were doing something the guys who were there hadn’t seen before. We were setting an example.”
As the son of defected Cuban immigrant parents who fled Havana and Pinar Del Rio to free their son from military conscription and to search for a better lifestyle, that nose-to-grind mentality has long been in Zayas’s DNA.
At 14, he picked up a job at Safeway along with his mother, making the daily three-hour commute while his dad, Barbaro, searched for steady work.
The family played hopscotch between apartments before finally settling near General Currie Elementary.
As a dark-skinned Cuban-Canadian living in Richmond, Zayas suddenly found himself as an outsider looking in – and the target of many racially-motivated taunts as a child.
The future seemed bleak, but the family found solace through basketball, Zayas says. “My dad played professionally in Cuba, so he had a plan of me being a basketball player when I was born,” Zayas said. “It was intense early on and it really did shape me as a player and man.”
That perseverance paid off in high school when his R.C. Palmer Griffins captured the 2011 AAA B.C. provincial championship, with the forward being named a third-team all-star.
Now standing six-foot-three, 195 lb. and possessing a six-foot-six wingspan, Zayas has proven indispensable to the Kermodes. In a league where traditional big men – meaning centres – are all but extinct, the wiry player is more than capable of guarding all five positions. As a former track athlete, Zayas possesses the foot speed necessary to deal with the smaller guards like Grant Campbell (Douglas College) but also the brawn to bang with bruisers like Jason Fortin (Vancouver Island University).
“Being around him every day, you can’t help but marvel at his ability to defend the ball and his natural ability as a whole,” said Laguerta, the only other player set to graduate alongside Zayas next month.
“He’s so long, he can jump, he never taps out in a sprint and you definitely see the passion come through.”
Even Zayas’s historically offensively-challenged game has taken a step forward this season. He’s currently averaging career-highs in points (8.1), rebounds (6.9) and assists (2.5) and looks poised to enter the conversation for his first all-star selection.
Whether or not that comes to fruition, for many of his current and past teammates it’s his never-back-down attitude that inevitably will be his lasting contribution to the program.
But for the fiery competitor, it’s only befitting he has his sights set on something even larger.
“Competing at nationals would mean everything to me in my last year,” he said, noting the Kermodes need a top-two finish in the PACWEST to qualify.
“It’s a lot more than just doing it for me – it’s doing it for all those who have given me a helping hand, the guys who came through this program and grinded and never got a shot.”